Race for gavel picks up speed

With congressional approval ratings at record lows one year before the 2012 elections, Republicans and Democrats are both expressing confidence that voters won’t blame them for the ailing economy.

Political analysts maintain that control of the House and Senate is up for grabs, though Democratic chances of winning back the lower chamber are seen as not much better than 25 percent.

It is clear that voters are angry, and they will be looking to express their frustrations at the polls one year from now.

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) declined to make any predictions, saying, “This will be one of the most unpredictable and volatile elections in the history of the United States.”

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There has been a lot of tension between congressional Democrats and President Obama, but their electoral hopes are tied together in many ways. Obama’s low poll numbers have Republicans salivating at the prospect of running the White House and both chambers of Congress in January 2013.

Senate Democrats now have a 53-47 advantage over the GOP, but are defending 23 seats while Republicans are only defending 10.

Republicans, meanwhile, hold a 25-seat advantage in the House.

But a lot can change in a year.

The GOP presidential nominee will not be determined for months, and the three successive waves of 2006, 2008 and 2010 means that no majority is safe. Furthermore, the redistricting process has not been completed in many states, making it all but impossible to forecast which seats will be in play in many parts of the country, such as Texas and Florida.

Other factors that could shift the political winds include a possible deal on the debt supercommittee, the nation’s unemployment rate in the fall of next year and the future of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Andrew Bauman, vice president of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, a top Democratic polling firm, said voters are upset at both parties but it’s Obama who’s getting most of the blame for the economy. And that could be a drag on Democratic House candidates in GOP-leaning districts.

“It’s going to be a tough haul for Democrats, but I believe there’s a decent shot of taking the House back,” he said.

On Thursday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) argued that Democrats are well-positioned to regain the majority.

“We have definitely put the House in play,” she said, pointing to House Democrats’ strong fundraising numbers and recruitment efforts.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) repeated many of Pelosi’s points in a Friday morning briefing. But Israel also admitted having some concerns, saying “the president’s numbers need to improve.”

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) believes his majority is safe.

“If you look at the redistricting that’s gone on around the country … 51 of our members won districts that were won by Barack Obama [in 2008],” Boehner said Thursday. “At least half of those districts will be strengthened as a result of the redistricting process around the country.”

In 2010, Republicans won control of so many governor’s mansions and statehouse chambers, which control the redistricting process, that they have been able to shore up vulnerable incumbents and target Democrats in states such as North Carolina, Missouri, Georgia, Wisconsin and Michigan. The Democrats’ only major redistricting prize can be found in Illinois.

 Many of the changes made are marginal, making districts a few more percentage points Republican, but in tight races those changes could make a huge difference.

Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) said Democrats have “a shot” to win the House, but that “a perfect storm” must form for it to happen.

The non-partisan Cook Political Report lists 32 Republican-held seats as likely to be in play and 23 Democratic-held vulnerable seats as the same. Assuming the national political mood does not shift dramatically and the parties remain relatively balanced, it is likely Democrats will pick up some seats. But it is hard to see how they win the 25 needed for control.

Some have compared the 2012 election to 1996, two years after Republicans won control of Congress during President Clinton’s first term. As Obama is doing this year, Clinton railed against Congress and easily defeated former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.). But Democrats won only a net of nine House seats.

“The current environment is not one in which Democrats can retake the House,” said David Wasserman, the Cook Report’s House editor. “Redistricting is one reason why: It has allowed Republicans to move the goal line several yards against Democrats.”

On the Senate side, Republicans need to win a net of four seats for control, assuming Obama wins reelection. There are at least a dozen targets Republicans could make competitive, while Democrats can point to just four seats they have a reasonable chance to pick up.

“The map is very tough for Democrats in the Senate … it’s going to be really close,” said Bauman, the pollster.

Republicans have the upper hand in an open Senate race in North Dakota, and a strong chance of picking off Democrats in three Republican-leaning states: Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.).

Democrats also hold a raft of seats in swing states and will need to win most of these to retain control: Virginia, New Mexico, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Florida.

Democrats are bullish on beating Sens. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.) and say they believe they can compete in Indiana and Arizona. But the odds are stacked against them in those right-leaning states.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) put Republicans’ chances of retaking the Senate at “better than 50-50.”

“We’ve got a lot of opportunities for pickups,” he said. “They’re having to defend more seats than us, and I think the Democratic Party’s agenda hasn’t been well received.”

Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) disagreed.

“I would encourage all the pundits to back away from their predictions on the way the race is going to go in the Senate,” he said, touting Democratic incumbents. “This election is going to be fought state to state, with contrasts, and I like our incumbents’ and our candidates’ chances.”


Peter Sullivan and Bob Cusack  contributed to this article.