Fight for the House: A Note on Ratings and the Elections
As almost everyone knows, Charlie Cook is a longtime friend and the publisher of the highly regarded Cook Political Report. I think its fair to say that I pay close attention to Charlies House and Senate ratings and he does the same with mine.
[IMGCAP(1)]This column was prompted by a short piece in the Washington Post about recent ratings changes by Charlies newsletter, but my comments are less about the Cook Political Report and more about how the Post played those new ratings.
The Post suggested that the recent shift in the ratings of 27 House races toward Democrats by the Cook Political Report is evidence that a Democratic wave may be building. I dont agree. Though, like Charlie, I expect significant Democratic House gains.
Its important to note that 21 of the 28 races Cook moved recently went from Solid Republican to Likely Republican. From a handicapping point of view, there is relatively little difference between those two categories.
My own newsletter lists only districts where I believe a change of party is possible. My Republican Favored and Democrat Favored categories are roughly similar (though not identical) to Charlies Likely categories, and I never expect races in those categories to change party. Any race in those categories that switches is a significant upset in my view, as Iowas 2nd district and New Hampshires 1st district were in the previous cycle.
Suggesting that moving a race from Safe to Likely, in Charlies terminology, or adding it to my ratings as Favored is a dramatic development is simply a misunderstanding of the categories and an over-reaction to the change.
But you dont have to take my word for it. In releasing its list of ratings changes, the Cook Report noted that while its not likely a majority of the races moved from Solid to Likely Republican will become competitive by November, because of the environment even very difficult districts for Democrats [are] worth keeping tabs on. So even the Cook Political Report doesnt believe that the races it moved are currently competitive.
Why move a race into the Favored or Likely column if the meaning of the change is small? Speaking only for myself and not Charlie, I am trying to give readers a sense of the different tiers of races. Even though races that I classify as Favored are not likely to change party control, they seem to me to be of a different quality than certain more competitive contests (Lean races in my terminology) or races where the incumbent party is at such limited risk that it doesnt make my list.
Now, back to Charlies recent changes. Some of the races that he has moved are also on my list, as well, including West Virginias 2nd district, Kentuckys 2nd district and Floridas 8th district. Others could well be added soon, including Floridas 21st district, and I may move some contests as soon as he does.
But some of the races that the Cook Report moved currently appear to me to be such long shots that I cant imagine adding them in the near future. Fundamentally and without overwhelming evidence to the contrary (which Charlie may have but I do not), I view them as just too tough for Democrats. This isnt meant to be a criticism of the Cook Political Report. It just means that we approach ratings in a slightly different way.
Yes, Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) isnt everyones cup of tea, but his district gave President Bush 67 percent in 2004 and is a reliable Republican bastion. His Democratic opponent, Daniel Johnson, may have a good story to tell, but thats rarely enough in a very partisan district, especially in a presidential year.
GOP Rep. Dana Rohrabachers 46th district in California? Debbie Cook, the Democratic mayor of Huntington Beach, may well do better than Rohrabachers previous challengers, but can she win?
The district gave Bush 57 percent in 2004 and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) 69 percent of the vote in 2006. In other words, there are a lot of Republican voters there. Debbie Cook might be able to get to 45 percent or even 47 percent, but if I doubt that she can win under any circumstances, she doesnt get on my list.
Id put Pennsylvanias 5th district, the open seat held by retiring Rep. John Peterson (R), into the same category. GOP nominee Glenn Thompson is a good fit for the district, which gave President Bush 61 percent of the vote in 2004. Yes, State College (home to Penn State) is in the district, but that alone doesnt make the district likely to flip.
Naturally, if I were to become convinced that the Democratic nominee in any of these districts could win, I would add them to my list.
More than four years ago in this space, I explained why I continued to rate South Carolina Democratic Senate candidate Inez Tenenbaum as a slight underdog even though many saw the race as at least a tossup. I noted the importance of fundamentals and ideology in races in explaining my reasoning. She lost by just over 9 points.
There is plenty of credible evidence that many voters have soured on the GOP, and that development is likely to allow Democratic Congressional candidates to improve their showings in many districts.
That is not, however, the same thing as saying that Democratic challengers will now win many districts that have been reliably Republican in the past. They wont. Getting close may be a moral victory for some Democratic candidates, but Im trying to measure a candidates likelihood of winning.
Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.