Predicting that as many as 14 Republican incumbents could fall when voters go to the polls next week, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Matsui (Calif.) laid out an optimistic scenario Tuesday in which his party would regain control of the House.
Republicans immediately called the idea “fantasy” and laughed off the campaign chief’s notion that a Democratic breeze would benefit his party next Tuesday.
In a conference call with reporters, Matsui described a playing field of 43 seats, 14 held by Democrats and 29 by the GOP, and predicted that his party could net a gain of 15 to 18 seats, giving them a slim majority in the 109th Congress. Republicans currently hold a 227-to-205-seat advantage in the chamber.
Democrats would net the most gains by defeating incumbent Republicans. Matsui said the DCCC is currently targeting 20 GOP Members and he confidently predicted that Democrats could beat more than a majority of them.
“We feel very comfortable that we can perhaps win 12, 13 maybe even up to 14 of those, if in fact we have the breeze behind us and obviously if the turnout is what we hope it to be,” Matsui said. “We can pick up anywhere [from] 18 [to] 19 seats currently held by Republicans. And if we can hold our incumbent losses down to one, two or three, we’ll take the House back.”
Using Matsui’s math, Democrats would hold all of the nine seats they are defending in incumbent and open seat races — outside of Texas, where five incumbents have been made vulnerable by last year’s re-redistricting. He said the party feels good about the current standing of the five vulnerable non-Texas incumbents it is watching: Reps. Dennis Moore (Kan.), Baron Hill (Ind.), Jim Matheson (Utah), Stephanie Herseth (S.D.) and Tim Bishop (N.Y.).
And he predicted that Democrats would hold each of the four competitive open seats they are defending in California, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Louisiana.
Matsui admitted that the party will likely face some losses in Texas. “The Texas seats I mentioned are a problem,” Matsui said. “We’re obviously concerned about the Texas Members.”
Still, he ultimately thinks his party will “do quite well” in the Lone Star State, noting that three of the Members are currently within the margin of error in polling.
The Democrats’ largest gains, Matsui predicted, would be reaped in the party’s ability to win a majority of the Republican-held open seats and in Democratic challengers’ ability to knock off vulnerable incumbents.
He identified nine competitive GOP-held open seats and predicted Democrats would win six or seven of them. The party’s best prospects for picking up seats are in Colorado’s 3rd district, New York’s 27th district, Washington’s 8th district and Louisiana’s 3rd district, a race that is expected to be decided by a December runoff.
But outside of those four races, the party’s prospects for picking up additional seats look bleak. Democrats would need to win a majority of the contests in Washington’s 5th district, Pennsylvania’s 8th and 15th districts, Virginia’s 2nd district and Nebraska’s 1st district, all races where Republicans currently have the upper hand.
A perplexed Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said he wasn’t sure how to respond to Matsui’s latest equation.
“I guess I’m just curious if this strategy that he laid out involved a trip to Fantasy Island, because it’s not happening,” Forti said.
Matsui’s prediction that Democratic challengers could oust as many as 14 GOP incumbents also appears to fall short of political reality, considering the limited playing field and the fact that last cycle’s redistricting efforts further boosted incumbents.
While Democratic hopes of defeating Reps. Phil Crane (Ill.), Heather Wilson (N.M.), Christopher Shays (Conn.) and Rob Simmons (Conn.) have brightened in recent weeks, their chances of defeating freshmen like Reps. Bob Beauprez (Colo.), Rick Renzi (Ariz.) and Jon Porter (Nev.) have conversely dimmed.
Matsui sought to dispel the widely held belief among political pundits and election observers that Democrats have virtually no chance to regain control of the House this cycle, in part because of the near 100 percent re-election rate for incumbents. He argued that historically fewer incumbents have been returned to office in years when one party controls both Houses of Congress and the White House.
Combine that with the increasing number of poll respondents who say they believe the country is on the wrong track, and Matsui sees a recipe for victory.
“People are unhappy and we think that we’re going to see that obviously in the turnout, Democratic or Republican,” Matsui said, pointing to elections in 1980 and 1994 (when Democrats held unified control of the federal government) as the two most-recent examples when the party in power lost a significant number of seats.
In those years, Matsui said, only 90 percent of incumbents were re-elected.
“If one went by that statistic, given the certain situation we have today where the Republicans control the entire government and people are dissatisfied, we’ll pick up 23 seats,” Matsui said.
He said he cautions others about making predictions about how the election will turn out at this point, citing the always unpredictable turnout factor.
“We just don’t know what the turnout’s going to be,” Matsui said, pointing to anecdotal evidence that early voting numbers are soaring in many states. “Certainly something’s going on out there and we’re only going to be able to find out on Election Day. But I’m not giving up, I think that there’s real opportunities for the Democrats.”
Matsui’s comments came during a conference call with reporters that focused on Democratic efforts to highlight Republican incumbents’ and challengers’ support for proposed legislation to replace the income tax with a national sales tax.
The DCCC is currently airing ads in seven races focusing on the issue and several Democratic challengers are issuing separate attacks on the tax issue.