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Democrats face very steep climb to 25 House seats they need

Even though all eyes are focused on the battle for the White House, there are 435 House members who’ll be elected next Tuesday. The House is likely to stay in Republican hands, giving Mitt Romney a helping hand if he wins the presidency, but presenting President Barack Obama with a legislative choke-point if he wins a second term, potentially limiting or blocking his agenda for at least two years.

Chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, discusses seats Democrats would need to take control of the House, and the chances of the Republican Party gaining seats on Tuesday.

In the final days of the 2012 campaign, Democrats face a steep climb in their effort to retake control of the House, probably one that’s too steep.

Needing 25 seats to regain the majority they lost in 2010, the Democrats are fighting both against the power of incumbency and, in some states, against partisan lines drawn during last year’s re-mapping of congressional districts.

One forecasting model designed by political scientists Eric McGhee, John Sides, and Ben Highton predicts that the Democrats will gain one seat in the House. Analyst David Wasserman of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report said in an assessment Thursday, “the most likely outcome is no net change to a Democratic gain of five seats.”

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In an April interview on Fox News, House Speaker John Boehner said “there's a one in three chance that we could lose” the House and “we got a big challenge, and we've got work to do.” Although, that statement may have been more of a spur to motivate GOP donors then a genuinely fretful forecast of the risks to Boehner’s majority. 

Karl B Deblaker / AP

House Speaker John Boehner speaks to supporters gathered at a rally in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, Oct. 13, 2012.

But the speaker’s comment gave ammunition to Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Rep. Steve Israel who flagged it for Democratic donors in an e-mail “BREAKING: He admitted it” – in other words Boehner had conceded that his majority was in jeopardy.

Even if Boehner was exaggerating for effect back in April, there are surely opportunities for Democratic gains, some of them obvious ones – such as the Democratic-leaning upstate New York district represented by conservative first-termer Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle – and others that the DCCC has worked hard to create and exploit in the last several months.

Israel “decided that we needed to expand the playing field and play offense in more Republican-held seats or else Republican outside groups would overtake us with their money. We’ve been aggressive and put them on defense in seats they never would have expected,” said DCCC communications director Jesse Ferguson.


Among the places Democrats say they have a good chance to make gains:

  • California’s 36th Congressional District: Rep. Mary Bono Mack, first elected in 1998 after the death of her husband Rep. Sonny Bono, faces a genuine challenge. “Raul Ruiz, the Democrat, has clearly made this into a more competitive race than some initially anticipated it would be," said Andy Stone, spokesman for the House Majority PAC, an outside Democratic group that will have spent over $300,000 on ads in that race by Election Day.
  • Florida’s 2nd Congressional District: Democrat Al Lawson is making a challenge to freshman Rep. Steve Southerland, with help from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, House Majority PAC, and a get-out-the-vote group called Fair Share Action, which is funded by AFSCME, by Denver gay rights activist and Democratic mega-donor Tim Gill, and others. The district had been represented for years by Blue Dog Democrat Allen Boyd before Southerland toppled him in 2010.
  • Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District: Democrat John Ewing, the treasurer of Douglas County (Omaha), is trying to unseat Rep. Lee Terry, first elected in 1998. "We view it as a real possibility to expand the map here," said Stone. The House Majority PAC has invested $75,000 in late TV buys. The Omaha World Herald endorsed Ewing calling him “an extremely capable public servant” with “the ability to work across divides to find practical solutions.” The paper added, “After 14 years, it's time for a change.”

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The DCCC “Red to Blue” list is the roster of challengers whom the party designates for financial, communications, grassroots, and strategic support. The “Red to Blue” label signals to Democratic donors that these are competitive candidates worth backing. Some on the “Red to Blue” list, like Manan Trivedi who is seeking to oust battle-hardened five-term survivor Rep. Jim Gerlach in the suburbs of Philadelphia, seem likely to fall short.

And one red-to-blue Democrat has already fallen by the wayside: Democrats had high hopes for Pete Aguilar in California’s 31st Congressional District, but he failed to win a place on the ballot, getting only 22 percent in the June open primary in which the top two finishers advance to the November ballot.

The GOP has suffered from its own unexpected events: in Tennessee, first-term Rep. Scott DesJarlais, a doctor, is under pressure after The Huffington Post reported that he had an affair 12 years ago with a patient while he was getting a divorce. The news site published a transcript of a telephone conversation in which DesJarlais allegedly counseled the woman to get an abortion.

For all the effort and money being invested in this year’s House races, in one sense, the outcome of the struggle next Tuesday was largely shaped in 2010, when conservative fervor and anger over “Obamacare” drove Republicans to the polls, resulting in catastrophic losses for the Democrats. The Republicans won 63 seats, the largest gain for either party since 1948.

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This year’s list of competitive races makes it clear once again how big a catastrophe 2010 was for the Democrats. They lost more than two dozen incumbents who’d represented Republican-leaning districts – including some long-serving members such as former House Armed Services Committee chairman Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri. The districts Democrats like Skelton once held, or the redrawn versions of them, are now mostly safe for Republicans.

“Our strategy in 2010 was to go to the seats that wanted to vote Republican,” said NRCC communications director Paul Lindsay. Democrats such as Skelton were in districts that had voted for Republican presidential candidates Sen. John McCain in 2008 and President George W. Bush in 2004. This year, Lindsay said, “We are competing in Republican territory; they (the Democrats) are competing in more swing territory.”

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But in 2010, Democrats also lost several districts, especially in the Northeast and Midwest, which had been Democratic turf, which they’ve had to spend money this year to try to reclaim.

To be sure, some of the first-term Republicans who are in Democratic-leaning districts seem unlikely to survive next Tuesday: Buerkle, for one, may be too conservative for her Syracuse-based district.

But in the irregular cycle of each party gaining, then losing, and then regaining the House majority, it now appears that the Democrats’ turn has not yet come.

Redistricting explains some of their challenge.

Not all redistricting has worked to the Republicans’ advantage: they’ll lose some races in Illinois and California due to re-mapping. But Republicans were able to play defense. Case in point: Pennsylvania.

Pollster and political scientist Terry Madonna at Franklin & Marshall College said Pennsylvania Republicans did “a masterful job” in gerrymandering the state’s congressional districts, calling it “the most skillful gerrymander any state has done.” The Republicans protected their incumbents, especially the four freshmen elected in 2010.

The only House seat now in play in the Keystone State is a Democratic one held by Rep. Mark Critz, Madonna said.

He added that the $5.4 million investment of Republican money on TV ads in the presidential race in Pennsylvania in the final ten days of the campaign might give a lift to Critz’s GOP opponent Keith Rothfus by boosting Republican turnout.

When all the votes are counted, it seems almost certain that House Democrats will have much more work to do in 2014.