Is the House Now in Play for the 2012 Elections?

by Stuart Rothenberg July 20, 2011 · 10:35 AM EDT

With key redistricting decisions still pending in a number of large states — including Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, California, New York, Minnesota and Washington — there are plenty of questions yet to be answered about the playing field for next year’s Congressional elections.

Still, we are starting to get more than an inkling about how the fight for the House will shape up in 2012, when Democrats will need a net gain of 24 seats to recapture the majority.

Candidate recruitment, of course, is still very much under way, and it will continue throughout this year and into next year as new Congressional district lines are finalized. But even with these caveats, I want to take a very preliminary crack at seeing where the fight for the House stands less than 16 months before the 2012 elections.

I’ve gone state by state to assess the Democrats’ prospects of reaching 218 seats, making a number of reasonable assumptions about some states that have not yet drawn new districts. Naturally, this methodology is ripe for second-guessing.

Democrats start with 194 seats, a total that includes a vacant Democratic seat in New York. Next, I start adding Democratic gains and subtracting Democratic losses. Because I’m only “counting” Democratic opportunities to see whether the party can reach 218 seats, I don’t need to “count” Republican seats (or gains or losses).

Though House Democrats start at 194 seats, the party is likely to lose at least 11 seats off the top because of redistricting and retirements.

These losses include seats in Indiana (Rep. Joe Donnelly), Massachusetts (undetermined), Michigan (Rep. Gary Peters or Rep. Sander Levin), Missouri (Rep. Russ Carnahan), North Carolina (Reps. Larry Kissell, Brad Miller and Heath Shuler), Oklahoma (Rep. Dan Boren), Pennsylvania (Rep. Mark Critz or Rep. Jason Altmire), Ohio (undetermined) and Texas (Rep. Lloyd Doggett).

That takes Democrats down to 183 seats, meaning they will need at least an additional 35 seats — new districts or those held by Republicans — to reach 218 seats.

By my calculations, there are 36 districts where Democrats should win or can compete very seriously next year. The list includes a large contingent of freshman Republicans — who will face a very different political environment in 2012 — some Republican seats hurt by redistricting and some new competitive and Democratic-leaning districts that are likely to be created because of reapportionment.

Some Democrats will complain that I haven’t listed a number of other Republican incumbents who could receive strong challenges, including Reps. Brian Bilbray (Calif.), Larry Bucshon (Ind.), Steve Chabot (Ohio), Dave Reichert (Wash.), Lou Barletta (Pa.), Blake Farenthold (Texas), Mike Kelly (Pa.) and Paul Ryan (Wis.). That’s true.

Those and other races might develop, but for now, the Republicans just mentioned seem less vulnerable, either because strong challengers have not announced, district fundamentals argue against the Democrats or redistricting is likely to lessen the Democrats’ chances dramatically.

There are two other categories of races to consider.

First, there are serious Republican challenges that did not make the already-mentioned list of 10 Democratic-held districts that are likely to flip. These GOP opportunities are not sure things and range from tossups to competitive contests.

Democratic seats in this category include those held by Reps. Leonard Boswell (Iowa), John Barrow (Ga.), Jim Matheson (Utah), Kathy Hochul (N.Y.), Ben Chandler (Ky.) and Jim Costa (Calif.). It isn’t hard to think of at least a few others that could go onto this list.

Finally, there are the states that have not yet finalized redistricting, leaving huge question marks. Districts that could be affected include those held by Reps. Chip Cravaack (R-Minn.), Jon Runyan (R-N.J.), Leonard Lance (R-N.J.) and Rush Holt (D-N.J.), as well as additional seats in New York, Ohio, California and Florida.

So where does this leave us? What’s the bottom line?

On the one hand, Democrats are already competing in enough GOP districts to win the House. I suppose that makes the House technically “in play.”

But that is not the same thing as saying that control of the House is really up for grabs now. Democrats would need a clean sweep of three dozen or so targeted GOP districts to win the barest of majorities, and that’s not at all likely.

So Democrats still have some work to do to improve their prospects for retaking the House, and there are many ways they could do so, from additional recruiting successes to favorable redistricting developments to a weak GOP presidential nominee to a strong shift toward the Democratic Party in the national political landscape.

Any of these things would shift my arithmetic for the House dramatically.

For the moment, however, we shouldn’t confuse the fact that the House might be technically “in play” with the reality that Democrats don’t yet have enough opportunities to win the House next year. At this point, Republicans are still positioned to retain their majority.