In Fight for the House, the Trajectory Is Clear

by Stuart Rothenberg July 23, 2012 · 9:30 AM EDT

House races often don’t start getting attention until after Labor Day. But with the presidential contest sucking the air out of the political environment and defining the electoral landscape, House candidates may find they have an even harder time than usual defining themselves and their opponents.

That means the existing trajectory of the fight for the House may be harder and harder to change as Labor Day approaches, creating a growing problem for House Democrats who continue to insist that the House is “in play.”

Democratic strategists need a dramatic shift in the House playing field if they are going to have any chance of netting the 25 seats they need to regain a majority in the House of Representatives. And that outcome looks increasingly remote.

Right now, the outlook for the House is anywhere from a small GOP gain to a modest Democratic gain in the single digits — not close to what Democrats hoped for as the cycle began.

A detailed, race-by-race evaluation of the House suggests that Republicans already have 201 safe seats, with 11 more rated by my newsletter as “Republican Favored,” a barely competitive category. An additional 14 seats are rated as “Lean Republican.”

If Republicans lose every race my newsletter currently rates as “Toss-up/Tilt Republican,” “Toss-up” or “Toss-up/Tilt Democrat,” they would still win 226 seats in the House — eight more than needed for a majority.

Of course, Republicans won’t lose all of those races. They may well win a majority of them.

While redistricting turned out to be close to a wash for the two parties, the combination of Democratic retirements in conservative districts — including those held by Reps. Dan Boren (Okla.), Joe Donnelly (Ind.), Mike Ross (Ark.) and Heath Shuler (N.C.) — and vulnerable Democrats made weaker by redistricting — e.g., Reps. Larry Kissell (N.C.), Mike McIntyre (N.C.), John Barrow (Ga.) and Jim Matheson (Utah) — means the party starts in a deeper hole than its current 193 seat total (sitting Members plus vacancies held by Democrats before the seats became vacant) indicates.

In addition, fewer than expected opportunities in California and Pennsylvania have limited Democratic prospects.

California’s new 21st district was initially expected to see a very competitive race. But instead, weak recruiting has made Republican state Assemblyman David Valadao a heavy favorite. In the state’s 31st district, two Republicans, Rep. Gary Miller and state Sen. Bob Dutton, made the runoff in a district that should favor a Democrat slightly. And in the 26th district, a strong Republican candidate, state Sen. Tony Strickland, may win a seat that initially appeared to give Democrats a slight edge.

This isn’t to say Democrats won’t win some seats. They will add seats both in Illinois, where GOP incumbent Reps. Bobby Schilling, Robert Dold, Joe Walsh and Judy Biggert are in varying degrees of trouble, and Texas, where new Hispanic districts are likely to be won by Democrats.

They will also add newly created or dramatically redrawn districts in Florida and California, and Democratic challengers are likely to defeat six to 12 GOP incumbents seeking re-election, maybe even a few more.

A Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee memo titled “Math to the Majority,” distributed in mid-June, demonstrates the party’s opportunities but also its problems.

In arguing how their party can reach 223 seats (five more than it needs for a majority), Democratic strategists start with the understandable but dubious assumption that all of their incumbents seeking re-election will win in November. They then make the far more reasonable assumption that the party will win all 25 “strong” Democratic open seats.

Party operatives also calculate that they need to win 23 of 31 open and GOP-held seats that lean Democratic. That certainly isn’t a sure thing, but it is not wholly unreasonable. While 23 seats from that group seems optimistic, I can easily see them winning 16 to 18 of those seats right now, and those numbers could grow.

The DCCC’s big problem is in the final category, what party strategists refer to as open and Republican tossup seats. It’s here that a dispassionate observer would have to make a leap of faith to believe that the Democratic numbers add up.

The Democrats’ arithmetic requires them to win 15 of these 39 seats (38.5 percent), a Herculean task given that the list includes Republican seats held by Reps. Kristi Noem (S.D.), Tom Reed (N.Y.), Cory Gardner (Colo.), Robert Hurt (Va.) and Vicky Hartzler (Mo.), all of whom appear headed for comfortable re-election victories.

The category also includes conservative Democratic open seats in North Carolina, Arkansas and Oklahoma, and other long-shot Democratic opportunities in Montana, North Dakota, Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Also on the list is a new district in South Carolina, where a series of recent events has produced a Democratic nominee who has no chance.

With Republicans holding 242 seats (including vacancies that had GOP incumbents), Democrats need a wave-like victory to win back the House. There is no evidence that a wave is forming, and the polarizing nature of the presidential election and division of power in Washington, D.C., makes a wave unlikely.

In fact, I’ve looked over my own summer projections during the past five Congressional elections, and by this time each cycle it was clear whether a large political wave was forming for one party (though not necessarily how large the wave would eventually be).

Given the current outlook, a Democratic gain of 10 to 12 House seats would have to be regarded as an extremely good outcome for the party, and a net GOP gain is not impossible. What does seem impossible, at least at this point, is a Democratic takeover of the House in November.