After an August recess marked by raucous town halls, troubling polling data and widespread anecdotal evidence of a volatile electorate, the small universe of political analysts who closely follow House races is predicting moderate to heavy Democratic losses in 2010.
Some of the most prominent and respected handicappers can now envision an election in which Democrats suffer double-digit losses in the House — not enough to provide the 40 seats necessary to return the GOP to power but enough to put them within striking distance.
Top political analyst Charlie Cook, in a special August 20 update to subscribers, wrote that “the situation this summer has slipped completely out of control for President Obama and congressional Democrats.”
"Many veteran congressional election watchers, including Democratic ones, report an eerie sense of déjà vu, with a consensus forming that the chances of Democratic losses going higher than 20 seats is just as good as the chances of Democratic losses going lower than 20 seats,” he wrote.
At the mid-August Netroots Nation convention, Nate Silver, a Democratic analyst whose uncannily accurate, stat-driven predictions have made his website 538.com a must read among political junkies, predicted that Republicans will win between 20 and 50 seats next year. He further alarmed an audience of progressive activists by arguing that the GOP has between a 25 and 33 percent chance of winning back control of the House.
“A lot of Democratic freshmen and sophomores will be running in a much tougher environment than in 2006 and 2008 and some will adapt to it, but a lot of others will inevitably freak out and end up losing,” Silver told POLITICO. “Complacency is another factor: We have volunteers who worked really hard in 2006 and in 2008 for Obama but it’s less compelling [for them] to preserve the majority.”
Historic trends point to Republican House gains in the midterm election, particularly after facing two brutal election cycles where the party lost seats in every region and even in some of the most conservative states in the nation. Over the last five decades, the party out of power has picked up seats in 10 of the 12 midterm elections.
Turnout levels may also work in the GOP’s favor: House Democrats who narrowly won election in 2008 on the strength of high turnout among African-Americans and young voters probably won’t be able to count on that same level of enthusiasm next year in a nonpresidential election.
The national political environment, of course, could look significantly different next year. It wasn’t until the final month before the 1994 GOP landslide that political analyst Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of The Rothenberg Political Report, anticipated GOP gains large enough to win back control of the House.
This year, Rothenberg cautioned that despite signs of a Republican resurgence, there are many factors working against huge numbers of GOP pickups. If Democrats are able to pass a health care bill without the controversial public option, the party could get credit for passing legislation without jeopardizing their most vulnerable members, he noted. And if the economy perks up in the third quarter of next year, Rothenberg argued, all bets are off.
“To have another wholesale sea change bigger than last year’s and almost as big as the two years combined is asking a lot. It’s not impossible, but you have to think that’s quite a challenge for the Republicans,” said Rothenberg. “If [House Republicans] won 12 to 15 seats, … they should be very happy about that. Could I see them winning more than that? If there are gale force winds, I could see them winning 20 to 25, … but 40 seats is a really big number.”
Cook Political Report House analyst David Wasserman, who expects Republicans to pick up between nine and 26 seats, said that even if the national environment approximates the 1994 atmosphere, there are significant structural differences about the political landscape that will limit Republican gains.
Back in 1994, Democrats had held the majority for 42 years. Many veteran members, predominantly from conservative districts, decided to retire after sensing the changing political winds. Of the 31 open seats they created, Republicans picked up 23 of them — about 40 percent of the GOP’s total pickups that year.
By contrast, most of the targeted members in 2010 are freshman and sophomore Democrats. Only six House Democrats to date have announced they’re not running for reelection — with all but two of them representing safe Democratic districts.
“I don’t think that Democrats’ chances of losing the House are anywhere near one-in-four right now,” said Wasserman. “For Democrats to lose 40 seats, they would have to be facing absolutely catastrophic circumstances, and even if the health care debate turns sour, it’s hard to imagine that Democrats will be losing a ton of ground.”
Silver also pointed to the role of health care legislation, which he said is increasingly looking like a no-win situation for House Democrats.
In his view, if a compromise bill is passed without a public option, the liberal base will become upset and may not be enthusiastic heading into the 2010 midterm elections, where their support will be critical. But if Democrats pass legislation without any assistance from Republicans, the party risks incurring the wrath of independent voters looking for a bipartisan solution. And if no health care reform at all gets passed, the administration and vulnerable members will have spent political capital without getting any results on the administration’s signature issue.
“If you pass a health care bill it doesn’t make you popular, but if you don’t sign any legislation it makes things even worse,” Silver said. “You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. I don’t see what the exit strategy is for the White House. Once they went down this path, they’re going all in here, and you can’t take that bet back.”
Democratic officials privately expect to lose around 10 House seats even under politically stable conditions, and acknowledge that President Obama’s standing in the run up to November 2010 will play a pivotal role in how well they can weather the historical trend.
“When you have big waves like 2006 and 1994, you felt it early and you felt it build. I am not sure we are seeing that. While healthcare is causing some heartburn, it is still an issue that two-thirds of all voters say needs reforming,” said Democratic pollster John Anzalone, who represents many clients in conservative Southern districts.
“It is clearly too early to tell if the Republicans have a chance [to regain control of the House], but at this point I still think it is more like a 10 or 15 percent chance. That may certainly grow. But there are some big battles yet to fight.”
Indeed, those upcoming battles — on health care reform, energy legislation and economic regulation — will be crucial to the fortunes of targeted House Democrats.
Wasserman noted that of the 16 House Democrats who voted against former President Clinton on the controversial budget and assault weapons ban, every single one of them won reelection. If this year’s crop of targeted Democrats resists pressure from leadership and votes in line with their constituencies, Wasserman predicted they can overcome a Republican wave.
Already, many Democrats representing conservative-minded districts have distanced themselves from the national party’s leadership on the most controversial measures. Forty-four Democrats split from their leadership to oppose the cap-and-trade energy legislation — most of them falling in line with the economic interests of their districts.
“It goes to show that voting behavior in Congress matters at the end of the day.” Wasserman said. “Right now, we’re looking at a wave cycle, but the question is will it be a small wave or a major wave. And it matters how these freshman and sophomore members vote to determine how big a wave it will be.”