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Hotline's Latest Edition / Against the Grain

Democrats' Losses Could Grow in 2012

It doesn't take a crystal ball to understand that the short-term trends look dismal for Dems.

West Virginia's Joe Manchin won the Senate seat by distancing himself from Democrats.(Alex Wong/Getty Images)

photo of Josh Kraushaar
November 10, 2010

Updated at 8:30 a.m. on November 10.

It’s something of a professional hazard to make predictions this far out before the next election. Witness Karl Rove’s anticipation early in the Bush years of a permanent Republican majority, or James Carville’s boast in early 2009 that Democrats would dominate the political landscape for the next 40 years – a prediction off by 38 years.

But there are some telltale signs of what 2012 is going to look like, and it doesn’t take a crystal ball to understand that the short-term trends look dismal for congressional Democrats. Even if Democrats turn their political fortunes around, they’re still likely to lose seats in the Senate and will be hard-pressed to make inroads in the House, thanks to factors entirely out of their control.


The numbers tell the story in the Senate: The president’s party will be playing defense, with 23 Democratic-held seats up for grabs. By comparison, only 10 Republican Senate seats will be in play, most in solidly Republican states. It’s the most lopsided disparity for any party since 1980, when Democrats lost 12 Senate seats.

And the map where all the top races are being contested is awfully daunting for Democrats. Of the 23 seats Democrats will be defending, eight are in Republican-friendly or battleground states: Nebraska, Virginia, Missouri, Montana, West Virginia, North Dakota, Ohio, and Florida.

Other Democratic senators, like Bob Casey (Pa.), Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), and Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) also could face competitive races if the environment doesn’t improve significantly for their party.

The only two states where Democrats look to have a fighting chance of picking up Republican Senate seats are Massachusetts (Scott Brown) and Nevada (scandal-plagued John Ensign). Even a Democratic landslide in 2012 would be unlikely to yield gains, given that most GOP senators up for reelection represent safely Republican states like Utah, Mississippi, and Texas.

There are already signs of strain among Democrats up for reelection in 2012. Sen.-elect Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., won his seat by trumpeting his differences with President Obama on such key issues as health care and cap-and-trade, and with a race for a full term just two years away, there’s no reason to believe Manchin is going to change his maverick tune any time soon. Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) hasn’t committed to running for a second term; if he retires, there isn’t much of a Democratic bench left in the Old Dominion, while former Sen. George Allen looks poised to run again for his old seat. (Paging Tim Kaine!)

Put simply, holding a Democratic majority at 53 seats would take a herculean effort, and even holding a bare majority would be an accomplishment. There’s a good reason why Majority Leader Harry Reid has been hard-pressed to find any one of his colleagues willing to chair the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2012.

In the House, the Republican wave couldn’t have come at a better time for the ascendant party. The GOP now has unilateral control of redistricting in key battleground states for the upcoming election cycle. That will allow the GOP to protect many of their newfound majority-makers and redistrict other Democrats out of existence. And that’s on top of reapportionment. The states slated to gain House seats – Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, and Washington -- as a whole tilt in favor of Republicans. The ones projected to lose representation are predominantly Democratic: Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.

The GOP’s massive gains in state legislatures mean they enter 2012 with as big an advantage in drawing districts as they’ve ever had. Many vulnerable Republicans will find themselves running in more favorable districts, while the party can expect to benefit from newly-created districts designed to their advantage.

Republicans fully control redistricting in 15 states, including the battlegrounds of Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. They control the mapmaking for 193 House districts, compared to 44 for the Democrats.

The implications are significant for 2012. Take North Carolina, for example. It was a rare bright spot for House Democrats, who hung on to three of four contested seats despite the wipeout against the party in the South. Democrats still hold a 7-6 majority in the congressional delegation, thanks to a gerrymandered map drawn by state Democrats for generations.

That’s likely to change with Republicans winning control of the legislature for the first time in history. Reps. Mike McIntyre and Larry Kissell could easily find their careers in peril, if the new lines exclude African-American constituencies from their districts that have been crucial to their political successes.

Republicans have the ability to expand their congressional majorities in other battleground states. In Pennsylvania, unfettered control of redistricting will allow the GOP to draw a Democrat out of office. In Ohio, which will likely lose two House seats, Republicans will be able to better protect its five incoming freshmen, and probably will be able to force two Democrats (from the Cleveland area) to square off against each other.

Republican State Legislative Committee Executive Director Chris Jankowski estimated the GOP will gain between 25 and 30 additional House seats from the reapportionment and redistricting process alone, a number that makes it all the more difficult for Democrats to win back the seats necessary to retake the majority. Republicans already are slated to hold between 241 and 244 seats in the new Congress, their largest majority since 1946.

Adding insult to injury, Republicans effectively picked off nearly two dozen Blue Dog Democrats, many of whom had been entrenched in their seats. Of the 48 Democratic-held districts won by John McCain in the 2008 election, Republicans picked off 36 of them. In the past, Democrats' ability to consistently hold deeply conservative districts provided a crucial bulwark for the party's majorities.

Democrats aren’t likely to contest many of those seats again. Good luck electing a Democrat in the seats that Reps. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), or John Spratt (D-S.C.) currently hold, to name a few, especially if Nancy Pelosi remains the face of the House Democrats.

Pelosi’s decision to stick around as minority leader is another factor that bodes well for House Republicans protecting their majorities in 2012. Moderate Democrats, the kind necessary to take back a majority, are already fretting that her continued presence for the next two years will depress Democratic recruiting in swing districts, prevent Democrats from turning the page on a disastrous year, and fuel Republican fundraising (even as she’s a very effective fundraiser herself).

The Democrats empowering her return to leadership are the ones who hail from safe districts and don’t have to worry about getting reelected. Many defeated Democrats would like to make a comeback, but their paths will be tougher with Pelosi in charge. One Democratic campaign manager whose boss lost in a northeastern swing district says her disapproval rating was near 60 percent in the district, with her approval rating in the teens.

“Obama wasn’t the reason we lost. It was because of Pelosi,” the strategist said. “She was a turnout machine – for the other side.”

Two years is an eternity in politics. President Obama’s popularity is poised to rebound, and Republicans could certainly overreach now that they’re in charge of the House. But fundamentals also matter. And the structural changes to the House race map and the defensive posture of Senate Democrats portend a very difficult cycle for Democrats.

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