Thursday, March 05, 2009

Have Republicans Found Their Floor in the House With 178?

By Stuart Rothenberg

Republicans hold a mere 178 seats in the House of Representatives, a number far smaller than they’ve held at anytime since the 1992 elections, when the party won only 176 seats.

Just two years later, of course, in the first midterm election after a Democrat (Bill Clinton) was elected to the White House, the GOP gained more than 50 seats, winning a House majority for the first time in 40 years. Could it happen again in 2010?

Don’t bet on it.

National surveys continue to show that the damage to the Republican brand remains very real, and it will likely take the party more than a few months to turn things around. In the meantime, GOP candidate recruitment and fundraising may rebound a bit compared to the previous cycle’s disastrous political environment, but probably not enough to match Democratic efforts in both categories this year and next.

Does that mean that Democrats could increase their numbers in the House in next year’s midterm balloting? It’s not impossible, but it certainly seems unlikely.

Republicans added House seats in four straight elections from 1914 to 1920, and Democrats gained House seats in four consecutive elections a decade after the GOP streak, in 1930, 1932, 1934 and 1936.

Much more recently, Democrats gained seats in three elections in a row from 1986 to 1990 and again from 1996 to 2000. But in both recent cases, their gains in each year were in the single digits, a far cry from the substantial gains that House Democrats made during the last two election cycles.

The last time one party had two big Congressional elections in a row (net gains of at least 20 seats each time), it gave back considerable ground in the following election.

Republicans gained 28 seats in 1950 and 22 seats in 1952, but in 1954, Democrats picked up 19 seats to win back control of the House after two years in the minority.

Since Democrats gained 30 seats in 2006 and 21 in 2008, they now hold more than a few GOP-leaning districts, making them susceptible to a Republican snapback. (The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee insists that it gained 23 seats in 2008 because it includes special election victories held between the 2006 and 2008 general elections.)

That doesn’t mean that the DCCC doesn’t have several interesting opportunities this cycle, only that their opportunities are fewer and that sitting GOP incumbents have demonstrated some level of acumen by surviving elections where many of their colleagues went down to defeat.

Still, DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) has some targets to shoot at, including GOP open seats and Republican incumbents who won narrowly in the previous cycle but could be vulnerable to a stiffer challenge.

Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao (R), who upset then-Rep. William Jefferson (D) in Louisiana’s 2nd district, obviously looks like a juicy target. Given the large majority of Democratic and black voters in the district, Cao’s seat should be an easy takeover for the DCCC.

Elsewhere, Democrats are hoping that GOP Reps. Jim Gerlach (Pa.) and Mark Kirk (Ill.) give up their House seats to make statewide bids. They are also hoping that Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.) will finally call it quits and retire, and that Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) will either retire or run for the Senate. Open seats in any of those districts would create real Democratic opportunities.

California Republican Rep. Ken Calvert’s surprisingly narrow win in 2008 obviously makes him a target, though his district certainly continues to lean Republican.

And Republicans such as Reps. Don Young (Alaska), Erik Paulsen (Minn.), Michele Bachmann (Minn.), Leonard Lance (N.J.) Henry Brown (S.C.) and Dave Reichert (Wash.), all of whom had close contests last year, have to prepare for another possible Democratic assault.

Finally, DCCC automated telephone calls into districts currently held by GOP Reps. Charlie Dent (Pa.), Judy Biggert (Ill.) and Thaddeus McCotter (Mich.) reflect Democratic strategists’ views that those districts are either already Democratic enough or are becoming Democratic enough to present the party with new opportunities.

But while Democrats still have opportunities in 2010, Republicans, on the defensive for the past two cycles, finally should have more.

The upcoming special election to fill Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s open House seat in Upstate New York gives the National Republican Congressional Committee a golden opportunity to begin a mini-comeback. Republicans must win that special election in what had been a reliably Republican seat until Gillibrand upset a GOP incumbent in 2006.

The party also has a handful of good opportunities in districts that it shouldn’t have lost, even considering the environment. Democratic freshmen Reps. Bobby Bright (Ala.) and Tom Perriello (Va.) look to be at particular risk if Republicans can unite behind strong challengers and if turnout among key Democratic groups (blacks and younger voters, in these two cases) drops during the midterms, as expected.

Democratic Reps. Travis Childers (Miss.), Walt Minnick (Idaho) and Frank Kratovil (Md.) also face serious problems given the conservative (and often Republican) natures of their districts. Even 10-term Rep. Chet Edwards (Texas), who has turned back stiff challenges in the past yet won with only 53 percent last year, would seem to be an obvious GOP target.

The NRCC faces plenty of hurdles in trying to reverse the GOP’s recent decline, but the sheer number of Republican districts now sending a Democrat to Congress provides the Republican campaign committee with more than enough opportunities to make certain that the party makes at least small gains in the House next year.

Another Republican net loss in the chamber — even a small one — would be devastating to party activists.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 2, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.