Math Problems Continue to Dog the DCCC

Posted September 1, 2004 at 2:21pm

Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) recently indicated that her party would win a majority in the House of Representatives in November, provoking guffaws from the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Nothing is impossible in politics, but the Democrats’ task remains daunting. [IMGCAP(1)]

After Rep. Rodney Alexander switched from a Democrat to a Republican, Democrats now hold 206 seats in the House, 12 short of a majority. But since the GOP is likely to win at least a couple of Democratic-held seats in November, Democrats likely will need to pick up between 15 and 18 Republican-held seats to get to the 218 seats they would need to organize the House.

Since it is easier to win open seats than knock off incumbents, the first set of Democratic opportunities includes seven GOP open seats: Colorado’s 3rd, Louisiana’s 3rd, Nebraska’s 1st, New York’s 27th, Pennsylvania’s 15th, and Washington’s 5th and 8th districts.

At least a couple of those districts (Nebraska’s 1st and Washington’s 5th) are strongly Republican, and the GOP has unusually strong nominees in two of the Democratic-leaning districts (New York’s 27th and Pennsylvania’s 15th).

Still, the Democrats have credible contenders in all of these open seats, and they almost certainly need to win three to five of them to have a good year.

The Democrats’ next opportunities are in four Democratic-leaning districts with Republican incumbents: Connecticut’s 2nd and 4th, Georgia’s 12th and Kentucky’s 3rd. Each of these districts was carried by Al Gore in 2000, and each is likely to be won by Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) this time.

Pelosi’s party should win the Georgia district, but it probably needs to win one or two of the others. Doing so, however, would require defeating proven GOP incumbents Christopher Shays (Conn.), Rob Simmons (Conn.) and/or Anne Northup (Ky.). And each of those won in 2000, when George W. Bush was losing their districts.

Next come four tossup districts with Republican incumbents. Democrats must win at least two or three of those contests.

One of the incumbents, New Mexico 1st district Rep. Heather Wilson, has proven her mettle against a variety of challengers and in difficult years for Republicans. But the other three Republican incumbents are rookies. Nevada Rep. Jon Porter defeated a fundamentally flawed opponent, while the other two freshmen won squeakers.

That gets the Democrats to a net gain of eight to 13 districts (depending on exactly which seats they win), a considerable gain but still short of the 218 seats they need. And it means that Democrats would need to defeat at least one or two — and possibly as many as 10 — GOP incumbents in Republican districts to win a House majority.

Two Republican incumbents in very Republican districts stand out from the pack: Reps. Phil Crane (Ill.) and Charles Taylor (N.C.).

Crane will turn 74 the day after Election Day, while Taylor, who has had some health problems, is 63. Taylor has won his previous two bids for re-election with 55 percent, while Crane was held under 58 percent last time by Melissa Bean (D), who is running again.

The problem for Democrats is that the president is expected to win both districts by double digits, forcing the Democratic House challengers to run far ahead of Kerry in a polarized political environment.

Democrats once feared a strong Bush re-election bid would overwhelm their House candidates. Later, they figured a politically crippled Bush would give them new opportunities and possibly create a wave that could return them to a House majority. Now, the landscape looks far more neutral, making small Democratic gains quite possible but a huge year unlikely.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.