October 24, 2012

Democrats face steep odds in bid to take U.S. House

Analysts tracking the House campaigns say Democrats probably will pick up some seats, but not won’t be enough to wipe out the advantage Republicans won two years ago, when they picked up 63 seats in the tea party wave elections.

For Democrats, the outcome of next month’s congressional elections could be like kissing your cousin.

“The likeliest scenario is a small Democratic gain of seven seats or so,” said Kyle Kondik, at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “There does not seem to be a national tide building in favor of Democrats in this election.”

Don’t tell that to Jesse Ferguson, of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in Washington. He’s confident that his party can buck the odds and pick up the 25 seats needed to regain control of the House of Representatives.

“The Republican majority is in jeopardy,” Ferguson said in an interview. “Voters want to fire the tea party Congress.”

A dozen of the 68 tea party-backed freshmen, all Republicans, could be voted from office after a single term, according to analysts. They’re especially vulnerable in blue states, such as Illinois and New York, that may see big Democratic turnouts to vote for President Barack Obama’s re-election.

But the 2010 election outcome that swept the tea party enthusiasts into Congress still haunts Democrats’ hopes of reversing the tide now and possibly in future elections – because many more Republican candidates also were vaulted into state legislatures or governor’s offices. That gave Republicans nationwide greater control of the congressional redistricting process after the 2010 census.

The census, along with previous population surveys, serves as the basis of new congressional maps every decade, which are drawn at the state level. David Wasserman, the House editor of the Cook Political Report in Washington, said Republican legislators and governors controlled state redistricting plans that produced a total of 201 newly drawn House seats. Democratic-backed plans led to only 47 revamped House seats, he said.

That’s key because Republicans and Democrats tend to design districts that favor candidates from their parties. Bipartisan legislative committees or nonpartisan citizens’ panels crafted the remaining 187 House districts.

“The story of the 2012 campaigns in the House is that Democrats couldn’t have picked a worse year than 2010 to have a terrible election,” Wasserman said. “Redistricting has really killed Democrats’ chances of taking back the House.”

Just as Democratic operatives deny the conventional wisdom that they won’t regain House control, Republican insiders dismiss the widespread belief among experts that their majority will be trimmed.

“We have better candidates, more resources, a better message and a clearer vision on how we want to get this economy back on track,” said Andrea Bozek, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee in Washington.

Among the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents, Bozek said, are second-term Rep. Larry Kissell of North Carolina, first-term Rep. Kathy Hochul of New York and fourth-term Rep. John Barrow of Georgia.

The National Republican Congressional Committee has raised $128.3 million during the current two-year cycle, 10 percent less than the $142.4 million the Democrats’ committee has raised, according to Federal Election Commission documents. The committees are the two parties’ main arms for recruiting, training and funding House candidates.

Bozek’s counterpart, Ferguson, lists 10th-term Rep. Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland, first-term Rep. Bobby Schilling of Illinois and seventh-term Rep. Charles Bass of New Hampshire as three of the most endangered Republican incumbents.

Democrat Hochul and Republican Bartlett are spending millions to try to keep their seats, making their $6 million-plus races among the nation’s most expensive.

Freshman Rep. Allen West, a Florida Republican, and Democratic challenger Patrick Murphy have spent $14.5 million, the second most this cycle among contested House races, behind only the $20.8 million laid out by Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Democratic challenger Jim Graves. (House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio has spent $20 million, but he’s running with only token opposition and has spent the money on other Republican House candidates.)

More than a dozen Democratic House members aren’t running for re-election, at least partly because their new districts are more Republican than their old ones were.

Most of the Democrats who are retiring, including Reps. Heath Shuler in North Carolina and Mike Ross in Arkansas, are white Southerners, whose ranks have been dwindling for years as the region has become more of a Republican stronghold.

And in several mainly Democratic states, the new congressional maps are pitting incumbent Democrats against each other.

The highest-profile such race also is among the most expensive: In Southern California’s new 30th Congressional District, stretching from Malibu to West Hollywood, Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman have spent more than $9 million combined, one of the costliest House campaigns ever in the Golden State.

A handful of other congressional races will have a more direct impact on which party emerges with a House majority because they pit Republican incumbents against Democratic incumbents, also thanks to redistricting.

One of the key inter-party incumbent skirmishes is in Ohio, where first-term Republican Rep. James Renacci, a tea party darling, is facing third-term Democratic Rep. Betty Sutton. Analysts say the presidential contest probably will determine this race, with the White House winner of the state’s 18 Electoral College votes carrying Renacci or Sutton on his coattails.

Analysts are all but certain of one thing: The mini-trend created by the last three congressional elections, with Democrats or Republicans scoring double-digit gains in the House, probably will end this year.

Republicans’ net gain of 63 seats in 2010 more than wiped out Democratic pickups in the previous two cycles – 21 seats in 2008 and 31 in 2006.

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