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Democrats Need to Find More Than Just a Few Good House Races

With House Republicans resigned to the idea that they will spend this cycle defending their own turf rather than targeting takeover opportunities, much of the focus will be on Democratic efforts to knock off GOP incumbents and win open seats held by retiring Republicans. [IMGCAP(1)]

Democrats need a net gain of 15 seats to reach the magic number of 218, which would give them the opportunity to organize the House and install Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as Speaker. Can they do it?

At this point, most of the macropolitical indicators favor the Democrats. President Bush’s job ratings are poor, a majority of Americans think the country is headed off on the “wrong track,” Congress’ job ratings are in the toilet and the Republican agenda is in shambles, wracked by internal divisions over spending, taxes and the deficit. Social Security reform, as everyone knows (yes, even Republicans on Capitol Hill and in the White House), is dead for this Congress.

GOP ethics problems, including the indictment of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas), add to Republican election woes.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) and Pelosi couldn’t have painted a prettier picture for their party if they had supplied the paints and paint brushes themselves.

Some people also point to Newsweek’s early September “generic ballot,” which showed 50 percent of respondents saying they would vote for a Democrat for Congress next year while only 38 percent preferred a Republican.

Aside from my personal view that Newsweek’s numbers often tilt toward the Democrats, I’ve found the generic ballot jumps around a lot and seems to be little more than a reflection of the current mood. I’ll wait until much later in the cycle before I give the generic ballot another glance.

If the overall environment seems to favor Democrats in House races, a race-by-race assessment of the party’s prospects is not nearly as upbeat. The party has a number of good opportunities, and it is poised to make gains. It’s just that those gains, while possibly considerable, are likely to leave the Democrats as the minority party after the midterms. But that could change.

Democrats have two good opportunities at GOP open seats — one in Iowa, where Rep. Jim Nussle is running for governor, and another in Colorado, where Rep. Bob Beauprez also is running for his state’s top job. The party also has a longer-shot opportunity in Minnesota with Rep. Mark Kennedy running for the Senate.

Democrats’ other open-seat opportunities are less encouraging given the partisan make-up of the districts and/or the quality of the party’s likely candidates.

Of course, additional Republican retirements are possible in Democratic-leaning and tossup districts that would give Democrats good opportunities. But unless and until those occur, I can’t figure them into my calculations.

So the DCCC is once again faced with the uncomfortable reality that it needs to defeat more than a few GOP incumbents if it is going to have a truly terrific year. And defeating incumbents has been the rare exception, not the rule, in recent election cycles.

There currently are just more than a dozen districts where Democratic challengers have a real chance of knocking off a Republican incumbent. Four rematches top the list: two in Connecticut, where Rep. Christopher Shays faces the same woman he defeated last time out and Rep. Rob Simmons faces his 2002 opponent; and one each in Pennsylvania, where Rep. Jim Gerlach faces Lois Murphy again, and Indiana, where former Rep. Baron Hill seeks to turn the tables on Rep. Mike Sodrel.

A sprinkling of other races in states such as Florida, North Carolina and possibly New York also are worth watching, but Democratic buzz in past years about defeating Reps. Clay Shaw (Fla.), Charles Taylor (N.C.) and Robin Hayes (N.C.) would make even the most gullible observer skeptical.

But even if Democrats won all these races (and even if they hold all of their own seats, including competitive districts in Georgia and Ohio), they’d still be far short of a majority.

While Democrats have made a great effort to “widen the playing field” by recruiting candidates against Republican incumbents who haven’t had strong opponents recently — including Pennsylvania’s Melissa Hart and Tim Murphy, New York’s Vito Fossella, Sue Kelly and John Sweeney, California’s Richard Pombo, Montana’s Denny Rehberg and Connecticut’s Nancy Johnson — those challenges range from difficult to near impossible.

Other Republican targets, such as Reps. Shaw, Taylor, Heather Wilson (N.M.) and John Hostettler (Ind.) have turned back supposedly strong challengers in other difficult election environments.

So the DCCC’s chances of making major House gains depends on landing more strong Democratic recruits and future GOP retirements. It also depends on the public’s continuing disappointment in the president and dissatisfaction with the course of the country. A Democratic “wave” based on alleged Republican ethics lapses is possible.

For now, Democrats can count on gains in the low to middle single digits — probably from four to eight seats. That would be a good step toward possibly taking control in 2008, but it would keep the House in Republican hands for Bush’s final two years.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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