WASHINGTON – Democrats need to gain 25 seats this year to regain control of the House of Representatives from the Republicans. The prospects are dim.
Even a strong showing by President Barack Obama would be unlikely to swing the House to the Democrats and return the majority they lost two years ago. Redistricting, in effect in most places for the first time since the 2010 census, is helping Republicans. So are problems faced by Democratic moderates in conservative and Southern states.
Then there’s history. The last time a previously elected president seeking re-election saw his party pick up more than 25 seats was in 1892, according to research from the Rothenberg Political Report – and that president, Benjamin Harrison, lost.
“It’s possible, but not likely” Democrats will get a majority, said Nathan Gonzales, a political analyst at nonpartisan Rothenberg.
Republicans now control 240 House seats. The Democrats hold 190. Five seats are vacant. Rothenberg projects anywhere from a nine-seat Democratic gain next month to a one-seat Republican pickup. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report projects Democrats could pick up as many as eight, or Republicans could score a net gain of two.
The bigger intrigue could involve whether the Republican caucus becomes less ideologically rigid. The party gained control of the House in 2010 and elected 87 freshmen, including many backed by the grass-roots conservative tea party movement.
They read the election, which came soon after the Democrat-led Congress approved Obama’s health care overhaul, as a mandate for conservative change. Republicans suddenly had more seats than at any time in 62 years, and they were resolute to cut spending, block any tax increase and resist increases in the nation’s debt ceiling.
They held out to a striking degree, nearly sending the government into default last summer, but were usually thwarted by Obama and a Democrat-run Senate.
Still, less than one-fourth of the 87 Republican freshmen joined the House Tea Party Caucus, a sign that they were ready to be less doctrinaire. “That says these other freshmen want to stick around awhile,” said Davis Wasserman, analyst for the Cook report. And since 2010, the tea party movement, never a centralized political force, has fractured, making many House races more dependent on local issues – and how the federal government can help a local problem – as well as personalities.
So far, 2012 does not appear to have potential to cause the kind of seismic change seen in 2010.
“The playing field is working to the Republicans’ benefit now,” said Gonzales, thanks to redistricting. Even if Obama begins to surge, “we’re not seeing a considerable shift to Democratic candidates,” he said.
And because Democrats face trouble in 10 to 15 seats they now hold, “they really need to pick up 35 to 40 seats,” said Wasserman. “That’s a heavy lift.”
As a result, the battle for the House involves a patchwork of brush fires with a variety of themes that could shape the House next year.
Will the Democratic caucus become more liberal and ideologically driven? Will more moderate, conciliatory Republicans be voted out? Will the usual higher turnout in presidential elections hurt the Republican freshmen who won upset victories two years ago? And will voters take out their dislike of Congress on veteran incumbents?
The battle for House control could hinge on four blocs:
• Democrats. To gain control, the party has to do better in more conservative areas. Its failure to do so in 2010 cost the party: The 54-member Blue Dog caucus, a group of Democratic conservatives, shrank to less than half that figure, and is likely to be reduced even further this time.
Democrats on the endangered list include Reps. John Barrow of Georgia, Jim Matheson of Utah, and Larry Kissell and Mike McIntyre of North Carolina.
• Incumbents. While voters don’t appear poised to vote out officeholders en masse, some challengers are having some success painting long-term lawmakers as too cozy with Washington.
As a result, analysts see Republican Reps. Dan Lungren and Brian Bilbray of California; Judy Biggert, R-Ill.; John Tierney, D-Mass.; and others as vulnerable.
• Freshmen. They were the steel backbone that Republican leaders used to fortify their tough stands against the president’s health care, stimulus and budget proposals, and push their own tax and spending cuts. But some of them – perhaps as many as 20 by some counts – could face trouble.
Among them is Rep. Robert Dold of Illinois. He won his suburban Chicago district with 51 percent, and this time faces a huge Democratic turnout in Obama’s home state.
• Republicans in Democratic states. New Hampshire’s Charles Bass, a Republican, has proven to be a bellwether of sorts, losing in the Democratic sweep of 2006, then winning his seat back in 2010 with 48 percent of the vote.
In Maryland, Democratic lawmakers redrew the state’s westernmost district so it reaches into the Washington suburbs, jeopardizing Republican Rep. Roscoe Bartlett’s 10-term hold on the seat.
Four of Rothenberg’s 19 tossup races are in New York, where redistricting has scrambled prospects for two Democrats and two Republicans. Even with those possibilities, a fellow New Yorker, Rep. Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, is cautious.
“I will repeat what I’ve said all along: It is within range; the House is in play,” Israel told reporters recently. “We’ve brought it from our 20-yard line to the Republicans’ 20-yard line. We’re sitting in their red zone, and we have a real opportunity to kick a field goal.”