story James Rowley and Roxana Tiron
Republicans are in a strong position to keep control of the U.S. House of Representatives next year as political analysts predict that Democrats will fall more than a dozen seats short of a majority in the Nov. 6 election.
Republican gains in redistricting after the 2010 Census and the retirements of a group of moderate Democrats diminish the chances of a power switch for the 113th Congress.
With President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney locked in a close race, neither party is poised to ride a wave of national political support to a House majority as the Democrats did in 2006 and the Republicans did in 2010.
“The fight for the House is not a national election, it is a series of district-by-district races,” said Nathan Gonzales, political analyst for the non-partisan Rothenberg Political Report in Washington. “When you go district by district, Republicans are favored to keep their majority.”
The retirements of moderate Democrats Dan Boren in Oklahoma, Mike Ross in Arkansas and Heath Shuler in North Carolina create three probable Republican gains, according to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. Indiana Democrat Joe Donnelly’s decision to run for the Senate gives Republicans another pickup opportunity.
Most freshmen backed by the anti-government-spending Tea Party are favored to win re-election, with the exception of Joe Walsh of Illinois. Others such as Allen West of Florida, Dan Benishek of Michigan and Chip Cravaack of Minnesota are in tossup races.
The 435-member House includes 240 Republicans, 190 Democrats and five vacancies -- three of which were Democratic- held seats -- meaning Democrats need a net gain of 25 seats for a 218-seat majority.
Democrats could gain four to 10 seats, and “the upper end of that range might be difficult,” Gonzales said.
House editor David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report put the probable Democratic gain at zero to 10 seats.
Unlike the wave elections of 2006 and 2010, “this is what I would refer to as a whirlpool election,” Wasserman said. Political currents are helping both parties and will produce a “very minimal partisan gain, most likely for Democrats,” he said, though he didn’t rule out a “slight Republican gain.”
Cook rates seven Democratic-held seats and 18 Republican seats as “tossup” races. Even if Democrats win all of those races, Cook says Republicans are “likely” to defeat Democrats in six other districts. Democrats are considered favorites for only two Republican-held seats.
Incumbency is also an advantage. Since 1964, House members have been re-elected at a rate of more than 90 percent. This year will be no different even as Congress’s Gallup Poll approval rating fell to a historic low of 10 percent in August.
“People have one opinion about Congress and a different opinion about their own congressmen,” said Duke University political scientist David Rohde. Lawmakers, he said, campaign at home to distinguish themselves from the institution and often “run for Congress by running against it.”
Congressional redistricting after the 2010 Census has mostly aided Republicans, who control both houses of 26 state legislatures while Democrats hold both houses in 15 states.
“Democrats couldn’t have picked a worse year to get clobbered than 2010” when they lost 680 seats in state legislatures, Wasserman said. The state elections determined which party would control redistricting. “Republicans got to draw the maps in four times as many districts as Democrats,” he said.
If this year’s election occurred with the same districts as in 2010, “we would be talking about, not a certainty of a Democratic takeover, but a decent chance of that,” said Rohde of Duke in Durham, N.C.
Redistricting in North Carolina may be all Republicans need to prevent a Democratic takeover of the House. Republicans took both houses of that state’s legislature in 2010 for the first time in more than a century.
Shuler and fellow Democratic Representative Brad Miller dropped plans to run for re-election after state lawmakers redrew their districts to tilt Republican. Two other incumbent Democrats, Mike McIntyre and Larry Kissell, are in tough re- election fights after parts of their political bases were removed from their districts.
“If the Democrats have any chance of taking the majority they’ve got to hold what they currently own,” said J. Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C.
The Republican redistricting has one downside for the party. “It puts a ceiling on how big you can make your majority,” Rohde said. To create reliable Republican districts, he said, in other areas “you are creating a whole bunch of districts you have absolutely no prayer of winning.”
On the other side, redistricting in California by a bipartisan commission has endangered re-election bids by Republicans Dan Lungren, Brian Bilbray and Jeff Denham.
The Tea Party is likely to have a stronger influence in the House in 2013 in part because retiring Republicans will be “replaced by some pretty hard-core partisans,” Wasserman said. Although only 19 of the 87 House Republican freshmen class of 2010 joined the Tea Party Caucus, he said, 17 are from safe Republican districts this time around.
Moderate Republicans such as Judy Biggert and Bob Dold in Illinois and Charlie Bass in New Hampshire are in danger of losing their seats, he said.
“Both parties complain the other side won’t cooperate but they are working to defeat the only people remaining who would,” Wasserman said.
Two veteran House Republicans, Tea Party Caucus founders Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Steve King of Iowa, are in their toughest re-election fights.
Bachmann is opposed by Democrat Jim Graves, who is better financed than her previous challengers. He uses Bachmann’s statements during her presidential bid to paint her as an extremist.
King, a five-term congressman, is facing the biggest challenge of his career from Democrat Christie Vilsack, Iowa’s former first lady and wife of U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. She is getting campaign support from former President Bill Clinton.
Altogether, 28 Democrats and 24 Republicans now in the House are not returning in January.
Gone will be colorful political personalities such as Massachusetts Representative Barney Frank, the top Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee, and Indiana Republican Dan Burton, who once led a House investigation of Clinton’s campaign finances.
Democrats are considered “favored” or “likely” to win only two seats now held by Republicans – Walsh in Illinois and Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland. Both lawmakers had their districts redrawn by Democratic-controlled legislatures in their states.
Walsh, a Tea Party-backed freshman, is challenged by Tammy Duckworth, a wounded Iraq War veteran who was an assistant secretary of veterans’ affairs in Obama’s administration. Last week Walsh said abortion is never necessary to save a pregnant woman’s life, a claim contradicted by medical research and that sparked outrage from doctors and political opponents.