Democratic Takeover of the House Is Still a Long Shot

Democrats will need Republicans to continue self-destructing, among other things, to return to the majority in 2014.

Rep. Tim Griffin, R-AR, listens to Rep. Austin Scott, R-GA, during a news conference in front of the Capitol July 28, 2011 to show their supports to Speaker Boehner's debt-limit plan. Rep,. Martha Roby, R-AL, and Bobby Schilling, R-IL, attend the event.  
National Journal
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
Oct. 21, 2013, 5:33 p.m.

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.

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