Consider this mind-boggling statistic: assorted non-candidate groups spent a staggering $310.8 million on House races between Labor Day and November, and it’s possible that the House’s partisan makeup won’t move an inch. The Cook Political Report estimates the most likely outcome to be no net change to a Democratic gain of five seats, with anything from a Republican gain of five to a Democratic gain of 10 being possible. The House will remain comfortably Republican.
Superficially, it sounds like a pretty uneventful evening. But it’s hazardous, if tempting, to write off 2012 as a “status quo” congressional election. Below the calm surface are tectonic shifts that promise to alter the nature of House politics, possibly for many years to come. Here are five predictions and reasons why Tuesday night will be a rare watershed election in the House:
1. Don't expect much net partisan change, but brace for an historic level of turnover. There are 62 House seats with no incumbent on the ballot, a record since 1992. That figure includes 39 open seats of members retiring or running for other offices, 19 seats newly created by redistricting, and four vacancies. Remember that class of 87 Republican freshmen from 2010? Over four-fifths are likely to be reelected, but now they’ll be yesterday’s news when a new, huge freshman class numbering between 75 and 85 arrives.
Altogether, it’s certain that more than a third of the House will have less than three years of experience when the 113th Congress is sworn in in January. The last time that was the case was 1995, after the GOP wave of 1994 and the landmark redistricting year of 1992 (this time, it’s the same story in reverse sequence). Some very vocal junior members (including, possibly, a reindeer rancher from Michigan) will be tasked with tackling enormously vexing and pressing fiscal issues, problems that are aggravated this time by an exceedingly fragile economic recovery.
2. We are headed for the most polarized Congress in memory. In the GOP wave of 2010, the Blue Dog Coalition of center-left and center-right Democrats was cut in half from 55 members to 26. Get ready for it to be cut in half yet again. The retirements of Reps. Mike Ross, Ark.-4; Heath Shuler, N.C.-11; and Dan Boren, Okla.-2; the primary defeats of Jason Altmire, Pa.-4; and Tim Holden, Pa.-17; and the likely general election losses by a few others are likely to whittle their ranks to the mid-teens, distilling Democrats down to their liberal base.
While the ranks of the Blue Dogs shrink, the tea party looks poised to gain. A common misconception is that the 2010 class of GOP freshmen rode into Congress on a big tea party bandwagon. In fact, only 19 of 87 joined the Tea Party Caucus once they got to Washington. But as more moderate Republicans retire (Reps. Steve LaTourette of Ohio and Tim Johnson of Illinois) or go down to defeat, the next crop of GOP freshmen will include tea party hard-liners like Trey Radel of Florida and Robert Pittenger of North Carolina, further diminishing prospects for cross-aisle cooperation.
3. Republicans have a huge built-in advantage, not just in 2012, but for the foreseeable future. Democrats couldn’t have picked a worse year to suffer horrific losses up and down the ballot than 2010. In effect, the GOP won the right to draw much of the political map for the next 10 years. After redistricting, the Cook Political Report’s partisan index counts 190 heavily GOP districts and just 146 heavily Democratic districts, meaning the Republicans need only to win 28 of 99 “swing” House seats to win a majority -- not a heavy lift.
In other words, the deck is stacked. A “neutral” year or popular vote now translates into a strong GOP House majority. Meanwhile, Democrats would need a tidal wave, not just in 2012, but in any year, to control the House. Republican gerrymandering isn’t entirely to blame for the Democrats’ predicament -- they have their own voters to blame, too. Democrats’ extraordinary concentration on coasts, in big cities, and in college towns has made it easier than ever for Republicans to “quarantine” Democrats in a few districts and claim the rest for themselves.
4. For the first time ever, white men will no longer be the majority of the Democratic caucus. In 1953, white men were 98 percent of House Democrats and 97 percent of House Republicans. Today, white men are down to 53 percent of Democrats and 86 percent of Republicans. In 2013, for the first time, white men will be a minority of the Democratic caucus as Blue Dogs (predominantly white men) exit and women and minority candidates claim more diverse, newly drawn districts.
Democrats will certainly celebrate this milestone, but it doesn’t necessarily bring them closer to a House majority. In fact, it’s in part a byproduct of Republicans packing Democratic voters into the kinds of minority-majority seats most likely to elect minority members. Although Republicans are making progress -- their 2010 freshman class included five Latinos and two African-Americans and in 2012 African-American Mia Love could join their ranks -- they have a long way to go to diversify their leadership and their image.
5. Campaigns and candidates still matter, but less than they used to. After the big wave elections of 2006, 2008, and 2010, when candidate quality and local issues took a backseat to anger at the incumbent in the White House, some theorized voters would “revert to the norm” in a non-wave year like 2012. But that hasn’t happened. In prior years, a Democrat like Rep. John Barrow of Georgia’s 12th District could easily run ahead of his party’s presidential nominee in a tough district. This year, he’s running a stellar campaign, but just scraping by.
Voters are continuing to cast ballots based on who they think ought to control Congress, not who they think would do the best job of fixing their streetlights. And more ideological interest groups and super PACs are choosing members, particularly in primaries with narrow electorates. Even in the general election period, outside groups like Americans for Tax Reform and the AFSCME labor union have spent $193 million to the NRCC's $60.5 million and the DCCC's $57.4 million, diluting the role of these traditional apparatuses.
The proliferation of super PACs hasn’t led to a pulverization of competitive races as some predicted. But it has shifted paid communication in House races to a more chaotic, multi-dimensional model, in which an individual campaign is just one of a vast array of paying communicators. “I’ve come to conclude that candidates are less and less in control of their own destiny,” remarked one busy veteran Republican pollster. And that shift, on such full display in 2012, may be here to stay.