The Battle For the House 2012: An Early Take

To hear Nancy Pelosi talk, she will again be Speaker of the House in 2013 after the 2012 election results are in. Rep. Steven Israel (D-NY) notes that gaining leadership of the House is certainly within range and there is a grain of truth to that statement, although somewhat unrealistic. Pelosi and Israel constantly note that the Democrats merely need to win a net total of 25 seats to regain control. However, that mathematical fact is based upon an erroneous assumption- that they will retain their current number of seats and that no seats currently held by Democrats will flip to the GOP. They also seem to be ignorant of the fact that in the one geographical region where they could have made gains, redistricting had a dramatic effect in shoring up Republican-held seats, especially those of freshmen Republicans.

That region is the Great Lakes region- the eight states that touch the Great Lakes- Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. In five of those states, redistricting was controlled by Republicans (IN, MI, OH, PA and WI) while one- Illinois- was controlled by Democrats. In the other two, courts drew the maps. Naturally, when any party controls the House, they have to play defense and such is the case with the Republicans this year. Because of redistricting outside the Great Lakes region, eight seats currently held by Democrats now lean towards the Republican Party. If we assume that the Democrats manage to win/retain three of those seats- possible and realistic- five seats now flip to the GOP meaning that the Democrats really need to pick up a net 30 seats, not the 25 they now cite.

Because of population gains and losses between seats, 12 seats moved from one state to another. Of those 12 seats, seven were held by Democrats. Assuming a perfect split here due to the movement of seats to another state, Republicans stand to gain yet another seat. Hence, the real goal for Democrats is not the mythical 25 net seats, but actually 31.

We need to leave the Great Lakes region first to see why that region, because of redistricting, represents a good firewall against Democrats winning control of the House, even in a worst-case scenario. Out west, it is increasingly looking like the Democrats are destined to pick up four seats on the Left Coast in California. Using a worst case scenario for the GOP elsewhere out west, its possible the Democrats can pick up a seat in Nevada, Arizona and Colorado. Moving into Texas, after all is said and done, it is the consensus that their four additional seats will be evenly split. That leaves only the 23rd District as truly competitive and, again using a worse case scenario and for the sake of argument, lets just give that seat to the Democrats. That means they now need to win an additional 23 seats at this point.

It is generally conceded that Democrats will gain a net total of three seats out of Florida. And although he is tenacious and a fighter and far from a lost cause, Roscoe Bartlett’s seat in Maryland’s 6th District will be lost in this worst case scenario. Depending on which pundit one consults, one, both or none of New Hampshire’s two seats held by Republicans are at risk. Lets split the difference and say Republicans lose only one seat. After factoring in Florida, Maryland and New Hampshire, the Democrats still need to win 18 seats. The only area where they could conceivably win those seats is in the Great Lakes region. However, the simple fact is that there are not 18 Republican seats in jeopardy here.

Redistricting in Illinois was simply a disaster for the GOP. Under our worst case scenario, lets assume Republicans lose the maximum four seats, although I realistically believe it will be 2 or 3. Regardless, lets just say for the sake of argument they lose four. New York loses two seats and under the court-drawn map, one is a Democratic seat in the metropolitan New York area and one is a Republican seat in upstate New York. Most likely, Buerkle will lose her GOP-held seat, but so will Hochul, a Democrat, likely lose her seat. Even still, there are more vulnerable Republican seats than there are vulnerable Democratic seats in New York. But, at worst, the GOP could lose one seat out of this state. If you are keeping count, the Democrats still need a net 13 seats at this point.

In Minnesota, perhaps the most vulnerable Republican of all and certainly in Minnesota is Chip Cravaak of the 8th District. And in Ohio, the most likely chance for a Democratic pick up is Betty Sutton defeating Jim Renacci, although again, that is not a given, but we are assuming this outcome as a worst case scenario. Yet, the Democrats still need to pick up 11 more seats. At best, they have five targets- Benischek in Michigan, Johnson in Ohio, Fitzpatrick in Pennsylvania and Duffy and Ribble in Wisconsin. Even if the Democrats were to somehow win all these seats, they would still be six seats short of gaining control of the House. The only conceivable way they could do that would be to surprise the GOP elsewhere in the country. But, it would have to be an almost perfect electoral storm with the almost perfect Democratic candidate to pull off that feat.

And here is the problem for the Democrats- their failure to attract reliable and strong candidates in these other areas of the country. Part of the reason is that the Democratic Party as a whole has shifted to the left while they hypocritically assert the Republican Party has shifted dramatically to the right. Put another way, the policies and beliefs of the Democratic Party today does not play well in states like the Dakotas or Montana, Oklahoma, or even Iowa. Hence, because of that leftward lurch, they have boxed themselves in and narrowed their battlefield. They have forced themselves in towards making any gains in the House on the favored Left Coast, the northeast (although that market is saturated with Democrats now with few realistic targets of opportunity), and the Great Lakes region. In 2012, redistricting has created a Republican firewall against that possibility. It should be mentioned, however, that this firewall exists only with respect to the 2012 elections. Should Democrats make the gains in Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, that GOP firewall is considerably weaker come 2014.

This is a broad-based analysis of the House races this year. In 2010, I ran a series that went state-by-state considering the House and Senate elections. Obviously, besides being a broad analysis, it is also 5+ months out from the elections and in many districts, we do not even have candidates for either party in many instances. Hopefully, as we get closer to election day, I hope to give a more detailed analysis not only with respect to the House races, but also the Presidential and Senate races. However, instead of state-by-state, it will probably be regional in nature given the importance of the Presidential race.

The bottom line is that although Democrats like Pelosi and Israel are expressing confidence about winning the House this year, they are unrealistic. They are likely predicating their beliefs on Democrats picking up unexpected seats based upon a winning performance at the top of the ticket in the form of Obama. That is not a given at this stage. Conversely, just because the Democratic beliefs are unrealistic and overly optimistic should not infer that the GOP can just sit back and relax when it comes to the House. There are vulnerable Democratic seats in play this year beyond the obvious ones in North Carolina, Georgia and Arizona.