Washington Matters


GOP Can Almost Taste House Upset

Richard Sammon

More Democrats, including some well-know House veterans, are looking at tight races.



Democrats are not only bracing for election losses. In some cases, they seem to be clearing the path for Republican advances. The decision by Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IN) to retire, like the earlier move by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND), is a huge blow in what seems an almost weekly stream of setbacks for Democrats.

Bayh was well funded and was favored to win reelection, but his surprise retirement leaves Democrats without a ready or strong candidate and very little time to mount a serious challenge to Republican Dan Coats, a former senator. Bayh’s decision, as well as a series of retirements in the House from centrist and conservative-leaning Democrats and losses in the Massachusetts special Senate election and in last year’s governor races, fuels talk of political desperation in the party. It dampens enthusiasm in the national base and hurts fundraising efforts. Figure on more retirement announcements, especially in the House.

Democratic retirements are critical to the Republican political calculus as they mount a serious national effort to retake the House in November. A GOP takeover of the House seemed implausible only a few months ago, but it now looks almost possible, if still not likely. Open seat races are easier targets for the minority party to make gains. Unless they’re in serious trouble, incumbents have many large advantages, in fundraising, organization and name recognition. In the last 10 election cycles, House incumbents were reelected an average of 95% of the time. That’s a daunting number for any minority party to confront. Even in the historic GOP sweep in 1994, when they gained 54 seats, nine in ten incumbents seeking reelection won.

The current breakdown in the House is 255 Democrats, 178 Republicans and two vacancies, both formerly held by Democrats. Republicans need a net gain of at least 40 seats in order to win the slimmest majority, which is 218. Currently there are 14 open Democratic seats and 19 Republican, and there may be a couple more open seats to count on with more retirement announcements. Even the slimmest GOP control of the House would be devastating to Democrats and President Obama, upending the entire Democratic agenda in the two-year run-up to the next presidential election. The majority in the House has tremendous power to set the agenda and determine the details and amendments that all members vote on. It can run roughshod over the minority.

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Winning back the House? It’s an engaging topic for GOP politicos and Washington insiders. Yes, Republicans could pull it off, but they’d need to catch just about every luck break. They’d need to pick off nearly every vulnerable Democrat while also holding onto their own group of potentially vulnerable Republicans. While the odds may improve, we see Republicans gaining 30-35 seats, well short of the 40 they need to win back the House. Every seat Republicans currently hold but end up losing will make the climb to 218 even steeper. In Delaware for instance, Democrats have a solid chance to retake the seat held by moderate Rep. Michael Castle, D, who is running in the open Senate seat race.

Republicans will do better against Democrats if a national anti-incumbent voter wave to reach tsunami proportions.

Republicans’ most promising area for pickups will be in southern House districts that have typically been favorable to the GOP. Figure on 14 to 16 seats currently held by conservative “Blue Dog” Democrats being up for grabs in states such as Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana, Kansas, Tennessee, Florida and Virginia. Even if Blue Dogs have stridently and publicly opposed their Democratic leadership in the House on controversial bills such as health care and the economic stimulus, they could still be burned by voters in November for no other reason than having to face a well-organized challenger in a bruising year for majority party incumbents.

But Republicans are looking well beyond the South. North Dakota Democratic Rep. Earl Pomeroy, for instance, will have a tough time being reelected with state Republicans on a roll and primed to pick up an open Senate seat. Also in hot water are Democratic incumbents Allan Mollohan (WV), Mary Joe Kilroy (OH), as well as Baron Hill in Indiana and Ann Kirkpatrick in Arizona. Also in the toss-up category for Democrats are freshman incumbents in other parts of the country, including Eric Massa (NY), Mike McMahon (NY), John Boccieri (OH), Dina Titus (NV), Harry Teague (NM), and Walter Minnick (ID). Some veteran House Democrats may also be treading dangerous waters come November, including Chet Edwards (TX), Paul Kanjorski (PA), and Ike Skelton (MO) and John Spratt (SC). All four have years of strong constituent service and solid district organizations, but they could fall victim to a national GOP wave.

All of these vulnerable Democrats, both the veterans and the newer members, were elected two years ago by narrow margins, and they’ll be knocked off, perhaps easily, if Democratic voters and independents don’t turn out in force they way they did for President Obama and down-ballot Democratic candidates in 2008. Recent polls show independent voters are strongly leaning toward Republicans this year, and there’s little reason to see this pivotal trend changing in the next few months with Congress mired in partisan gridlock, Democrats unable to make progress on important bills and the soft economy and high unemployment continuing to weigh on voter attitudes.




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