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.