How Dems Can Win Back the House

Washington Matters

How Dems Can Win Back the House

It's far from impossible, but it will take some luck as well as an Obama recovery and a smarter strategy in 2012.

Republicans are in a good position to take the Senate in two years -- but don't count out Democrats winning back the House at the same time.

In the Senate, the math is once again difficult for Democrats. Thirty-three seats will be up for grabs, and Democrats will have about twice as many to defend as Republicans, including in Pennsylvania, Missouri and Ohio, where Democrats lost races this year, and in Montana and Virginia, where Democrats who narrowly picked off incumbent Republicans in 2006 will be seeking reelection. Most of the GOP seats are in Republican strongholds.

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But Democrats could find themselves back on top in the House, thanks to the volatility of the electorate over the past two cycles, an economy poised to improve over the next two years and the presence of President Obama's name on the ballot.

To be sure, the climb will be steep for Democrats in the House. GOP gains in state legislatures and governors' mansions leave that party poised to draw beneficial boundary lines for a number of districts, both in states that gain seats through reapportionment and in those that have to combine districts to account for lost seats.


But after romping into the majority in the House, Republicans will find themselves in the same position Democrats were in this year -- having to defend a lot more seats, including some in swing districts that will be hard to keep.

Much depends on Obama. In 2008, Democrats won 48 seats in districts where Republican John McCain outpolled him. While Republicans won back three-quarters of those seats this year, Democrats can reclaim some of them if Obama reignites the interest of younger voters, minorities and women, who played big roles in his winning coalition in 2008. Since the president can't win a second term without getting those folks to the polls, it's a safe bet his team will do everything possible to make that happen. If he succeeds in boosting turnout, look for long presidential coattails.

Republicans will also be pushed to defend some seats they won this year in districts that usually tilt to Democrats. This category includes the 8th District in Minnesota, which Democrat James Oberstar represented for 18 terms before losing Nov. 2, and the 11th District in Pennsylvania, where 13-term veteran Paul Kanjorski was ousted by Republican Lou Barletta. Barletta will become just the second Republican to hold the seat since 1955. The other, James Nelligan, was elected in 1981 but lost his bid for a second term.

The key for Democrats is which path Obama follows into 2012. Will he walk in the footsteps of Bill Clinton and win a second term just two years after the GOP thumped his party and took control of the House (and in Clinton's case, the Senate)? Or will he become his party's George Herbert Walker Bush and follow a convincing first term victory with a devastating loss?


Time seems to be on Obama's side. While both he and Bush had to deal with severe economic setbacks, Bush's came later in his term and voters held him accountable, despite high marks for his handling of the first Persian Gulf war. This year, voters held Obama’s party accountable, at least in part, but Obama gets two more years in the White House before voters pass judgment on him. By then, we expect a somewhat improved economy.

This was the second straight election cycle in which voters assigned blame for their economic pain. According to exit polls, 92% of voters said the economy was in bad shape in 2008, and 54% of them voted for Obama. This year, 89% said the economy was bad, and 55% of those who said that voted for Republicans in House races.

The central question for 2012: Who gets the credit -- and the votes -- if the economy rebounds? History suggests credit or blame goes to the president and his party, as it did for the first President Bush in 1988 and for the Democrats this year. That’s good news for Obama and House Democrats.

Neither party is popular right now. In exit polls on Election Day, 42% of voters said they had a favorable view of Republicans in Congress and 43% gave a favorable rating to Democrats. So Republicans will be on a short leash to produce, in a partisan environment where it will be tough to get results, especially if the Tea Party branch of the party digs in against the GOP leadership.