Politics: campaign 2012

Why 2012 Will Be a Watershed House Election

House speaker John Boehner speaks to reporters after a House GOP meeting on the debt ceiling on Monday, July 25, 2011.
National Journal
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David Wasserman
Nov. 5, 2012, 5:06 a.m.

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.

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