Why Democrats Are Gloomy About Taking Back the House
Policy + Politics

Why Democrats Are Gloomy About Taking Back the House


The Democrats’ prospects for winning back control of the House this fall have grown increasingly gloomy because of the impact of redistricting and the tightening of the presidential contest, according to a new political analysis.

The highly partisan and creative redistricting by Republicans, as well as some Democratic-controlled state legislatures, weakened or eviscerated many Democratic congressional districts and forced incumbents to either retire, slug it out with another Democrat thrown into their districts, or face annihilation at the polls in November. Moreover, the Democrats’ hopes that they could ride President Obama’s political coattails to regaining control of the House have been dashed as the race between Obama and former Republican Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has greatly tightened in recent weeks, amid growing voter dissatisfaction with the pace of the economic recovery and the mounting long term debt.

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Obama and Romney are deadlocked in three key presidential battleground states, according to a new round of NBC-Marist polls released Thursday. In Iowa, the two rivals are tied at 44 percent among registered voters, including those who are undecided but leaning toward a candidate. Ten percent of voters in the Hawkeye State are completely undecided. In Colorado, Obama gets support from 46 percent of registered voters, while Romney gets 45 percent. And in Nevada, the president is at 48 percent and Romney at 46 percent. These three states are all battlegrounds that Obama carried in 2008, but that former Republican president George W. Bush won in 2004.

“The president needs to do very well in November – much better than the polling and modeling indicates now – in order to provide the wave that could allow the Democrats to retake the House,” Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia, told The Fiscal Times today. “House Speaker John Boehner made headlines recently when he suggested that Democrats had a one in three chance to take back the House. That was probably just a fundraising pitch. The real odds are probably more like 15 percent. In other words, possible but certainly not probable.”

The Republicans currently hold a 242 to 190 vote advantage over the Democrats in the House, with three Democratic-seat vacancies. According to the University of Virginia’s “Larry Sabato Crystal Ball” analysis, 243 seats were deemed safe Republican, likely Republican or leaning Republican, compared to only 186 seats considered safe or strongly trending Democratic.

In the Senate, Republicans still have the upper hand and may well pick up the four seats they will need to claim a bare 51 to 49-seat majority. Democrats must defend 23 of 33 seats on the ballot, and at least ten of those contests are considered too close to call. Moreover, six veteran Democrats or Democratic leaning senators  are retiring – including Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, James Webb of Virginia and Herb Kohl of Wisconsin – leaving those seats vulnerable to GOP pickups.

According to the Crystal Ball analysis, a good bet is for the margins of control to narrow in both chambers of Congress. Republicans should win control of the House again, but Democrats will pick up some seats, maybe cutting the GOP majority of 25 by a third or more. 

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The Senate appears likely to be very narrowly divided, with Democrats holding on by a seat or Republicans gaining technical control by a seat or two. It might even come down to a tie-breaking vote by the newly elected vice president or the eventual party-choice decision of Maine’s Angus King, the Independent frontrunner for Republican Olympia Snowe’s Senate seat. “We believe [King] will ultimately caucus with the Democrats, but there’s a lot that can happen between now and next January that might change that calculus,” according to the analysis.

The outcome of the House races this fall will be dictated to a large degree by the decennial redistricting that is nearly over. While there are hotspots all over the country, voters in California and in the Midwest and Northeast will determine the future control of the House.

Republicans controlled the redrawing of House maps in five of the eight states that touch the Great Lakes – Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. In other words, if the race for the House truly comes down to the Great Lakes states, Democrats will have to break some Republican-drawn maps – a very difficult task at best.

But California’s redistricting was handled by a non-partisan citizens commission, which produced a very different congressional map from what state lawmakers drew up in 2001 for the previous round of redistricting. That one essentially preserved nearly every incumbent district and deleted just one Republican district.

California’s latest redistricting plan prompted a handful of veteran Republican and Democratic House members to announce their retirements. Rep. Wally Herger, a senior Republican member of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, and Republican Reps. Elton Gallegly, Jerry Lewis and David Dreier, the Rules Committee chairman, are also stepping down. Meanwhile, two prominent liberal Democratic House members, Howard Berman and Brad Sherman, were put in the same district in redistricting, and they are locked in a tough intraparty fight that will be resolved in next Tuesday’s primary. 

Because of the nonpartisan redistricting, about a quarter of California’s House seats are competitive at this point – 13 of 53, according to the “Crystal Ball” ratings. In order to retake the House, Democrats will need to increase their 34 to 19 edge in the huge California congressional delegation – which will not be easy.