With 10 Months to Go, Is the House Playing Field Set?

December 31, 2009 · 1:00 PM EST

When it comes to politics, a year may not be an eternity after all. That’s not good news for House Democrats who are already playing defense this cycle.

Using the last four election cycles as a guide, the playing field of competitive House races is unlikely to change dramatically in the months from the winter of the off-year to Election Day. If anything, the playing field is more likely to include more Democratic territory, barring a dramatic change in the political environment.

According to the Rothenberg Political Report, there are 61 competitive House seats in the country, including 47 Democratic seats and 14 Republican seats. According to CQ-Roll Call, the playing field is wider (102 seats) but similarly proportional (70 Democratic seats and 32 Republican seats).

Any way you look at it, Democratic targets are few. But party strategists believe that offense is one of the best defenses and are determined to keep Republicans on their heels.

“We here at the DCCC we are very much on offense this cycle,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) said recently. “Obviously we have a smaller playing field as a result of having won 55 seats over the last two cycles. So, in that sense, we have less territory to compete in.”

Past Democratic success has limited the party’s opportunities to go on offense (even though Van Hollen’s list of 55 seats includes Louisiana’s 6th district, which they lost last December after winning it in a special election earlier in the year). But the party’s defensive posture also has to do with the changing mood of the country in President Barack Obama’s first year.

Two years ago, the playing field didn’t change all that much, when it came to the number of competitive seats, from the winter of the off-year until Election Day, but it did shift dramatically against Republicans.

On Jan. 16, 2008, Republicans held 35 of the 61 competitive seats, while Democrats held 26. Over the course of the next 10 months, the political environment continued to deteriorate for the Republicans. In the end, Republicans held 52 of the 63 competitive seats on Election Day.

This cycle, Democrats are facing a similar problem.

The DCCC is trying to put 25 Republican-held seats into play. But Democrats will start 2010 with roughly half that number in play and as the cycle goes on, it could be difficult to maintain the offensive intensity. The bulk of the committee’s resources are more likely to be tied up protecting incumbents and defending or challenging open seats.

This cycle is a shift for Democrats, who had become used to playing offense when President George W. Bush was in office. In 2008, Democrats used their “Red to Blue” program to target 63 Republican-held seats. Fifteen additional races were on their “Emerging Races” and “Races to Watch” lists.

This cycle, Republicans are taking the Democratic playbook and running with it.

“Between candidate recruitment and Democrat retirements, we believe we can expand the playing field and potentially put up to 80 races into play,” National Republican Congressional Committee Communications Director Ken Spain said. The NRCC is promoting candidates through the “Young Guns” program in the same way the DCCC has used the Red to Blue program.

Similar to the Democrats the last two cycles, Republicans are trying to broaden the House playing field by competing in as many districts as possible. The goal is to get as many races in play as possible in order to lower the percentage of competitive seats necessary to win in order to get the majority.

Republicans are still a long way from getting 80 seats into play and recapturing the majority is not yet in sight. But even though Congressional campaign committees can’t create a wave election, strategists can put candidates in place to take advantage of one.

On Jan. 17, 2006, there were 42 seats in play, including 31 Republican-held seats and 11 Democratic-held seats, according to the Rothenberg Political Report. As the sentiment continued to shift against Bush and the Republicans, the playing field broadened and tilted further into GOP territory.

By early November 2006, the number of competitive seats jumped by 20 to 62, and Republicans were defending a whopping 57 of them. Only five Democratic seats were considered to be vulnerable, and in the end, Democrats didn’t lose any of their own seats and picked up 30 GOP seats.

The two previous elections were status quo elections where the House playing field hardly changed in the final 10 months and a limited number of seats changed party hands.

In the 2004 cycle, there were 38 competitive House seats in November 2003 and 38 competitive seats a year later on Election Day, and the proportion between the two parties was basically unchanged. Republicans gained three seats that year.

In 2002, the playing field shifted only slightly from the winter of the off-year (48 seats) to Election Day (54 seats) and Republicans gained eight seats.

Both the 2002 and 2004 cycles were complicated by redistricting and featured some competitive seats that were newly created or jointly held by both parties.

There is some good news for Democrats. They will start next year with two almost sure takeovers of Republican-held seats: Louisiana’s 2nd district, now held by Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao, and Delaware’s open at-large district.

But the party will need the political environment to improve in order to change the trajectory of the cycle. If voters are more satisfied with the direction of the country come next fall, that could lead to a status quo election, where few seats are gained or lost. And Democrats would be fine with that.