by Charlie Cook and David Wasserman
In the final stretch going into President Bill Clinton's first midterm election in 1994, Republicans needed a 40-seat gain to capture control of the House. As of now, once the new 111th Congress is sworn in (the count looks likely to be 257 Democrats to 178 Republicans), the GOP will again need a 40-seat net gain to win a majority. In November 1994, Republicans ended up with a net gain of 52 seats, something that had seemed pretty implausible in December 1992 considering President George H.W. Bush had just lost his re-election campaign to the Arkansas governor. That monumental gain should offer some hope to present-day Republicans.
The question is: Could it happen again? Sure it could, but it would require an enormous shift in the political climate and retooling of the Republican brand. Republicans would have to overcome the 8-point deficit they currently have in party identification and project a very different image than they do today. A new Gallup Organization national survey of 1,008 adults (margin of error +/-3 percent) conducted Dec. 12-14 shows that while just 37 percent of Americans approve of the job Democrats in Congress are doing (55 percent disapprove), only 25 percent approve of the job of Republicans in Congress, while a whopping 69 percent disapprove. In the same survey, Republicans in Congress had a job approval rating 4 points lower than President Bush's 29 percent, with 2 points more disapproving than Bush's 67 percent. That's low.
It's entirely possible that an atrophied Republican Conference will once again be defending a higher number of vulnerable open seats than emboldened Democrats.
To a certain extent, partisan politics in this country is binary. If one party is a 1, the other is a zero. When the former party squanders its political capital, it becomes a zero and the latter party becomes a 1. Like a children's see-saw, if one party moves up, the other party goes down.
Given that the relatively recent history lesson of 1994 provides Democrats with a thick guidebook of how not to act in power, Democrats in the House would need to be complicit in something colossally careless or unwise to suffer losses of a similar magnitude. At this point, the Republicans' journey back in the House looks more like a long march than a short sprint.
In fact, the Democrats' hold on the 257 seats they will occupy in January looks significantly more secure than their tenuous grip on the 258 seats Democrats occupied at the outset of 1993. This time, Democrats have assembled a regionally consolidated majority, making it harder for Republicans to poach a few dozen conservative-leaning seats in the South to win big. Republicans enjoy an 80 to 62 lead in southern districts, while Democrats have run up the score elsewhere, including an eye-popping 77 to 18 lead in the northeast. To claw their way back, the GOP would have to make inroads in places it is still on the backslide.
House Democrats would be rash to presume that they will enjoy a political environment as slanted in their favor in 2010 as they enjoyed in 2006 and 2008. But House Republicans would be naive to suggest that Democrats' structural advantages have vanished now that they have accomplished their most pressing electoral missions. Indeed, Democrats' financial dominance, enhanced by K Street's continued embrace, shows no signs of slipping. And it's entirely possible that an atrophied Republican Conference will once again be defending a higher number of vulnerable open seats than emboldened Democrats for another cycle, although it's almost impossible for that count to be as lopsided as it was this year.
Even against the backdrop of Barack Obama's big win, there are still more House Democrats sitting in districts that have gone Republican at the presidential level than House Republicans sitting in districts that went Democratic. While we are eagerly awaiting final data from Polidata guru Clark Bensen, our initial estimate is that there will be at least 45 Democrats sitting in districts that voted for John McCain, compared to at least 35 Republicans sitting in districts that voted for Obama. Put in the context of 2004, there will be 83 Democrats representing districts carried by Bush, compared to just six Republicans sitting in districts carried by Kerry.
But a majority of these "split district Democrats" will be freshmen or sophomores in the 111th Congress -- in other words, they will not have been in Washington long enough to assume culpability for most of the problems voters have associated with the last decade. The instinct of plenty of voters in both 1996 and 2006 was to give many new members of the House the benefit of the doubt. And Democrats' amplified majority will allow many of these newer generation House Democrats to take walks on tough votes without much of a consequence for their party's agenda.
At this point there are few obvious Bill Salis or Bill Jeffersons, members whose self-inflicted problems threaten to hemorrhage support from within their own parties. But, look for incoming National Republican Congressional Committee Chair Pete Sessions and Republicans to recruit aggressively in seats so Republican that Democrats had to catch some breaks to win in 2008, such as those held by Bobby Bright (D-Ala.-02) and Walt Minnick (D-Idaho-01). Expect holdover Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Chris Van Hollen and Democrats to beat the bushes for candidates in districts where Republicans posted surprisingly weak numbers in 2008, such as those of Ken Calvert (R-Calif.-44) and Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.-11).
Scandals, political misjudgments and malfeasance, along with candidate recruitment and fundraising, will drive the micro-political dynamics, but President Obama's and the Democratic Congress' performance, approval rates and party affiliation numbers will determine and indicate whether the macro-political playing field will be level, making it a micro year, or tilt the field toward one party or the other, turning it into a macro or nationalized election environment.