As the 112th Congress gets set to open, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has already begun strategizing for 2012 as it seeks to cut into the new Republican House majority.
Democrats are weeding through November’s election returns to decipher which Members are the most vulnerable Republicans, beginning with those who won marginal districts. Among others, the committee will target Republicans who won districts President Barack Obama carried in 2008 and those who won with 55 percent or less — the mark used as a ceiling for competitive races.
According to a Roll Call count, 32 Republicans fit both criteria. They include incumbents and newly elected Members from all regions of the country, though two-thirds hail from the Northeast and Midwest.
Northeastern targets include New Hampshire Reps.-elect Frank Guinta and Charlie Bass, who is headed back to Congress after losing his seat in 2006, as well as five from New York and New Jersey, and three from Pennsylvania.
The Midwestern targets are centered in Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio, where another former Member, Steve Chabot, is returning to his old seat. Many of the Midwestern GOPers will be freshmen with political targets on their back in the new Congress.
“It’s clearly where they should start,” former DCCC Chairman Martin Frost said. “That is the beginning of the comeback.”
Frost, who led House Democrats out of the deep hole caused by the 1994 elections, said there had been an ongoing dialogue within the party 15 years ago about whether to go after Northeastern Republicans in Democratic districts, many of whom often voted with Democrats in the House. Ultimately he and strategist Mark Gersh decided the Democrats must take charge and not allow those Republicans to “get a pass.”
“Those are Democratic seats, and we should target every one of those,” Frost said. “Now there’s no dispute that we should go after those Republicans.”
DCCC spokesman Jesse Ferguson put it in more partisan terms, saying the Democrats’ “opportunities to compete get better each day as voters learn about the real Republican agenda.” He said the DCCC “will target members who sell out to this agenda and fail to represent their districts.”
A DCCC tally shows the GOP holds 61 seats in districts Obama won. Fourteen of those also voted for Sen. John Kerry for president in 2004, making those Republicans vulnerable in 2012.
Both parties use this strategy. After the 2008 elections, when Democrats increased their House majority, 49 districts that voted for Sen. John McCain for president also elected a Democratic Representative.
The National Republican Congressional Committee immediately targeted those districts and, en route to picking up a net of 63 Democratic seats, won three-fourths of them on Election Day. Republican strategists say there is still room to grow the majority, with a few dozen Democrats winning with less than 55 percent as well.
“As historic as election night was, we still left some opportunities on the field,” NRCC spokesman Paul Lindsay said. “We plan to build on the victories in 2010, and we’ll do so by continuing to hold Democrats accountable for their job-killing agenda.”
Unlike the past few cycles, the formula will change with next year’s redistricting, a process conducted in every state with multiple districts. Many of the districts will change shape, especially in Midwestern and Northeastern states that lost seats and states in the South and West that gained seats through reapportionment.
GOP gains at the state legislative level will allow the party to control the redrawing of more than twice as many Congressional districts as controlled by Democrats. But Gerald Hebert, a lawyer who represents Congressional Democrats, said Republicans’ huge House gains could also serve as a hindrance, as redistricting will move several GOP incumbents into districts more Democratic than the ones that elected them in 2010.
“The fact that Republicans won as many districts as they did makes it harder for them to protect all of those, because in order to do that they have to spread the Republican votes very thin,” Hebert said. “It’s almost as if Democrats are at their lowest point, so things can only get better.”
Hebert mentioned states like Texas and Florida, the only two to gain more than one seat in reapportionment, as examples of areas where Democrats are almost assured of winning back seats.
Along with the fact that the four-seat gain in Texas could be a wash for the GOP with Democrats likely to control two of them, two of the three Democratic seats lost in 2010 are prime targets for the party to win back in two years. Republicans Quico Canseco and Blake Farenthold won the 23rd and 27th districts, both of which are overwhelmingly Latino and voted for Obama in 2008.
After picking up four seats in Florida, Republicans will control 19 of the state’s 25 districts, despite a 600,000-voter Democratic registration advantage and Obama’s 3-point win there in 2008. But new state constitutional amendments passed by voters in November will require state legislators to draw districts as contiguous as possible and without favor toward an incumbent or party. That could help Democrats close the gap within the delegation, which will grow to 27 after 2012.
“Even though Republicans control redistricting” in those and many other states, Hebert said, “they are going to have to balance on a pretty high wire a lot of factors.” But, Hebert added, “I would much rather be in control of redistricting.”