After three consecutive partisan “wave” elections, the congressional elections next year may be more like “exposure” elections than partisan ones. In 2006 and 2008, many Capitol Hill Republicans got swept out to sea, while most nonincumbent candidates, even if they ever had a chance, were pulled under by the fierce undertow. In 2010, the same dynamic was in force, except it washed out Democratic incumbents and sucked the party’s challengers under.
The recent Gallup Poll put Congress’s job-approval rating at 13 percent, tied (with August and October) for its worst ever, with 82 percent disapproving of the legislative branch’s performance. The approval rating ranged from 11 percent among independents to 15 percent among Democrats, with Republicans in between.
At this juncture at least, 2012 doesn’t have the look of a heavily partisan election. Voters hardly seem inclined to reward either party. Instead, we may well see many incumbents—those wearing blue Democratic jerseys as well as those wearing red Republican ones—thrown out the window, not so much because of the color of their uniforms but because of their proximity to windows. The combination of angry base voters in both parties and new congressional maps could mean that several House incumbents will lose their primaries. Voters in redrawn or competitive districts could toss out others who don’t have strong bonds with their districts even while members in more solid seats nearby win reelection without too much difficulty.
The key to the outcomes is exposure. In the House, Republicans picked up 63 seats in 2010, the most that either party has gained in a single election since 1948. As a result, they simply have greater exposure than Democrats. Redistricting seems to be a wash. If anything, Democrats could pick up a handful of seats after the dust settles, especially if courts rule their way in Florida and Texas. With Republican state legislatures playing keep-away, though, many other GOP-held seats will move further out of Democrats’ reach.
Even if exposure and redistricting help them at the margins, House Democrats would still need a significant partisan wave to score the 25-seat net gain they need to capture a majority. Keep in mind that the only time the party holding the White House has netted even 15 House seats in a presidential year was when President Johnson was stomping Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964. Of all of the many scenarios for next year, President Obama winning a landslide of LBJ proportions may be the unlikeliest.
In a bell curve of House probabilities, the best-case scenario for Republicans would be no net change. The best case for Democrats would be a gain of about 15 seats. Near the top of the bell curve, the most likely outcome today appears to be a Democratic gain of five to 10 seats.
The same exposure dynamic that benefits Democrats in the House works against them in the Senate. In the House, the table is set by the 2010 elections; in the Senate, given the six-year terms, 2006 is the relevant election for the class up for reelection in 2012. That year, Democrats scored a net gain of six seats, which brings them into this election cycle with 23 seats up for grabs—or at risk—compared with only 10 for the GOP. More important, the Democrats won these seats with the political equivalent of 70 mph tailwinds that gave their candidates every advantage in the world. The nine Republican senators elected in 2006 won despite the headwinds, which means that they’re a pretty resilient bunch.
Senate Democrats have 10 seats in varying degrees of danger: the five open seats in Hawaii, New Mexico, North Dakota, Virginia, and Wisconsin; and the five seats held by Sens. Sherrod Brown in Ohio, Claire McCaskill in Missouri, Ben Nelson in Nebraska, Bill Nelson in Florida, and Jon Tester in Montana. Four other Democrats are worth watching: Sens. Maria Cantwell in Washington, Robert Casey in Pennsylvania, Joe Manchin in West Virginia, and Debbie Stabenow in Michigan. The open seat in Connecticut of retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman might also be in play.
Republicans have just two incumbents at risk: Sens. Scott Brown in Massachusetts and Dean Heller in Nevada. In addition, Sens. Richard Lugar in Indiana and Olympia Snowe in Maine are worth watching, as are the races for the open seats of retiring Sens. Jon Kyl of Arizona and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas.
With eight Democratic seats currently in the danger zone—meaning that The Cook Political Report rates them as Toss-Ups or leaning in the GOP’s favor—compared with just two for Republicans, the best-case scenario for Democrats would seem to be a net loss of three seats. This would take the Senate makeup from 53 Democrats and 47 Republicans to a 50-50 tie. The best-case outlook for Republicans seems to be a net gain of six seats, which would give the GOP 53 seats in the next Senate. At this admittedly early stage, the most likely outcome is a net Republican gain of four or five Senate seats, yielding them a 51-49 or 52-48 majority. Of course, in the world of the Senate, having the majority and having control are two very different things.
This article appears in the November 19, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.