Why winning back the House is a tough task for Democrats

January 25, 2013

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal asked his fellow Republicans to shift their focus outside of Washington, D.C.  in his speech Thursday night at the Republican National Committee's winter meeting.

Doing so might cheer them up a little.


While the party's Washington contingent is struggling mightily, the GOP retains full control of nearly half the state governments across the nation. And that control, combined with the just-completed round of redistricting, has set up Republicans to hold onto many of those state governments -- and by extension, the U.S. House of Representatives -- for potentially the next decade or more.

“The Republicans will have an advantage in partisanship in districts for a long time. That, I think, is indisputable,” said Rob Richie, the executive director of the electoral reform group Fair Vote. Of the Democrats, he said, “I think that they’re probably settling in for a long stay in the minority, unless it’s a really big year."

Here's why.

Because Republicans exercise full control (both legislative chambers plus the governorship) of big swing states and blue-leaning states like Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin, they were able to draw congressional maps that strongly favored their party. In the 2012 presidential election, Mitt Romney won 64 of 104 congressional districts in those six states, despite all of them going for President Obama statewide.

This chart, from Wonkblog's Dylan Matthews, pretty much says it all. It shows how many congressional seats Democrats won in each state in 2012 versus their percentage of the presidential vote:


What redistricting also did, though, was allow Republicans to draw very favorable state legislative maps. Those maps will also make it hard for Democrats to regain control of those chambers and, by extension, overhaul the existing GOP-friendly maps at both the state and congressional levels.

Nobody is saying Democrats can't win back the U.S. House in the coming years, but most everyone agrees that it's significantly more difficult today than it was before and that Democrats need a sizable wave to do it. In fact, they would need to win as much as 55 percent of the popular vote, according to the Cook Political Report's David Wasserman, something neither party was able to achieve even in the wave elections of 2006, 2008 and 2010.

So, Democrats have little control, which makes it harder for them to gain control. And until they gain back control -- at least long enough to draw new maps -- it will be difficult for them to get anything resembling consistent majorities.

The numbers tell the story.

While the GOP had a bad year nationally in 2012, it actually might have been a net-positive at the state level -- in large part due to the new maps that Republicans drew before the election.

The GOP lost what had been full control of just one state government, Maine, where Democrats took back both state legislative chambers. But Republicans gained full control over three additional states: Alaska, North Carolina and Wisconsin. So while the GOP controlled a total of 22 states before 2012, it now controls 24 (including many swing states), compared with just 14 under Democrats' control.

And it's going to be tough for Democrats to win back control of many of those states.

In Ohio, for instance, Republicans actually expanded their state House and state Senate majorities in 2012, to 60-39 in the House and 23-10 in the Senate, even as Obama carried the state by three points.

For Democrats to have won the House, the statewide vote would have needed to shift more than four points toward Democrats (judging by the median race, which Republicans won 54.18 percent to 45.82 percent). Translating that shift to the presidential race, it would have meant that Obama needed to carry the state 55 percent to 43 percent, rather than 51 percent to 48 percent.

(This is not a perfect calculation, of course, because campaigns matter. But state legislative races are often very reflective of the overall political environment.)

Another good example is the Virginia House. Republicans retained a 67-31 edge there, despite Obama having carried the state by four points. A look at past election results suggests that the 2012 election would have had to shift about five points toward Democrats for them to have taken the chamber. That means Obama's margin would have needed to be 56 percent to 42 percent.

Needless to say, it would take a huge wave for Democrats to win either Ohio or Virginia by double digits at the presidential level. And while such swings have happened in U.S. political history, these days voters are much more polarized, making such a swing quite unlikely.

Now, we should stress that this doesn't mean that Democrats are in the dark for the next decade. There are more than enough congressional seats in play to make it happen in a good year, even if they don't get 55 percent of the popular vote. And merely winning back a governorship would give them a seat at the table in the next round of redistricting. (The GOP will have a tough time holding governor's seats in all six states listed above over the next two years.)

"It's ridiculous to assume the redistricting will go the Republicans' way," said Democratic redistricting guru Mark Gersh. "All you need is to win a governorship, and it ends up in court, and anything could happen."

Gersh also pointed to demographic changes that favor Democrats in key states, including the fact that Texas appears likely to be a swing state in the coming years.

A GOP strategist agreed that it's too early to say that Republicans will again be in the driver's seat come the next round of redistricting.

"I think it’s just a little early to be predicting that Republicans will be in a position of strength. There could be a lot more split-control states. All it takes is one of those chambers to go, and you’re in a court situation or making a deal.”

But at this point, it's going to be very hard for Democrats to gain full control over the redrawing of the maps in most of these vital states, and if they can't win the governor's mansions back, Republicans could again redraw the maps after the 2020 Census.

And by extension, that means that state governments and the congressional map could favor Republicans for years (or decades) to come.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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