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 McCainFrustrated Dems say Obama botched Russia response Coats: Trump seemed obsessed with Russia probe The Hill's Whip List: Senate ObamaCare repeal bill 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 KerryFrustrated Dems say Obama botched Russia response Budowsky: Dems madder than hell Tillerson: 'My view didn’t change' on Paris climate agreement MORE in 2004. Three of those four — Rep. Mark KirkMark KirkWhy Qatar Is a problem for Washington Taking the easy layup: Why brain cancer patients depend on it The Mideast-focused Senate letter we need to see MORE in Illinois’s 10th, Rep. Jim GerlachJim GerlachFormer reps: Increase support to Ukraine to deter Russia With Trump and GOP Congress, job creators can go on offense Big names free to lobby in 2016 MORE in Pennsylvania’s 6th and Rep. Dave ReichertDavid ReichertTime to fix our national parks House GOP not sold on Ryan’s tax reform plan Lawmakers push back against Trump offshore drilling review 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