President Obama remains at least an even bet to win reelection. Democrats are favored to hold on to the Senate â€” an outcome few prognosticators envisioned at the beginning of the year. And yet, with a little more than a week to go, the party holds almost no chance of winning back the House.
â€œThey called the fight. Itâ€™s over. Weâ€™re going to have a House next year thatâ€™s going to look an awful lot like the last House,â€ Stuart Rothenberg, the independent analyst who runs theÂ Rothenberg Political Report, said.
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 havenâ€™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 â€” 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.), labeledÂ the â€œface of defeatâ€Â after overseeing the loss of 63 seats two years ago. Defying recent precedent, Pelosi gave up the speakerâ€™s gavel but stayed on as party leader. She vowed that â€œthe tea party Congressâ€ was so unpopular that Democrats would ride Obamaâ€™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 yearâ€™s House majority.
Rothenberg predicted modest gains for Democrats of about a handful of seats, a symbolic victory but well short of Pelosiâ€™s â€œDrive to 25â€ 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, Boehnerâ€™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.
â€œThatâ€™s a really bad omen for Democrats, not just this year but in future years,â€ saidÂ 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.
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