Dem hopes dim for recapturing House

Democratic hopes of recapturing the House are dimming as a series of race-by-race setbacks and economic uncertainty suggest that the 25 seats they need to net might be out of reach.

The Hill projects that Democrats will net somewhere between 10 and 15 seats, assuming the presidential election remains a close contest.

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House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has given her party a better than 50-50 chance of wresting control of the lower chamber — but missed opportunities in specific races and increasing economic worries have put that prediction in doubt.

“The environment certainly isn’t as good as it was six months ago for Democrats,” a senior Democratic strategist who works on House races told The Hill, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to comment candidly.

“Democrats are way off track of where they need to be to regain the majority,” said David Wasserman, the House race editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.


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The situation for the left is slightly better in the Senate, where strong recruitment and the surprise retirement of Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) has increased Democrats’ odds of holding the upper chamber.

House Democrats lost a prime pickup opportunity in California earlier this month when they failed to get a top recruit through the state’s new “top two” primary system. Instead, two Republicans will face off for control of a seat that would have given President Obama 56 percent of its vote in 2008 — a result that Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) admitted to The Hill was a “setback.”

They also suffered blows recently in Arkansas and South Carolina, where the party’s preferred recruits failed to win their primaries in three GOP-leaning districts. 

While the Arkansas and South Carolina seats were going to be difficult for Democrats to win even with their favored candidates, in a year in which they need everything to break their way, the results further limited the number of seats they have a chance at.

Predictions for who will control the House in the 113th Congress have predictably fallen along party lines.

Israel argues it is possible for Democrats to win control, while avoiding making any guarantees. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said in late April that there was a “1 in 3” chance his party could lose the chamber, while National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) predicted in early May that the GOP would expand its majority.

Republicans argue the Democrats’ recent struggles are the latest sign the GOP would hold onto the House.

“This cycle has turned out to be nothing but a drought instead of what Democrats hoped would be a river of dreams,” said NRCC communications director Andrea Bozek. 

Presidents rarely have long coattails during their reelection campaigns.

A party with a sitting president has only picked up more than 25 seats in a presidential year once in the last half-century: President Johnson helped 36 Democrats into the House in 1964. 

To engineer a wave election of that size, Democrats would need a strong wind at their backs — and while polls show Dems hold a slight lead in recent generic House polls, there is no sign of strong momentum that could give them a win.

 “House races are always going to be tied to the top of the ticket,” the Democratic strategist said. “The better Obama’s doing, the redder the districts Democrats can be playing in, and the economy is very important to the president’s success.”

There are signs that the economy might be stagnating. Last month’s jobs report showed the unemployment rate tick up slightly, to 8.2 percent, the first increase in a year. Just 69,000 jobs were created in the month, the third consecutive month in which job growth did not reach expectations.

On top of that, the ongoing economic crisis has caused instability in U.S. markets. While Greece’s election of a pro-bailout party staved off an immediate banking crisis on the continent, there are numerous signs that things might be going in the wrong direction in Europe. That would further roil U.S. markets and damage the already fragile economic recovery, which in turn could hurt Obama and the House Democratic candidates who need strong coattails from him.

Many political scientists say that voters’ perceptions of the economy are cemented months ahead of a presidential election, and a poll conducted by The Hill this past weekend showed three-quarters of voters were either “very” or “somewhat” concerned the economy was heading for another recession.

“If we don’t see these jobs numbers stabilize and start improving, the trend is only going to continue to be difficult for the Democrats,” said another Democratic strategist who works on House races. “This trend on unemployment, I don’t want to say it’s scary, but it’s certainly getting people’s attention.”

Democrats publicly argue that the generic congressional ballot test shows that they can win back control of the House, and point to two recent polls showing them leading by a handful of points, although because of redistricting they will need to run a few points ahead of 50 percent nationally to win back control.

They also point to their recent victory in the special election to replace former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) in a GOP-leaning district as evidence that their Medicare messaging will work in the fall. 

“In last week’s special election in Arizona, Democrats ran against the Republican plan to drastically cut Medicare while protecting tax breaks for millionaires and Republicans rehashed the same tired themes they ran in 2010,” said DCCC spokesman Jesse Ferguson. “Despite the fact that the district voted for George W. Bush in 2004 and John McCain in 2008 and Democratic outside groups were outspent, our message won and it’s clear the Republican majority is in jeopardy.”

While the election did indicate their message worked, the GOP candidate was flawed, and had failed to win in the 2010 Republican wave election for the same reason.

Republicans were able to shore up many of their 2010 gains in redistricting — by Wasserman’s calculations, the process saved the GOP roughly ten seats they otherwise would have lost in 2012, making the hill for Democrats to climb back to the majority even steeper.