Friday, October 17, 2008

Predictions Preview: U.S. House races

This year Democrats will add more than 20 seats to their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. I’ll make my final predictions just before November 4. I’ll spend the rest of this post explaining where we are, how we got here, and where we’re going.

Heading into the 2006 election, Republicans controlled the House 232-203. As I correctly predicted, Democrats picked up 29 seats on election day. Subsequently, they grabbed four more seats in one run-off and three special elections, so Democrats now control the House 236-199.

For one party to make big gains in the House in two consecutive two elections is very exceptional. One of the biggest contributing factors is the fact that this year 26 members of the Republican caucus are retiring, while only 6 Democrats are doing so. This is not really a surprise, as the House changed hands last time around, and Republicans have been reminded that being in the minority is a lost less fun. Prospects for the GOP in this year's House races are also damaged by the fact that George Bush and Company have turned the Republican brand into political poison, and the McCain campaign hasn't done much to help the situation.

So with the Democrats poised to swing a gain of 60 seats or more in two election cycles, the question arises as to who deserves the most credit. The easy answer: Howard Dean, Chairman of the Democratic National Committee and his 50-state strategy.

One of the hallmarks of the Bill Clinton era (for purposes of this discussion the years 1992 through 2004) was that while Clinton himself won, the Democratic Party’s fortunes waned at every other level in much the country. Increasingly, the Party chose only to target swing states, and to try to get the majority in Congress by pouring resources into a few “winnable” districts. This strategy failed miserably. The mid-90’s through the early 2000’s saw Republicans solidify their hold on Congress.

The GOP also made major gains at the state level. One effect of this was that Democratic hopes for making gains in the House were severely damaged after the 2001 decennial redistricting of seats. Rachel Morris of the Washington Monthly describes what happened: After 2000, Democrats found themselves entirely locked out of redistricting in four large swing states where Republicans had won all three branches of government: Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida. "In those states we got hammered," one Democratic redistricting operative said. In Pennsylvania, GOP legislators, urged on by DeLay and assisted by Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Penn.), produced a map that delivered the party 12 of the state’s 19 congressional seats. Florida, the quintessential swing state, wound up with 18 Republicans and seven Democrats. Gore won 50.7 percent of the vote in these four states in 2000, and that year Democrats held 35 of their 77 House seats. After 2002, Democrats held only 26. (Mark Gersh, a Democratic redistricting expert, concluded in a study of that election that Democrats were "steamrollered, not by George W. Bush, but by redistricting"). And while Republicans had made the most of states where they had unilateral control, even when Democrats had more influence they often brokered deals to protect incumbents rather than seeking to gain more seats.

The political landscape looks very different in 2008, thanks to the 50-state strategy. Committed to the idea that there is no place in the country where Democrats cannot win, Howard Dean has seeded the local level with committed candidates, building them into state candidates for future races, while also opening more Party offices in red and purple states and working tirelessly to fire-up volunteers. Barack Obama has unreservedly endorsed Howard Dean and has also committed himself to redrawing the electoral map by putting new, traditionally Republican states in play. And like Dean, Obama has rewritten the rules concerning where and how Democrats would compete, and compete successfully.

No comments: