The outlines of a comeback for Democrats seemed possible. From its opening act, the 112th Congress was dominated by a raucous class of House freshmen who pushed Washington to the brink of several government shutdowns and almost prompted a first-ever default on the federal debt. It became the most unpopular Congress in the history of polling and, by some measures, the least productive.
Analysts cite several factors why the Democrats haven’t been able to take advantage. First was a redistricting process that made some Republicans virtually impervious to a challenge and re-election more difficult for about 10 Democrats. A few Democratic incumbents have stumbled in their first competitive races in years. And Republicans have leveraged their majority into a fund-raising operation that has out-muscled the Democrats.
That means that regardless of who wins the White House, the Republican caucus of Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) will remain a critical player in the coming showdowns over tax and spending cuts. Such a result will have defied the chorus of prognosticators who saw so many of these inexperienced freshmen as beneficiaries of blind political luck — swept up in the 2010 wave of sentiment against Obama and presumably poised to be swept back to sea when the tide went out this November.
First among those critics was Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), labeled the “face of defeat” after overseeing the loss of 63 seats two years ago. Defying recent precedent, Pelosi gave up the speaker’s gavel but stayed on as party leader. She vowed that “the tea party Congress” was so unpopular that Democrats would ride Obama’s coattails back to the majority.
Now, with a second straight election about to leave Democrats in the minority, Pelosi, 72, has not signaled whether she will remain in office. She delayed her leadership elections until after Thanksgiving, prompting more speculation about her future than about next year’s House majority.
Rothenberg predicted modest gains for Democrats of about a handful of seats, a symbolic victory but well short of Pelosi’s “Drive to 25” for the net gain needed for the majority. Privately, Democrats do not dispute those estimates but contend the gains will set the stakes for a 2014 campaign in which they will shoot for the majority, particularly if Mitt Romney wins the presidency and is facing his first midterm election.
Republicans, however, believe they have used congressional redistricting to shore up enough of their seats to remain in power for years to come. Rather than aggressively seek more seats, Boehner’s leadership team counseled Republican-led state legislatures to fortify those Republicans already serving on Capitol Hill.
The result has been that House Republicans start off with 190 districts that have a historic performance safely in their corner, while Democrats begin with just 146 such districts, according to an analysis by the independent Cook Political Report.
That leaves just 99 districts viewed as regularly competitive, an all-time low. Democrats will likely have to carry 72 of those 99 seats to reach the bare majority of 218.
“That’s a really bad omen for Democrats, not just this year but in future years,” said David Wasserman, the House editor for the Cook report.
Though more than 80 GOP freshmen are standing for reelection, just two dozen are facing tough challenges and only 15 are in significant danger of losing. Take Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.), whose 2010 victory over a Hispanic Democratic incumbent defied the odds because the district was nearly 75 percent Latino. Legislators drew him into a new district running north of Corpus Christi along the Gulf of Mexico, which tilts 60 percent toward Republicans.
Rather than a one-hit wonder, Farenthold, 50, could now serve in Congress for decades to come.
Similarly, the Philadelphia suburbs have served as political ground zero for past House majority battles. In 2006, the National Republican Congressional Committee and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent a combined $5 million battling over the 7th Congressional District to the west of Philadelphia, followed by another $1.3 million in 2010.
Now, that district snakes across five suburban counties, encompassing the most Republican-leaning sectors of each, allowing freshman GOP Rep. Patrick Meehan to cruise to re-election.
Neither party committee is devoting resources to the Philadelphia media market for the first time in more than 20 years. With a delegation that boasted a dozen Democrats two years ago, Pennsylvania will send five or six Democrats to the House next year depending on Democratic Rep. Mark Critz’s tight battle outside Pittsburgh.
Democrats have put a few high profile tea-party lawmakers on the defensive. Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.), whose confrontational style made him a YouTube sensation and a regular on Fox News, is running behind in his suburban Chicago district.
In Florida, Rep. Allen West (R), a former Army lieutenant colonel, moved north of his previous Palm Beach-based district but still faces stiff competition, even as he declines to tone down his rhetoric.
“It’s about two different ideologies going forward. It’s the opportunity society against the dependency society. It’s the constitutional republic against a socialist egalitarian nanny state,” the conservative icon, one of just two black Republicans in Congress, said in an interview in St. Lucie.
Beyond the freshmen, Republican Reps. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and Steve King (Iowa) are fighting for their political lives. Bachmann’s Quixotic presidential campaign left her open to charges of ignoring her district. King is facing Christie Vilsack, the wife of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a still-popular former governor. She is also focusing on local issues rather than King’s national conservative platform.
“If you’re truly focused on the people of your district, if you’re making it local, you should be concerned about the 750,000 not about the ideology that my opponent is talking about,” Vilsack said in a recent interview.
Democrats believe that such high-profile victories could send a signal that hyper-partisanship is not the route to reelection, giving hope for more bipartisan work in 2013.
Kane reported from Pennsylvania, O’Keefe reported from Florida and Iowa