The ceremonial office from which House Speaker John Boehner addressed the nation Monday night has changed hands twice in just five years, from Dennis Hastert to Nancy Pelosi in 2007 and from Pelosi to Boehner earlier this year. But Boehner may have the chance to settle in, as early indications suggest House Democrats will have a hard time wresting the speaker’s gavel away once again.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be significant turnover next year. What may be different is who suffers; at the moment, voters seem prepared to punish those in both parties.
The pervasive pessimism that defines the electorate hints at another wave election. This time, however, the wave seems unlikely to overwhelmingly sweep out one party. Instead, anyone who finds himself or herself associated with Washington is in danger.
Logic would seem to dictate that, because Republicans hold more seats, they stand to lose more when voters punish incumbents. And Democrats believe Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget proposal has provided a real opening to allow them to draw strong contrast with Republicans, especially among older voters.
But hurdles, both structural and historical, remain that look likely to prevent Democrats from picking up the 24 seats needed to retake the House. For one thing, redistricting has given Republicans an opportunity to shore up endangered members. For another, an early streak of Democrats calling an end to their careers in Washington is a foreboding challenge that will force the party to play defense.
History demonstrates that a new minority can be frustrating to some longtime members.
In the 1996 cycle, just after Democrats lost their four-decade majority, fully 21 members of the Democratic minority opted for retirement rather than seeking reelection from the back benches. Another seven ran for other offices, leaving a total of 28 open seats. In 2008, the cycle after Republicans lost their dozen-year majority, 27 of their members decided to call it quits. (It didn’t help Republicans that 2008 was another wave year benefiting Democrats, who won 11 of those open seats.)
In 2012, it will be critical for Democrats to avoid a rash of retirements in order to concentrate on Republican-held seats, rather than their own open contests. The rush toward the exit typically doesn’t slow until the first few months of the on-year, meaning the party could have months of trickling retirements to come.
Several of the early exits have come from members who hold districts in which Democrats are already struggling. Reps. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., Mike Ross, D-Ark., and Dan Boren, D-Okla., have already said they won’t seek another term. All three, for one of two reasons, are emblematic of Democrats’ problems.
Boren’s and Ross’s districts both voted for John McCain over President Obama in 2008. These are traditionally Southern Democratic seats in districts that vote Republican in presidential elections and Democratic at the local level, but voters are making fewer of those distinctions.
Donnelly’s seat represents the other, perhaps more troubling, barrier to Democratic success. His district, based in South Bend, Ind., has been redrawn in the decennial redistricting process to include many more Republicans than it did in 2008. The eventual Republican nominee—at the moment, the front-runner is former state Rep. Jackie Walorski—has an early advantage next year.
Throughout the nation, Republicans have taken advantage of their historic wins in state legislative races. Because of their 2010 sweep, it will prove difficult for the party to carve out many Democratic districts, as they have with Donnelly. But in some cases, notably in North Carolina and Texas, Democrats are watching Republican legislatures draw their seats out from under them.
Instead of making big gains in redistricting, Republicans are consolidating their past wins. In states like Kansas, Tennessee, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, to name a few, Republican mapmakers are drawing new GOP voters into marginal districts in hopes of keeping their freshmen members in office.
The slow, tedious process of redistricting (only nine states have finalized their maps for the next 10 years) has hindered some Democratic efforts to recruit top-notch candidates. The party has touted about 40 recruits so far, but even Democratic strategists believe their side will have to put 60 to 70 seats in play to win back the House.
Only twice in modern history has the House flipped control as frequently within such a brief period of time, once just after World War II and once during the late 1880s. Boehner and his fellow Republicans may rest assured that the bulwarks they have in place, both of their own doing (redistricting) and of historical consequence (the disappearance of the Southern Democratic voter), will likely be enough to preserve their majority. But with voters still angry at Washington, few can be assured that any one member can escape the electorate’s wrath.
This article appears in the July 28, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.