After three successive cycles of wipe-out elections in the House, party operatives are attempting to anticipate whether November will bring a tidal wave, a swell or simply a small splash.
Today, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) announced an enormous field of 57 races the party wants to target this year via the Red to Blue program. The long list suggests just how unpredictable House races — and calculating control of the chamber — have become in recent cycles.
Democrats overshot the 25 seats they need to win control of the House with their list, but operatives on both sides believe it’s too early to tell which way the wave will roll or whether it could even crest.
“It’s premature for anybody to say this is or is not going to be a wave election,” said Glen Bolger, a top GOP pollster. “The outlook is cloudy, as the Magic 8 Ball would say.”
“It’s hard to tell how this cycle is going to shape up just yet, but usually you start to get a sense by the summer of where things are going to fall,” added Jon Vogel, the DCCC’s executive director last cycle. “But given the history, there’s no reason to think you couldn’t have another significant swing this cycle.”
Republicans are bullish that they will keep the House, especially given the advantage they had in redistricting this cycle. The GOP controlled the mapmaking in several key states and has effectively used the power of the pen to move formerly competitive seats off the table.
“Democrats will have a hard time hoping for a wave after inflicting massive unemployment in pursuit of a flawed agenda that Americans have already rejected,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Paul Lindsay said.
But Israel boasted that the House is in play, even though some Democrats privately confess they don’t think the Speaker’s gavel is within their party’s reach. Fewer than 24 Republicans represent Democratic-leaning seats — a number that dwindles every time a new GOP-drawn Congressional map is passed.
In the past, parties generally haven’t been aware of their electoral fate one year out from the elections, but there have been signs.
By late 2005, Hurricane Katrina and bad news from the war in Iraq portended trouble for the House GOP in the 2006 midterms. The same went for late 2007, when President George W. Bush’s approval ratings were stuck in the low 30s — a foreboding sign for the GOP’s 2008 races.
But 2010 was different. The messy sausage-making behind passing the president’s health care bill put Democrats on defense. But House Republicans lost a key special election for the late Rep. John Murtha’s (D-Pa.) seat in May that quickly depleted morale.
House Republican campaign aides who witnessed the 2010 wave said they couldn’t see it cresting until after summer.
“We knew the environment had officially trended in our direction, but we didn’t officially know we would win the majority until after Labor Day,” a former NRCC staffer said.
What’s more, the 2012 cycle is different because of redistricting. As a result, national Republican and Democratic strategists said the contours of the 2012 playing field still remain opaque.
“This is a much later developing cycle than the last few have been,” explained Bolger, who believed the fundamentals are strong for Republicans.
Several Democratic and Republican operatives cautioned that court decisions could determine control of several seats.
For example, in Texas, Democrats could pick up three or four seats depending on how the new lines are drawn. Two federal courts will determine the future of the Lone Star State’s maps.
Similarly, in Florida, several House seats could swing either way depending on the judicial bench. GOP lawmakers drew a map friendly to Republicans, but it’s become a foregone conclusion that Democrats will challenge the map in court following its likely passage later this month.
“Whether the House changes hands again very well may be decided by the courts,” Democratic pollster John Anzalone said. “And what I mean by that is how redistricting plays out ... all you need is an extra five or six or seven seats, which you didn’t expect because of redistricting, and it could really make the difference.”
While the final maps make their way through the legal system, House Democrats remain optimistic about their chances. Israel listed 36 races and candidates on the Red to Blue program’s initial slate, plus 18 emerging candidates and races and an additional three “majority makers” running in safe Democratic seats.
Red to Blue serves as the committee’s fundraising and infrastructure program for its best candidates and most promising races for seats typically held by the GOP. But the expansive list indicates Democrats are anticipating a large and fluid playing field.
This cycle, the Red to Blue catalog of candidates and races is more than twice the size of that of previous cycles, according to a Roll Call tally.
In 2010, the DCCC touted only 13 Red to Blue candidates on its first slate. Only one of those candidates, Rep. John Carney (Del.), won his race.
“I think any comparison [of] last cycle to this cycle is a dangerous comparison,” Israel told reporters during today’s pen-and-pad. “Last cycle, it was a perfect storm, where, again, gale force winds [were] against us. This cycle looks like it may be generating a perfect storm against the Republicans.”
The odds were in favor of House Democrats in 2008, when they won seven of their 10 first-round Red to Blue races.
In fact, the DCCC’s Red to Blue program was so successful in 2008 that the NRCC picked up on the idea and started its own benchmark program for candidates last cycle. The tiered Young Guns program highlights House Republican’s strongest candidates.
In 2010, all but one of the NRCC’s first slate of Young Gun candidates won their contests. The single loser, Vaughn Ward in Idaho’s 1st district, lost the primary, but Republicans picked up the seat anyway.
Abby Livingston contributed to this report.