House Republicans head into the next election with a clear advantage over Democrats, as party strategists and independent observers say Democrats will need a broad wave of voter discontent -- rather than a targeted, district-by-district strategy -- to have any chance of retaking the majority.
With the 2004 election cycle barely underway, it is difficult to predict which issues will sway Americans when they vote 20 months from now. But several factors suggest Democrats will need not only strong candidates and campaign savvy, but also a different political climate to overcome the GOP's 229 to 205 seat advantage in the 435-member House. (There is one independent).
"A year ago, I could say the Democrats were close enough to 218 so they could cherry-pick seats to get them to the majority," said Stuart Rothenberg, who edits the Rothenberg Political Report. "I can't make the case now. Basically, they need voters to make a decision to change party control of the House."
A major problem for Democrats is that so few House districts are truly competitive. That requires them to win a large percentage of the up-for-grab seats next year to erase the Republican majority. The once-a-decade round of congressional redistricting that followed the 2000 Census left the great majority of House districts leaning solidly Republican or Democratic -- with the GOP holding a slight edge.
"Structurally, we won from redistricting for the first time in 40 years," said Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds (N.Y.), who is chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Parties traditionally target incumbents who won their last election with less than 55 percent of the vote. Twenty-two House Democrats and 17 Republicans fall in this category, said GOP pollster Glen Bolger.
Given that small field, Democratic consultant Mark Gersh told party leaders at a recent retreat that they must consider pouring resources into districts that have strong Republican incumbents but an electorate with potentially significant Democratic leanings. "In the House elections in this decade," he said, "one needs to think a little less conventionally about targets, given there are going to be fewer of what could be called traditional targets."
Some analysts say Democrats will be lucky merely to hold the seats they now have, let alone pick up new ones. Nearly three dozen House Democrats are from districts that Bush carried in 2000.
One Democrat at the recent retreat, according to participants, raised the prospect of challenging nine-term GOP Rep. Jim McCrery of Louisiana. Bill Clinton twice carried the district, which has a significant African American population, and President Bush won it in 2000 with a modest 53 percent margin.
But McCrery, who sits on the influential Ways and Means Committee, noted he won reelection last November with 72 percent of the vote, and got roughly half of the black vote.
"If they have to go down on the list to me [for potential targets], then they're in pretty poor shape for the '04 cycle," McCrery said. "I've been in there a long time and have been able to get a foothold in the African American community and some pretty Democratic areas, like the rural areas. I would hope they spend lots of money on me."
Both parties' House campaign committees will have to work harder to raise cash now that large "soft money" contributions are legally banned, but Democrats are particularly disadvantaged. They traditionally relied more heavily on soft money than Republicans did, and they now must compete for funds with a large field of presidential hopefuls and hard-pressed Democratic senators.
"Certainly, for Democrats who have relied more on soft money, at least on the committee level, it's going to be a big change for them," said Amy Walter, House campaigns editor of the Cook Political Report.
Democrats are working to narrow the fundraising gap. Rep. Robert T. Matsui (Calif.), who chairs the House Democrats' campaign arm, said last month's direct mail appeal brought in $1.5 million, more than the total hard and soft money donations the committee had collected in a single month since 1995.
Democratic and GOP candidates know they can no longer rely on their parties for last-minute infusions of cash. Rep. Joseph M. Hoeffel III (D-Pa.), who nearly lost his seat last fall, plans to raise $2 million this election to try to fend off any GOP challenger.
"I need to be self-sufficient and on my own financially," Hoeffel said. "I want to have the resources I need to defend myself and get my message out."
Knowing that they might not be financially competitive with Republicans, Democrats plan to mobilize as much support as possible among the minority community. "When you don't have money you have time, so you've got to start early," said Rep. Ciro D. Rodriguez (D-Tex.), who recently met with other Latino members to plot voter outreach efforts.
By focusing on fundraising, recruiting and voter outreach now, Democrats hope to be poised to capitalize on the kind of voter-sentiment shift that brought House Republicans back to power in 1994. But that momentum could prove elusive, requiring both a weak economy and a messy war with Iraq, analysts said.
"Today on paper, it looks tough," Democratic consultant Tom O'Donnell said of his party's congressional aspirations. "You really need a change in the [political] environment. Given the uncertainty of the environment, you could have a change there."
Matsui said his party would need help from the top of the ticket and a sluggish recovery to make significant electoral gains. "If the [presidential] election is close, the economy's down and there's disenchantment internationally, I think we become competitive," he said.
A rash of Republican retirements could also help Democrats, but such a trend seems unlikely. If Mark Foley (R-Fla.) runs for the Senate, his departure could create a competitive district. But Democrats will be in a similar fix if Rep. Bobby R. Etheridge (D-N.C.) decides to launch a Senate bid. The Democratic team is also aging, with far more 20-year House veterans than the GOP has.
Democrats recently welcomed Rep. Ken Lucas's (D-Ky.) decision to stay in the House despite an earlier term-limits pledge, since the party was almost sure to lose the seat without him. But three Republicans are jockeying to challenge him next year.
Some lawmakers from each party are obvious targets this election, given their narrow victories. They include Reps. Bob Beauprez (R-Colo.), Max Burns (R-Ga.), Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.), Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.), Tim Holden (D-Pa.) and Jim Matheson (D-Utah).
One of the less predictable factors in the upcoming election is whether Bush will prove a boon to Republican candidates. Dan Mattoon, a GOP lobbyist and strategist, said he was confident the president's popularity might help unseat moderate and conservative Democrats. The president might also help in recruiting.
"We have a strong incumbent with decent numbers today who will lead our ticket into the next election," Reynolds said.
But some Democrats said being shut out of power could be a blessing in disguise.
"The fact that we have no branch of government is perversely working in our favor," Matsui said. "There's an enthusiasm among some of the donors."