Sands shift, GOP stiff

Conventional wisdom suggests that House Democrats will spend 2010 mostly playing defense, consolidating their 54-seat gain from the last cycle. And it certainly seems a prudent course of action — Democrats enjoy a 78-seat advantage, and with redistricting just around the corner, it makes sense not to expend too much energy trying to pick up marginal seats that might disappear or be drastically redrawn for the 2012 cycle.

Yet the map has already changed dramatically in the last couple years, with Democrats making demographic and electoral gains in every corner of the country. As a result, a whole new crop of Republicans are finding themselves suddenly representing blue districts. In 2004, Republicans held just 18 Kerry districts. Today, despite holding 52 fewer seats overall, 34 Republicans find themselves in territory won by President Obama.

As for Democrats, 48 of them represent districts won by Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainTrump's NASA nominee advances after floor drama Senate repeals auto-loan guidance in precedent-shattering vote Overnight Defense: Lawmakers worry over Syria strategy | Trump's base critical of strikes | Flake undecided on Pompeo | Coast Guard plans to keep allowing transgender members | GOP chair wants to cut B from Pentagon agencies MORE (R-Ariz.), up seven from the Bush districts they held in 2004.

The casual observer might think, then, that Democrats are in the far more untenable position, forced to defend 14 more incumbents in hostile territory than Republicans. But it’s not that simple.

Of the 34 Republican seats in Obama territory, one is a lost cause — Rep. Joseph Cao in Louisiana’s 2nd congressional district, which Obama won by 49 points. Cao won the seat from corrupt former Rep. William Jefferson, and has no chance of holding it against a clean Democrat. Of the rest, just four have had to run for reelection in seats carried by John KerryJohn Forbes KerryEx-Obama official Marie Harf, Guy Benson to co-host Fox News Radio show Five things to know about Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska Leaders shirking their nations' democratic facades more brazenly MORE in 2004. Three of those four — Rep. Mark KirkMark Steven KirkHigh stakes as Trump heads to Hill Five things to watch for at Trump-Senate GOP meeting Giffords, Scalise highlight party differences on guns MORE in Illinois’s 10th, Rep. Jim GerlachJames (Jim) GerlachPa. GOP 'disappointed' by rep retiring after filing deadline Pennsylvania Republican Costello won't seek reelection Republican Pa. congressman won't seek reelection: report MORE in Pennsylvania’s 6th and Rep. Dave ReichertDavid (Dave) George ReichertMajor GOP super PAC expands field offices to 31 districts With bills on the table, Congress must heed the call to fix our national parks 107 House Republicans express 'deep concern' about Trump tariffs MORE in Washington’s 8th — are among the party’s best, most effective campaigners, boasting a proven record of defeating well-funded top-tier challengers in tough districts. The fourth, Rep. Mike Castle (Del.), can boast of easy success in his very Democratic state.

The other 29 Republicans are finding themselves in uncharted territory, used to running in and winning conservative districts.

Compare that to the 48 Democrats holding McCain districts. Nine are freshmen, and they will certainly face tough reelection prospects. But of the 39 incumbents, only one represents a formerly blue district — John Murtha in Pennsylvania’s 12th. The other 38 are battle-hardened campaigners, many with a track record of consistently winning their difficult districts, even in strong Republican years.

They have done so by developing tools and tactics to distance themselves from the rest of their caucus. The Blue Dog Caucus gives them the veneer of centrism, waving the flag of fiscal conservatism (even as they essentially supported every one of President Bush’s budget-busting spending and tax bills). The leadership gives them freedom to stray from the party line in key votes, to further bolster their claim of independence. And every so often, they legitimately make common cause with Republicans and put a wrench into the Democratic majority’s efforts, allowing them to proudly wear the label of “maverick.” Those may all be infuriating to Democratic partisans, but it helps them get reelected.

Republicans, for their part, don’t have a “centrist” caucus they can join, and as we’ve seen so far this year, leadership refuses any dissent on key votes. Unity is mandatory. There is no separation between any members and their party’s leadership, and no acknowledgement that their districts are politically shifting under their feet.

Such tactics may bring a smile to Rush Limbaugh’s face, and Joe the Plumber may cheer, but for the people back home wanting true representation, those Obama votes weren’t a plea for the status quo.

Moulitsas is founder and publisher of Daily Kos