Those who already are saying that the House of Representatives is now “in play” are getting a little ahead of their skis — forgetting a few key factors. At the same time, however, it’s no longer fair to say that there is virtually zero or at most a minimal chance that Republicans will lose their majority. Recent actions and behavior during the shutdown make that an equally risky argument to make. While it is still not likely, a discussion of what specifically would have to happen to make a Democratic majority a reality is in order.
Why isn’t the Republican House majority already in immediate danger? First, the election is more than a year away, and all events, no matter how cataclysmic they may seem at the time, have shelf lives. Even the 9/11 tragedy, which had a profound impact on the course of American politics for years to come, eventually receded as a driving force. Like the shot in Jurassic Park of the rearview-mirror display advising that objects “may be closer than they appear,” political events may seem to have more of a lasting impact than they eventually have.
Second, the numbers aren’t quite there yet for Democrats to have a solid shot at the 17-seat net gain necessary for a majority. Democrats have 10 seats of their own that are teetering on the brink, including several in districts that both John McCain and Mitt Romney carried in the last two presidential elections. To grab those 17 seats, Democrats would, in effect, have to hold onto every one of their 201 seats, including 10 seats currently rated as toss-ups by The Cook Political Report, as well as 14 more that are rated as leaning Democratic — which we consider to be in the competitive-race category.
In addition to holding on to every one of their seats, Democrats must win the three seats currently held by Republicans that are rated as either toss-ups or leaning Democratic, then go on to win 14 out of the 16 GOP seats rated as leaning Republican, which now includes the open seat in Arkansas’ 2nd District, where second-term Rep. Tim Griffin announced his retirement Monday morning. Taking a look at the field, it would almost seem that Democrats need to completely run the table of competitive seats to wrestle away the GOP majority. Winning 41 out of the 44 competitive seats is a pretty tall order.
What would need to happen in order for Democrats to have a pretty good chance of winning a majority? First, the self-destructive behavior by Republicans over the last two months would need to continue well into next year. If there are, or come close to being, several more government shutdowns, or the government defaults on its debts or comes perilously close, that would reinforce the current and growing negative impressions that people have of the Republican Party and the Republican Congress, and may help bring about a loss of their majority. One of the top Democrats in the House told us privately months ago, “Democrats can’t take the House but Republicans can lose it.” Well said. Even if Democrats do everything right, they still might not be able to win the House, unless Republicans continue to hurt themselves. We have already seen this happen to a certain extent in recent weeks. Public attitudes start off in what you could call a liquid form, then they begin to jell and eventually start to harden, finally becoming rock solid. Much more of this opinion-solidification as a result of repeated, badly received behavior, and Republicans could go a long way in sealing their own fate.
Second, more Republicans, like Griffin, in competitive districts would need to retire. Griffin is a good example of this potential risk for the GOP. He had very little chance of being upset, and now Democrats have a decent shot at picking off a seat that they had held for quite some time before Griffin’s entrance into office in 2010. Democrats need a handful more of those risky GOP retirements to substantially increase their chances of capturing a majority.
Third, Democrats need a civil war to break out between the various factions of the Republican Party. Anything that foments dissension within the party, chews up funds in hotly contested primaries, and creates disillusionment that can contribute to lower Republican turnout next November will help Democrats. Democrats tend to benefit in presidential years when certain types of voter groups turn out — for example, young, single women often show up more in those elections — but turnout levels in midterm elections typically plummet, which normally reduces the party’s chances. Democrats need Republican turnout to drop in 2014, while simultaneously motivating their own base.
Finally, the adversity in the GOP needs to encourage quality Democratic candidates to actually run. For example, to the south of Griffin, in Arkansas’ 4th District, where GOP Rep. Tom Cotton is leaving to run for the Senate, former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director James Lee Witt’s announcement that he may run gives Democrats a chance to capture another seat. Nothing attracts candidates like adversity in the other party; it’s like honey for ambitious would-be candidates who are standing on the sidelines contemplating a run.
None of these scenarios are terribly implausible, but they all have to materialize before Democrats can be said to have a real shot of controlling the House.