Democrats concede Republican majority could get bigger in the House

Both Republicans and Democrats head into Election Day with a legitimate shot at picking up seats in the House, with the GOP virtually assured of keeping control of the lower chamber.

The electoral landscape has shifted significantly from just one month ago, when Democrats were hopeful that they could gain more than a dozen seats and possibly recapture the majority they lost in 2010. Democrats would need a net gain of 25 seats to win the House.

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Now Democrats have lowered expectations, and strategists for the party privately acknowledge they are now as likely to lose seats as gain them. Nonpartisan prognosticators have come to the same conclusion, and project Democratic gains in the low single digits, if any.

“Democrats never really were poised to pick up a significant number of seats, [and] their ‘momentum’ was always more of a mirage,” said David Wasserman, House editor for the Cook Political Report, a widely followed election handicapper.

Wasserman is predicting a spread anywhere between Republicans gaining five seats and Democrats gaining 10. But the most likely outcome, he said, is that Democrats gain between zero and five seats.

“Mitt Romney’s gains, particularly in suburban districts, have further constrained Democrats’ pickup opportunities,” he said in an email.

In memos distributed to reporters Monday morning, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) dropped any reference to taking back the House and instead characterized its goal on Election Day as “rolling back the Tea Party wave” of 2010.

“It would take probably an act of God to win the majority,” said one Democratic strategist, speaking on the condition of anonymity to assess the party’s chances on Tuesday. “We’ll be a little closer, but we’ll have a long way to go in 2014.”

Another Democratic strategist said, “The combination of a tightened national environment, retirements and redistricting make major net gains less likely.”

Operatives in both parties say the political landscape shifted toward Republicans after the first presidential debate in early October, a match-up that GOP nominee Mitt Romney was seen as having won decisively. After that, Democrats say, Romney and Republicans rose together in the polls.

Before the debate, Democrats saw a lead of between 4 and 6 points on the question of whether voters wanted to see Democrats or Republicans elected to Congress. Now polls show a virtual tie.

“There’s no question that the national environment tightened in the last month,” the second Democratic strategist said.

House Democratic leaders reached a peak of optimism in September, after Romney tapped Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) as his running mate. They argued that attacks on Ryan’s budget plan, which makes sharp cuts to Medicare and other popular programs, would move races into the blue column.

Republicans say Democrats were never on pace to come close to winning back the majority. Paul Lindsay, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), would not predict whether the GOP would gain or lose seats, saying the committee’s only goal was to maintain the majority.

“We’re in a strong position,” he said. “A good night for us is John Boehner remaining as Speaker of the House, and that’s what we’ll have.”

The shift toward the GOP was particularly apparent in districts held by Democrats where President Obama is expected to lose. Earlier in the fall, Democrats were more confident that Reps. Jim Matheson (D-Utah), Ben Chandler (D-Ky.) and Mark Critz (D-Pa.) would hold their seats. All three could lose on Tuesday.

Republicans were also able to shore up more of their seats in the redistricting that followed the 2010 census. They targeted Democrats in states like North Carolina, while Democrats might not realize the gains they had expected through redistricting in blue states like California and Illinois.

“In a tight election, redistricting matters,” said former Rep. Tony Coelho (Calif.), who headed the DCCC for six years in the 1980s. “The Republicans controlled it, and this is the fruit of their labors.”

Coelho predicted the Democrats would pick up eight seats.

House Republicans have been particularly successful in protecting their most junior members. A vast majority of the historic House GOP class of 2010 is expected to win reelection.

 Out of 87 GOP freshman House members who rode the Tea Party tidal wave to victory, only 15-17 GOP freshmen are considered to be in “toss-up” or “leans/likely Democratic” races, according to various political handicappers forecasting the election.

 Wasserman attributes the freshmen’s success to their effective job in “ducking the Tea Party label.” He noted that most of the rookie Republicans did not actually join the new Tea Party Caucus in the House. 

Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), a former NRCC chairman, said he is surprised more freshman Republicans were not in trouble.

“Normally, when you win a huge victory like we did in 2010, you know that circumstances aren’t going to be as good two years from [that point] and you know that honestly, in a class that size, you are probably going to get some members that just got lucky,” Cole said in an interview. “This has not been true in this class.”

— Brian Tam contributed to this report.