The Oxford English Dictionary defines “whirlpool” as “a quickly rotating mass of water in a river or sea into which objects may be drawn, typically caused by the meeting of conflicting currents.” It is also “a turbulent situation from which it is hard to escape.” After three straight wave elections in 2006, 2008, and 2010, strong crosscurrents might be an appropriate way to think about this year’s House races. It’s not necessarily that voter antipathy toward all things Washington is sucking every incumbent into a vortex; it’s more that this mood is concurrent with a redistricting year. Together, they could threaten a sea change that could be more generational than partisan.
The Democratic Party and congressional Democrats are suffering from terrible national favorability numbers. The Republican Party and congressional Republicans are seeing even worse numbers. At the outset, the environment looks to be decidedly more neutral than in the past three wave cycles. The states have completed approximately two-thirds of their decennial redistricting. The remap itself looks like a partisan wash. But neutral doesn’t mean calm. Consider the following five developments—as a certain cast member of the Jersey Shore might say, “We have a situation.”
First, 31 members of the House (18 Democrats and 13 Republicans) have announced that they are not running for reelection (not counting the new vacancy in Gabrielle Giffords’s Arizona district). It’s not quite a mass exodus, but, in checking our Cook Political Report archives, we find that those are the most departures at this point in the cycle since 1996. For some incumbents, new district lines present a convenient time to call it quits; for others, Congress’s dysfunction is the motivator. As retiring Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Ill., recently told The New York Times, “The fact is, I could stay and collect a paycheck. But … in Congress, very little is getting done these days, and I don’t see that changing in the near future.” As more filing deadlines approach, could another 10 or 15 members join their ranks? Sure.
Second, at least a dozen members seeking reelection won’t be returning. That’s because 24 members are running against each other, thanks to the consolidation of seats from redistricting. Seven of these races feature two Democrats; three feature two Republicans; and two feature a member from each party.
Third, the byproducts of all these retirements and “double-bunked” incumbents are 47 districts with no incumbent at all. Of these, 19 can best be classified as newly created seats, including four in California, two in Arizona, and six yet-to-be-drawn districts in Texas and Florida. It’s likely that about a third of the “new” seats will be solidly Democratic; a third solidly Republican; and the remainder very competitive. However, retiring Democrats are leaving behind approximately six vulnerable seats, compared with just one for the Republicans. This means that the real number of incumbent seats that Democrats need to net to regain the House is closer to 30 than to 25.
Fourth, nearly 40 members face serious electoral problems. For some, like Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., it’s largely ideological. For others, like Reps. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., and Tim Holden, D-Pa., it’s mainly geographical or redistricting-related. Other challenges are generational or the result of self-created problems (see the problems facing Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind.). In 1992, another turbulent redistricting cycle, 19 members lost primaries, a result of both redistricting and the House bank scandal. Although this year’s number is unlikely to be that high, incumbents would be well-advised to heed caution.
Fifth, and most critical to Democrats’ chances of bouncing back in the House, The Cook Political Report currently rates 36 incumbents (25 Republicans and 11 Democrats) as vulnerable in their general elections. If you’re a Democrat on this list who survived the 2010 GOP wave, your problems are more likely redistricting-related than anything else. This category applies to three incumbents from North Carolina—Mike McIntyre, Larry Kissell, and Heath Shuler—and one from Georgia, John Barrow. But Republicans on this list can’t count on the 2010 wave to win reelection. Among independent voters, the wave has receded. Vulnerable Republicans include Reps. Dan Lungren of California, Joe Heck of Nevada, and Charlie Bass of New Hampshire—and this list could grow as more intriguing recruits on the Democratic side hit the trail.
What does it all add up to?
Historically, it may be instructive to look at the last two times a president ran for reelection while his party was in the House minority. In 1992, George H.W. Bush lost reelection. Nonetheless, his party picked up nine seats but not enough to win a majority. In 1996, President Clinton won reelection. House Democrats also gained nine seats. This was about half of what they needed for a majority. Different White House results, but the same House outcome.
Another way of sizing up this race is to think about the 2000 and 2004 elections when, in terms of presidential voting, independent voters pretty much split down the middle and little happened to alter the House lineup. In 2000, George W. Bush edged Al Gore by 2 points among independents, 47 percent to 45 percent. On the same day, practically nothing happened in the House, with Democrats picking up two seats. In 2004, John Kerry defeated George W. Bush by a single point among independents, 49 to 48 percent, with little House turnover: Republicans picked up three seats. Contrast that with 2008, when Obama beat John McCain by 8 points among independents, 52 percent to 44 percent, with Democrats gaining 21 House seats in that election. That was on top of the 31 seats that Democrats had gained two years earlier.
This history suggests that independents can serve as a tipping point when they start moving decisively in one direction in the presidential race. Although we don’t yet know whether Obama will win reelection, the House looks headed for a makeover. At the moment, Democrats also look headed for either the 1992 or the 1996 scenario: a small “bounce back.”
David Wasserman contributed contributed to this article.
This article appears in the January 28, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.