Two weeks after Republicans posted historic gains in the House, political operatives are already turning their attention to 2012, where an evolving battlefield in a presidential year offers Democrats cause for both fear and optimism.
Their hope lies in dozens of seats in Democratic-friendly swing districts across the nation that Republicans claimed Nov. 2. And President Barack Obama — absent, of course, from the midterm ballots — will lead the 2012 ballot and could boost Democratic turnout in key battleground states that went decidedly Republican earlier in the month.
Democrats’ fear, however, comes amid redistricting efforts that could further tip the scales in Republicans’ favor, especially given massive GOP pickups in state Houses in swing states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania. And the president’s place atop the ballot, widely expected to help in some regions, could have the opposite effect should the nation’s economic struggles continue.
Still, Republicans are reluctant to predict major House gains in 2012.
“If people think it’s going to be another 55, 60 seats, they’re wrong,” one longtime GOP strategist said, noting that Republican gains were centered in swing districts throughout the Midwest, Pennsylvania and New York, while the Northeast and Northwestern coast largely remained Democratic.
“We didn’t expand the playing field. Now we’re going to the election cycle with increased black turnout, increased Hispanic turnout — all factors that work against Republicans,” the GOP strategist said. “I think there’s a lot of room for Republicans to screw this up.”
The key battles, of course, will focus on the independent vote, which swung decidedly in the GOP’s favor in 2010 after fueling Democratic victories the two previous cycles. Democrats insist that the 60-seat swing does not represent an irreversible realignment of the political landscape.
“Fundamental shifts don’t take four years to happen and two years to come back. The voters are not in the mood to stay in one place right now. Maybe that’s the shift,” said Democratic strategist Jef Pollock, president of Global Strategies Group. “This is about folks in the middle evaluating what they want to see in the future. I think a lot of them haven’t decided.”
But it’s no secret where the Democratic establishment will focus in 2012. They’ll start, Pollack noted, with Republicans in Democratic-friendly districts.
In the new Congress there will be at least 63 GOP Members representing districts Obama won in 2008, including more than a dozen that also supported Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004. Further, there are 60 Republican Members who won with less than 55 percent of the vote.
“I would submit that it’s almost impossible to win some 60 House seats and add to it two years later,” said Philadelphia-based Democratic consultant Mark Nevins. “Chances are that Democrats will pick up seats in 2012. The question is how many.”
Democrats see opportunities in suburban areas ceded to Republicans this year ­— places such as the Philadelphia suburbs, where the GOP picked up two seats and held another. Democrats will also target newly elected Republicans with perceived liabilities, according to Nevins, who cited Pennsylvania 10th district winner Tom Marino’s (R) controversial resignation from the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“If 2010 had not been a wave election, I’m not sure he would have won,” Nevins said.
Illinois offers another Democratic opportunity, as one of the few states where Democrats will control redistricting.
While Republicans assumed control of 19 state legislative chambers — including both chambers in five states — Democrats maintained control of the Illinois governor’s office and the entire Legislature. They are also in strong positions in California, Nevada, New Mexico and New York, but few states offer more pickup opportunities than Illinois.
There will be nine Illinois Republicans serving in the next Congress from districts carried by Obama. That’s more than any other state, and it’s hard to imagine that an Obama-led ticket wouldn’t have a downballot benefit for Members.
Still, it’s worth noting that three Illinois Democratic incumbents lost on Nov. 2, and a fourth trails in a race that has not yet been called.
Obama voters “either stayed home or changed their mind in 2010,” Nevins said. “The question is whether they’ll come back. A lot of that has to do with the economy.”
And in the South and Southwest, Democrats could benefit from demographic shifts in 2010, which should improve voter turnout among minorities, according to GOP pollster Gene Ulm, a partner at Public Opinion Strategies. A younger electorate could help Democrats across the country as well.
CNN exit polling found that Republicans benefited from an electorate that was older and less ethnically diverse than voters were in 2008. Black voters, for example, represented just 10 percent of the vote in the 2010 midterms, compared with 13 percent in 2008. And just 11 percent of the midterm electorate was between the ages of 18 and 29, compared with 18 percent in 2008, according to the exit polling.
That could make a difference in Southern states such as Florida, where Republicans knocked off four Democratic incumbents. And an expected increase in Latino turnout would likely benefit Democrats in places such as Nevada, where Rep.-elect Joe Heck (R) knocked off Rep. Dina Titus (D).
The same could be said of eight districts in California that Obama carried in 2008 but will be occupied by Republicans in the next Congress.
Despite the Election Day drubbing, Democrats should be optimistic about 2012, according to Nevins.
“With any sort of wave elections like this, it opens up numerous opportunities for Democrats to take back seats that shouldn’t have been won by Republicans,” he said. “But so much can happen in two years. And redistricting is such a wild card that it’s impossible to predict what will happen.”