House Republicans and Democrats both found reasons to celebrate Tuesday night, knowing this much about the 2012 elections: It could have been worse.
House Republicans, who executed a smart and carefully crafted strategy to hold the chamber by shoring up incumbents in redistricting and making strong plays against Democratic Members, kept control of the House by a wide margin. They looked poised to lose about seven seats in net by the end of Wednesday. But given President Barack Obama’s re-election, the comfortable Democratic victories in the Senate and Republican losses, House Republicans were victorious in avoiding what could have been a much more painful fate.
And although Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) often said during the cycle that the race for chamber control was “razor close,” House Democrats can revel in the fact that their overall ranks weren’t cut. Despite Israel’s bullish rhetoric, the road to the majority was always a steep climb.
“The reality is: getting to a majority was always a stretch,” said influential Democratic pollster Jef Pollock, noting that there had been a path, but it was a narrow one. And, he said, one of the big takeaways from Tuesday was intuitive: the decennial redraw of lines played a big role.
“We benefited from places where redistricting benefited us and we got hurt by places where redistricting hurt us,” he said. “In many ways, it was that simple.”
For example, Democrats picked up four seats in Illinois, a state where there was a partisan gerrymander in their favor. Republicans picked up at least three seats in North Carolina, a state where the GOP had the power of the pen.
But because Republicans controlled more levers of power in more states and, thus, the redraw of more districts, they had a considerable edge going into 2012 — and will have an edge in future cycles.
The National Republican Congressional Committee said in a memo that GOP strength in redistricting had made 17 “endangered” Republican-held seats safer. Democrats dispute that, and the long-term number is probably less, but state redraws were undoubtably a boon to the GOP this cycle.
Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (Ga.), the NRCC’s vice chairman for redistricting, surveyed the landscape in a short interview with Roll Call.
He noted that almost all of the Republican Members helped by redistricting survived. And Westmoreland, known as crafty strategist, said he liked what he saw for Republicans over the next four cycles, having counseled state legislators to draw maps with an eye toward changing demographics over the decade.
“I say we have a bright future for the House,” he said.
With redistricting baked in and no partisan wave, it made sense that Tuesday’s House results skewed toward the natural partisan lean of many districts.
Incumbents such as Reps. Larry Kissell (D-N.C.) and Ann Marie Buerkle (R-N.Y.) were voted out of seats where the Member’s party didn’t match the majority of their constituents. That’s part of the reason New England won’t have a single Republican House Member in the 113th Congress.
Regional routs like that would have given Republicans a real scare, had the party not been on offense.
The Democratic Members whom GOP challengers unseated gave Republicans a firewall of sorts.
The NRCC also had genuine success in inoculating its candidates against the DCCC’s standard Medicare attacks, which tied Republican candidates to Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan’s controversial budget blueprint.
Noteworthy: Two special election victors, who were substantially boosted by that Medicare messaging in those mid-cycle contests, appeared headed for defeat. Democratic Rep. Kathy Hochul (N.Y.) lost on Tuesday and Rep. Ron Barber (D-Ariz.) trailed his challenger, though the race wasn’t called by press time Wednesday.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, meanwhile, trumpeted in a memo that it rolled “back the Tea Party wave of 2010, winning at least 25 Republican held or newly created seats.”
That’s one way of looking at the results. Another is that Democrats are still a long way from retaking the House.
Still, some Democratic insiders were genuinely pleased with the results.
Pollock remembered how bad things looked for House Democrats after Obama’s dismal first debate — with the looming specter of a net loss of seats — and said, “I feel pretty good for our guys.”
But top Republicans insisted that despite the small Democratic gains, the road back to the Speaker’s gavel remains limited for them.
GOP pollster Glen Bolger said that the NRCC would have a strong pitch to make when recruiting candidates, given that 2014 would be the president’s second midterm — the year of the “six-year itch,” traditionally a strong election cycle for the party not in the White House.
And, Republicans said, if Democrats couldn’t do better than netting a single-digit number of seats in a favorable presidential year, it might be some time before they win the chamber.
“If Democrats had a real desire to take control of the House majority, they would have had to row the boat a lot farther with that kind of wind at their back,” said top Republican strategist Brad Todd.
Democrats will need to expand their map further into the South and further into seats in the Philadelphia media market, among other areas, in future cycles. With redistricting behind both committees, the time devoted to recruiting will increase.
Indeed, it’s starting even now, a sign that the 2014 House cycle has already begun.