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Republican's Regional Recipe

A Commentary By Thomas F. Schaller

With a dozen weeks to go before the 2010 midterm elections, speculation is rising about the possibility of the Republicans retaking the House. On Sunday, that speculation rose to a fevered pitch when White House press secretary Robert Gibbs conceded during a Meet The Press appearance that there are enough House seats “in play” this November to put control of the chamber at risk.

The following morning, using 1994 as a baseline of comparison, MSNBC’s “First Read” summarized four factors that suggest a GOP takeover, and four that do not. Among the four favorables, just one was regional or geographic in nature: “Much of the House battleground will play in white/rural districts, where [Barack] Obama isn’t performing well.” It’s true that Democrats are defending few urban or majority-minority districts. In fact, despite facing strong political headwinds this year Democrats may actually flip three such districts into their column (Louisiana 2, Hawaii 1, and Delaware’s at-large seat).

And yet, amid the spate of analyses comparing the political environments of 1994 and 2010—the Crystal Ball’s own Alan Abramowitz and Rhodes Cook have debated the similarities and differences—none has examined how the geographic distribution of the Democrats’ 1994 House majority compares to their coalition now. How much does the caucus Speaker Nancy Pelosi shepherds into this year’s midterms differ geographically from the one then-Speaker Tom Foley led to the slaughter in 1994? Where would Republican this November need to flip seats, and how many, in order to forge a new majority?

To answer these questions, I start by comparing the 103rd Congress’ House Democratic caucus of 1994 with the party’s current majority in the 111th Congress (see note below). Eerily, the Democrats enter the midterms this November with the same number of seats, 256, they held heading into the 1994 elections. There are key differences, however, between the Democratic coalition the Republicans successfully deposed in 1994 and the one they hope to displace this November.

For starters, it is stunning how regionally balanced—almost perfectly so—the Democrats’ 256-seat majority was in 1994. As Table 1 indicates, the Democrats held between 58 percent and 60 percent of seats in every region (see note below): Northeast, South, Midwest, and Far West. That is no longer the case. As a result of gradual regional realignment across the past 16 years, brought to fruition with the Democratic surges of 2006 and 2008 cycles, the current Democratic coalition is slightly more Western and slightly less Midwestern, but decidedly more Northeastern and decidedly less Southern, than in 1994.

That year, Republicans won House victories across all regions. Democrats did suffer key losses in the South; North Carolina, where Republicans flipped four seats, was especially hard hit. But the Democrats’ worst state in 1994 was actually Washington, where they lost six seats, including Speaker Foley’s. The point is it took another seven cycles to complete the regional realignment of the two House caucuses in evidence today.

To appreciate the changes that unfolded during the past 16 years, consider that of the 12 Northeastern state delegations today, only one (West Virginia, a regional outlier in many respects) is less Democratic now than it was in 1994, and of the 13 Western delegations only Hawaii, Montana, Utah and Wyoming are less Democratic—and all four are as a result of the flip of a single seat each. But in the South, only one of the 13 delegations, Arkansas, is more Democratic today than in 1994. Not surprisingly, the one region that held steady is also the one that Earl and Merle Black have shown to be the most competitive region in congressional and presidential elections over the past eight decades: the Midwest, where six House delegations are more Democratic and six less Democratic than they were on the eve of the 1994 Republican Revolution.

These regional shifts make the math more daunting for the GOP this autumn. Republicans currently control 57 percent of Southern seats, compared to just 40 percent in 1994, resulting in 26 more GOP Southern seats today. Although there are several Southern Democratic seats in jeopardy, including two open seats in Tennessee and a third in Louisiana, Republicans cannot ride a Southern surge into the majority. Because there are simply too few white Southern Democrats from non-majority-minority districts left to target, the GOP must win a significant number of seats outside Dixie.

To demonstrate this point, I used current House projections by the Crystal Ball’s Isaac Wood to forecast what the 112th Congress might look like under two different scenarios. In the first, “regular wave” scenario, I assume that all seats classified as “likely” or “leaning” for a party will in fact be held or won by that party, and that Republicans will additionally hold or win every “toss up” seat. In the second, “big wave” scenario I assume Republicans will hold or win all of the seats in the first scenario, plus capture all “leaning” (but not “likely”) Democratic seats.

In the regular wave scenario, 13 Democratic-held seats lean Republican, to just 3 Republican-held seats leaning Democratic, for a net Republican gain of 10. Add to that 26 Democratic-held toss-up seats and the total Republican gain would be 36 seats, three shy of the 39 needed to reach 218. In the big wave scenario, an additional 25 leaning-Democratic seats—22 held by Democrats, plus those 3 Republican seats earlier presumed to flip to the Democrats—all break instead for the Republicans, giving them 61 net pickups and a rather comfortable, 240-seat majority to open the 112th Congress.

Now let’s look at the regional distribution of the Republican gains under each scenario, presented in Table 2. If it turns out to be a regular wave, the GOP’s 36 net pickups would include 12 seats in the South, 11 in the Midwest, 8 in the Northeast, and just 5 in the Far West. That is, despite a dozen southern pickups, an insufficient number of Republican pickups in the Democrats’ two dominant regions—the Northeast and Far West—would prevent John Boehner from becoming Speaker.

In the big wave scenario, however, the distribution of the 61 pickups changes significantly. Relative to the regular wave baseline, Republicans would pick up roughly half again as many seats in the South (18 to 12) and Midwest (17 to 11). But, more crucially, they would double their net gains in both the Northeast (16 to 8) and the Far West (10 to 5).

The regional location of House seats is not dispositive. And I’m not projecting that Republicans will pickup a net of 61 seats, or even 36. Rather, this exercise confirms something I forecast in Whistling Past Dixie: To regain control of the House, the GOP must flip a significant number of Democratic-leaning seats in two key regions where Republicans were once competitive, but lately have not been.

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and a guest columnists for   Sabato's Crystal Ball  at the University of Virginia.

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Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports. 

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