4 reasons Democrats will hold the House
Everyone agrees that congressional Democrats will lose seats this November, but lose the majority? Democratic strategist Ed Kilgore concludes that they might. Reporter David Chalian of ABC News concludes that they might. And Stu Rothenberg concludes that they might. Others, such as Jonathan Chait, allude to the possibility of it happening. Unlike certain Republicans and conservatives, these people cannot be accused of projection or wish fulfillment.
The reasons for the Democrats’ troubles are legion. Swing voters are mad about their loss of disposable income. The young voters and blacks who came out in huge numbers in 2008 for Obama are unlikely to duplicate the feat in 2010 for their congressman. Seniors are mad at the Democrats for messing with their Medicare. And tea party activists are mad – really mad — at the Democrats for legislating like Democrats.
But the chances that this witches’ brew will doom the party this fall strikes me as unlikely. Barring a national calamity or Republican implosion, Democrats will likely hold on. Think about it. Democrats would need to lose 40 House seats to relinquish the majority, a large number by anyone’s estimation. Losing that many seats in an election cycle takes more than a lousy economy, wide distrust of Congress, and unpopular legislation. Losing that many seats takes incompetent or pathetic party leadership. And whatever you might say about Obama, Reid, and Pelosi, they are not politically incompetent.
Consider the last two times that a political party lost control of the House. In 2006, Republicans forfeited the majority in large part because their leaders abdicated responsibility. They failed to discipline a House Republican who sexually targeted teenage congressional pages. They called Congress into session only rarely, an acknowledgment to independents that they had no real legislative agenda. And they gave their voters little reason to come to the polls on election day. Those reasons were arguably as important as the unpopularity of the Iraq war for tossing Republicans out of power.
In 1994, Democrats lost their majority in large part because their party leaders were politically inept. They depressed their base by failing to pass health-care reform. And they fired up the Republican base by enacting new gun-control laws, allowing gays to serve in the military, and adding to the deficit. There is no doubt that conservative talk radio also helped fuel the Republican resurgence, especially in Southern districts that were already in political transition. But Democratic leaders like Clinton, Foley, and Mitchell violated the first rule of the political class: Being dumb is OK, being unable to count is not.
Two elections is a small sample size, and some hidden factor may help put Republicans back in the majority. But as of this date in the year of our Lord, I conclude that Democrats will keep their majority for three reasons:
Democratic Party leaders have not committed any large self-inflicted wounds:
Certainly they have been tempted to do so. On cultural issues, their base sought indirect federal funding of abortion without limit and seeks to make D.C. a state while keeping the district’s restrictive gun-control laws and to overturn the military’s ban on gays serving openly. But leadership stepped in and have squelched those possibilities. Democratic cultural conservatives would have more reason bolt the party in November, while Republican cultural conservatives will have less reason to turn out to vote.
As for potential scandals, Democratic leaders have dampened those. They could have let Rep. Charles Rangel keep his seat as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. They could have defended Rep. Eric Massa as a wayward or misunderstood politician. Instead, heeding the advice of party moderates, they kicked Rangel to the sidelines; and heeding common sense, they booted Massa.
Democratic leaders have helped themselves:
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has outraised and outspent its GOP counterpart. You didn’t read that wrong. The DCCC has bested the RCCC. For all of House Democrats’ political woes, they are still raking in the cash, or comparatively so. The Dems’ cash advantage will come in handy. Political scientists Alan Abramowitz, Matthew Gunning, and Brad Gunning found that the high cost of political campaigns was one of the two key reasons that the number of competitive congressional seats over the past four decades had declined.
The GOP has helped Democrats:
The Memphis Grizzlies’ trade of Kwame Brown to the Los Angeles Lakers for Pau Gasol may be the greatest gift one opponent has bestowed upon another.. Arizona’s recent law that seeks to clamp down on illegal immigration was not as big of a donation, but it’s in the conversation. Yes, Arizona’s law enjoys the support of most Americans, but few voters will head to the polls to express their pleasure with Arizona for doing so. Instead, Hispanics and more than a few white liberals will come out to register their distinct unpleasure with Arizona.
Democratic constituencies are weakened but not demoralized:
Young people, blacks, and single females perhaps are far less likely to vote in mid-term elections. But the party’s white upper-class voters aren’t. According to Gallup, highly educated voters are rarin’ to go to the polls. And unlike in 1994, when Democrats could not even put health care reform up for a vote, the party’s educated, suburban voters have little reason to be deflated this time around.
The Rothenberg Political Report, as usual, has an incisive list of those 79 House districts in play. As of now, Democrats strike me as less likely to lose the vast majority of those seats deemed as tossups, tossup/tilt Republican, lean Republican, and Republican favored. This scenario would result in Democrats losing 30 seats. In addition, Democrats are likely to lose a handful of those deemed “lean Democratic,” especially those seats in Ohio and Indiana, which are moving toward the Republicans. That would net the Democrats a loss of 35 seats.
Democrats might be heartened or rejoice in this analysis. But they should also beware. As weak of a field as the possible Republican presidential nominees look today, they will look a lot better running against Democratic-controlled Washington in 2012.