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Why Republicans Will Keep the House Why Republicans Will Keep the House

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Politics / ON THE TRAIL

Why Republicans Will Keep the House

Redistricting, early advertising, ethics problems and other factors will keep GOP in control.

House Democrats are unlikely to wrest the Speaker's gavel from John Boehner in January 2013.(Richard A. Bloom)

photo of Reid Wilson
October 29, 2012

In August 2010, I wrote a column arguing that the fate of the House Democratic majority hadn't been sealed yet, and that Republicans weren't guaranteed to win the majority.

I was slightly off. Though I still think the bottom fell out of Democratic polls after Labor Day, and even though I layered the column with enough caveats to cover my rear end, Republicans had plenty of justified fun at my expense. The lead consultant for the National Republican Congressional Committee's independent expenditure wing took me out to a lunch that amounted to an hour of good-natured and well-deserved ribbing.

Two years later, I will use far fewer caveats: Republicans will keep their House majority, though plenty of incumbents from both parties won't be coming back next year.


Here's why:

Redistricting: After taking back the majority in a wave election, a party must protect incumbents who wouldn't have won in an ordinary election. And 2010 produced a bevy of those oddball winners, Republicans swept into office simply by virtue of the party label after their names.

Republicans began defending those incumbents even before they were sworn into office. Republican gains in state legislative elections in 2010 gave the party control of the redistricting process in a number of key states. The party had learned from a mid-decade redistricting in Texas in which strategists overextended their reach by carving districts that only slightly favored GOP candidates; this time, they practiced much more cautious cartography. Top party officials plotted strategy with every state's congressional delegation and worked closely with state legislatures to craft new maps that refashioned dozens of existing districts into safer Republican seats in states like Pennsylvania, Texas, Colorado, Ohio and Florida.

There was some good old fashioned gerrymandering thrown in for good measure. In Georgia and North Carolina, Republican legislatures drew maps that put incumbent Democrats into much more conservative territory, weakening their holds on more seats. Democrats were able to put Republican incumbents in difficulty in Illinois and Maryland with their own heavy edits of congressional district lines, but those gains make up just a fraction of the Republican redistricting advantage.

The combination of smart defense and (mostly) restrained offense has given Republicans an edge, simply because there are fewer seats for Democrats to contest.

Democratic retirements: A new, much more conservative district helped convince North Carolina Reps. Heath Shuler and Brad Miller to abandon plans to run for another term this year. Rep. Joe Donnelly opted for a Senate bid instead of a re-election race in a more Republican seat in Indiana. Disgust with the political system led Rep. Dan Boren, the Oklahoma Democrat, to hang up his spikes. And Arkansas Rep. Mike Ross decided to call his career quits too.

All five seats are in deeply conservative territory. In North Carolina, Arkansas and Oklahoma, traditionally Democratic but culturally conservative voters have over the last decade begun voting more regularly for Republicans. Rep. Jerry Costello's Illinois district remains competitive after the 12-term Democrat decided to retire.

By contrast, Democrats are only seriously contesting seats being abandoned by Republicans Rick Berg in North Dakota, Elton Gallegly in California and Tim Johnson in Illinois. Democrats will be lucky to pick up two of those three seats on November 6.

Ethics problems: When Nancy Pelosi took over the Speaker's gavel in the 110th Congress, she promised to drain the swamp. But in a body of 435 representatives, bad apples will always float to the surface.

This year, Massachusetts Rep. John Tierney is beset by connections to his brothers-in-law, who have both been convicted of illegal gambling and racketeering charges. The constant attention to the story in district papers has given Republicans an opening, and former state Sen. Richard Tisei presents his party with a strong opportunity to make inroads into an otherwise very Democratic state.

Rhode Island Democrat David Cicilline faces scrutiny of his own over his performance as mayor of Providence. Democrats believe Cicilline's poll numbers have largely stabilized after an early-summer crash, but both the NRCC and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee are spending money in the district, which indicates it's still competitive.

Staying on offense: That Democrats would have to spend money in Cicilline's district, which gave President Obama 65 percent of the vote in 2008, speaks to a deeper success Republicans have had. While a new majority's instinct after a wave election is to defend their incumbents, Republicans this year have continued to pursue Democratic-held seats.

And to judge by the way Democrats are spending their campaign cash, it's working. The DCCC had spent money in 43 districts through the end of last week, according to data culled from Federal Election Commission records. Of those districts, 16 are currently held by Democrats. (That doesn't include the two races in which an incumbent Democrat is running against an incumbent Republican after redistricting combined their districts.)

The $315,000 the DCCC is spending to defend Cicilline, or the $1 million Democrats have spent defending Rep. Mike McIntyre and open seats in Connecticut and Illinois, is money that isn't being spent to prosecute a case against a Republican incumbent. All told, Democrats have spent $8.5 million on races they currently hold.

Advertising early: The Obama campaign spent big bucks on early advertisements defining Mitt Romney as a heartless corporate raider who loves to fire people and open offshore bank accounts. The money they spent in July and August is part of what accounts for Romney's unprecedented unfavorable rating. "October TV matters less," Obama campaign manager Jim Messina told The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza.

Republicans tasked with keeping the House seem to agree. Through the end of last week, the NRCC had spent far more on advertising than the DCCC, which had scheduled its advertising for the stretch run. So far, the NRCC has spent more than $55 million on television advertisements in 49 races, while the DCCC spent about $34 million in 43 races.

Such a bet carries certain risks. Republicans are banking on well-financed candidates being able to sustain themselves over the final weeks of a campaign, and on other Republican super PACs and outside groups filling in the gaps. But at a moment when money is flooding into the political system, Democrats have been outspent in key races so far.

The math: Republicans hold 240 seats in Congress, 22 more than the 218 required for a majority. Democrats hold another 190 seats, meaning they need to net 28 to wrest control of the Speaker's gavel. A state-by-state look at the truly competitive races suggests Democrats simply don't have the number of targets required to win back the majority.

The conservative seats Democratic incumbents are abandoning, coupled with the GOP's long-look redistricting strategy and their efforts to keep some Democratic incumbents on defense even after the 2010 wave paints a clear picture: Republicans are all but certain to retain their grasp on the House, even if an unlikely wave breaks late for Obama at the national level.

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