GOP Gains Confidence, Still Faces Obstacles in Taking House

January 15, 2010

When the history of the 2010 election season is written, this will go down as the week when Republican leaders were willing to say it, right out loud and repeatedly: Yes, we can take back control of the House of Representatives this year.

“We believe we can win back the majority,” Rep. Eric Cantor, the second-ranking Republican in the House, said over dinner Tuesday night.

Republicans are gaining confidence that they can take back control of the House of Representatives in the mid-term elections. WSJ’s Jerry Seib discusses the growing optimism and how realistic it is.

“Republican hopes of recapturing the House are no longer just wishful thinking,” declared Rep. Pete Sessions, head of the Republican’s House campaign committee, in an email to supporters the same day. “If the GOP continues to capitalize on the Democrats’ failures of the past year, the Republican Party will take control of the House in the next Congress.”

And Rep. Kevin McCarthy, a founder of a program to help GOP candidates seeking to turn Democratic districts, said simply: “I think this is a wave election”—one that will wash out Democrats.

Some of this chest-thumping can be written off as political bluster, of course, the sort of things party leaders say to convince potential donors that writing a check is a good investment, and to persuade wavering candidate recruits to take a chance by jumping into a tough race.

Yet bold projections also can be a two-edged sword, to be unsheathed only with care. If saying a change in control is growing more likely helps to mobilize Republican donors, it also can shake Democrats out of any complacency and help them mobilize their own foot soldiers.

Moreover, no less a figure than the Republican Party national chairman, Michael Steele, was saying as recently as the turn of the year that he didn’t think a takeover was in the cards.

So something has changed to give House Republicans a bit more swagger. The questions: What is it, and how real is it?

It’s first worth noting that GOP optimism about taking control applies to the House, not to the Senate. There, the climb to power is far steeper for Republicans; they would have to take over 10 of 19 Democratic-held Senate seats that are up this year while defending all of their own, a feat that analyst Charlie Cook calls “difficult, if not impossible.”

So Republican takeover fever is in the House. The first reason it’s breaking out is that the new year opens amid a national political climate that’s bad for Democrats. That doesn’t necessarily make it good for Republicans, of course, but President Barack Obama’s approval ratings continue to erode, the Democrats’ signature health-care bill is getting less rather than more popular, and the U.S. unemployment rate remains stuck at the politically perilous 10% mark.

Still, climate isn’t enough. What Republicans have always known they needed for a takeover this year was for veteran Democrats—the kinds who can hold onto tough districts during a political storm—to walk away from their seats, widening the Republican target field. And that, above all, is what has changed. In recent weeks, four House Democrats in tough districts have announced their retirements, and a fifth switched parties to become a Republican.

To see why this matters, look at the math.

To win control of the House, Republicans need to take 40 seats now held by Democrats. At the moment, 245 of the 256 Democrats serving in the House are running for re-election. Even in a favorable political environment, it’s hard to defeat more than 10% to 15% of a party’s incumbents in any given election; the powers of incumbency and inertia are simply too strong to expect more.

So Republicans think they can get 25 to 35 seats that way. The balance would have to come from seats being vacated by Democrats. Eleven Democrats now are stepping aside, many from swing districts; Republicans are confident they can win a majority of those newly opened seats. It’s those that give them a path to the magic 40 mark.

But that path would be a lot clearer if a few more Democrats announced retirements in coming weeks. Republicans are doing what they can to make that happen, principally by helping candidates challenging marginal Democratic veterans to raise enough money to convince the incumbent it’s a good time to get out rather than face a tough race.

The GOP poster boy for this phenomenon is farmer Stephen Fincher, from the exquisitely named Frog Jump, Tenn., who has raised $600,000. That helped to convince Democratic Rep. John Tanner that this was the year to move on.

Yet the deeper reality is that Republicans would have to overcome some significant hurdles to reach a majority. Fundraising remains a problem for them; the Democrats’ House campaign committee has about $10 million more available cash than its Republican counterpart. And while some Democrats are retiring, even more Republicans—14 now—have said they’re stepping aside. The latest, Arizona Rep. John Shadegg, announced his retirement Thursday. The GOP would have to successfully defend nearly all those seats to retake the House.

Moreover, even as Democrats’ problems have mounted, polling shows that the Republican brand remains troubled, and in recent months the party has shown it is vulnerable to some nasty infighting between pragmatists and ideological conservatives.

Ryan Rudominer, press secretary for the Democrats’ House campaign committee, said the GOP is “in the midst of civil war resulting in more than 50 real Republican primaries” where the party’s contenders are battling each other.

Bottom line: A Republican takeover certainly has become possible, but can’t really be called likely—at least not yet.

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