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GOP Revival for 2010 House?

A Commentary By Isaac T. Wood and Larry J. Sabato

Friday, September 11, 2009

While the next slate of House elections does not occur until 2010, congressmen and their challengers certainly don't take off the "off-year." Instead, this year is a crucial one for the parties who must prove their recruiting chops, for the incumbents who seek big fundraising numbers and positive headlines, and for the challengers who have to prove their ability to take down a sitting member of Congress. And that doesn't even include the open races, 18 so far, where incumbents have announced they will not seek reelection. In those districts, both parties are scrambling to find candidates who can quash takeover hopes or, conversely, take advantage of this rare opportunity.

Generally speaking, the president's party loses seats in midterm elections, as the Crystal Ball discussed in May. The actions of the president, even more than that of the Congress itself, shape the mood of the electorate and can help determine the magnitude of this legislative loss. The other main determinant of the potential for losses and gains is the national playing field. After picking up a net total of 54 House seats in the past four years, Democrats will be defending a lot of Republican Red turf. All told, 49 Democratic House members sit in districts which voted for Republican presidential candidate John McCain last November, while only 34 Republican congressmen sit in districts won by President Obama. Given the magnitude of Obama's victory, these numbers understate the problem Democrats face, since some normally Republican districts were swept along in the Obama tide, but will likely return to their GOP roots in 2010 (and possibly in 2012, too).

Where, then, does each party stand? Republicans are rightfully optimistic in predicting gains in the House, since Democrats will be forced to play more defense than offense. However, that optimism should be tempered by Obama's approval ratings, which have fallen, but still remain in the 50 percent range according to recent polls. If even these modest ratings continue for the Democratic president, it is hard to imagine a GOP landslide occurring at 2006 or 2008 levels, when Democrats capitalized on the unpopularity of Republican President George W. Bush, whose approval ratings were hovering a full twenty points lower than Obama's. This lukewarm presidential approval, however, does create a set of conditions in which Republicans can certainly pick off a few incumbents while winning a number of open seat contests.

The GOP has also been drawing rave reviews for its candidate recruitment, fielding A-list challengers against many of the most endangered Democratic incumbents. They have also attracted quality candidates to oppose some normally safe representatives, a strategy the Democrats used to great success in 2006 and 2008. Open seats are another bright spot for Republicans, who have roughly equaled the number of retiring Democrats, in marked contrast to 2008, when 29 Republican congressmen gave up their seats compared to only six Democrats. Considering that, usually, about 95 percent of House incumbents are reelected, a party enhances its chances of electoral success simply by keeping its incumbents on the ballot.

As Crystal Ball contributor Alan Abramowitz noted last week, a broad overview of the prevailing conditions and comparing them to past results, suggests that Republicans are on the cusp of making a significant number of pick-ups. If the election were held today, his model predicts that the GOP would net almost two-dozen seats in the House; a sizeable gain, but only little more than half as many as they would need to control the chamber.

The birds-eye-view, national predictions we published last week do have their limits. As House Speaker Tip O'Neill famously said, "All politics is local." Nowhere is that more true than in the House, where each party must rely on the whims of candidates and voters in 435 separate districts across the country. With that local nature in mind, the Crystal Ball presents its first district-by-district rating of each of these contests.

Of course, some major hedging is due, as candidates will jump in and drop out over the next 14 months, scandals will develop, and the national political climate will change somewhat. Still, this list should provide considerable insight into where the action will be next November and where interested political observers should cast their gaze during the intervening months. Remember, any district not on one of the preceding lists is not seen as competitive at this time.

Toss-Ups

The most competitive districts are those in the Crystal Ball 's "toss-up" category. Currently 13 seats bear that designation. Of those, 11 are Democratic seats and just 2 belong to Republican incumbents. The fact that Democrats are defending more toss-up districts is a significant part of their challenge come 2010. In addition, many of these representatives (listed in italics ) are serving their first term in Congress and were swept in on the Democratic wave of 2008. These members face a tall task: endearing themselves to voters in just two short years, an especially herculean effort for the seven Democratic freshmen in this category who represent districts that voted for McCain.

On this list are three open seats: IL-10, PA-6, and PA-7. Although all three of these districts were carried by Obama in 2008, they are true toss-ups due to the political winds of 2010 which are now forecast to blow in the opposite direction, this time to the detriment of Democrats. Also note the inclusion of VA-5, which was the closest race in the country in 2008 and has a chance to repeat that distinction this cycle. The district is a conservative one, with the notable exception of liberal, college town Charlottesville. The natural inclination of its voters is to back a Republican, but Democratic Rep. Tom Perriello has spent his August recess combating that urge, holding the most town hall meetings (21) of any congressman in the county. It is that type of effort that he, and the other members on this list, will have to undertake to hold their seats in 2010.

Leaning

Just slightly less competitive than "toss-up" races, are those that bear the designation of leaning towards one party or another. In these seats, one party does have an advantage, but that advantage is a perilous one. The most significant of these are the two seats in Louisiana's congressional delegation that the Crystal Ball foretells switching hands in 2010. In Louisiana's 2nd District, freshman Republican Joseph Cao is an underdog despite being the incumbent. Cao won a close race in 2008, when he defeated embattled Democratic Rep. Bill Jefferson, who was recently convicted on corruption charges that were the major campaign issue last November. Cao is unlikely to hold the seat, given its 60 percent African-American demographics and 75 percent Democratic performance in the 2008 presidential election.

Republicans have a good shot at recouping that loss by winning a neighboring district, however, as Democrat Charlie Melancon is giving up his 3rd District seat to run for Senate. Considering the district gave Obama just 37 percent of the vote in 2008 and Kerry just 41 percent in 2004, it will be a tough district for Democrats to hold, given the Republican Party the early edge.

Beyond these golden pick-up opportunities, Republicans will be playing defense in 10 districts which currently lean in their favor, while Democrats will defend 11 "Leans Democratic" seats. A key to these battles may be that 8 of the Democrats defending these marginal districts are freshmen, with shallower coffers and less campaign experience. In addition, Democrats are defending one open "Leans Democratic" seat, in New Hampshire's 2nd District, where Paul Hodes has elected to run for Senate instead of another House term. By contrast, there are no freshmen defending "Leans Republican" territory, with the possible exception of New York's 23rd District, where a special election is pending.

One of the more intriguing races in this category will take place in Delaware, where Republican Rep. Mike Castle holds the state's at-large House seat. Castle is widely expected to either retire or run for the Senate; in either case he would not run again. Pending a formal announcement, this seat is still rated "Leans Republican," but Democratic candidate John Carney, the former lieutenant governor who nearly won the governorship in 2008, would be favored in this solid Blue state if Castle declines a reelection bid.

If 2010 is a Republican year, as it now looks to be, most of these marginally-favored Republican incumbents will survive, while many of these Democrats will perish.

Likely

The "likely" category is reserved for those competitive races where one party has a distinct advantage over the other. Most of these races feature either strong challengers or weak incumbents, but not a combination of the two that would warrant a more competitive designation. Consider these races as a watch list which could turn into heated battle with a single misstep by an incumbent or positive fundraising report. Also note that many of these races are destined for "leans" or "toss-up" status as soon as wavering potential candidates take the plunge and announce their candidacies.

Overall, 47 Democratic seats fit this description, while only 21 Republican seats are rated "Likely Republican" at this time. Democrats will defend one open "Likely Democratic" seat, a remarkable contest in Hawaii's 1st District where Neil Abercrombie is running for governor in lieu of reelection. The seat should be reliably Democratic, as Obama won an astounding 70 percent share of the presidential vote, but Republican candidate and Honolulu City Councilor Charles Djou is a highly touted recruit who could prove to be formidable in spite of his party label. Republicans will defend two "Likely Republican" open seats, in Tennessee's 3rd and Kansas's 4th Districts, both of which gave Obama 40 percent or less in 2008.

In a potential wave election year like 2010, special attention should be paid to those Democratic representatives in this category, some of whom may indeed be swept away if conditions for their party worsen. Many Democrats who represent heavily Republican districts have survived for years based on their moderate stances and strong identification within the community they serve. If 2010 brings about a rising Red tide, that may not be enough and the Democratic label could prove toxic to veterans like Marion Berry (AR-1), Vic Snyder (AR-2), Ike Skelton (MO-4), and Bart Gordon (TN-6).

The Bottom Line

After examining all 435 House races for 2010, the Crystal Ball projects that Republicans will gain between 20 and 30 seats. While this is nothing to sneeze at, especially given that it would be the largest gain for congressional Republicans since 1994, it still puts them short of the 40 seat pick-up they need to take back the House.

In total, 70 Democratic-held seats are competitive, while only 34 Republican seats are as endangered. A summary of all competitive races appears below. Bear in mind that races will be added to our competitive categories as new candidates jump in and incumbents jump out of each race over the next few months. Politics, like life, is full of changes and nobody can now predict what tomorrow will bring.

Larry J. Sabato is the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

See Other Commentary by Larry Sabato

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