For Republicans, 2012 is a year of high hopes and immense possibilities. By this time next year, the GOP could have won the White House and the Senate and kept control of the House of Representatives. But if fortune turns against Republicans next cycle and the White House and Senate escape their grasp, what’s the outlook for the House, the GOP’s last line of defense against a second term of Obama? Republicans currently occupy 242 of the 435 seats; can Speaker John Boehner keep the total above 218?
For now, the outlook for House Republicans is quite healthy. The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) contends that not only are the odds of the GOP keeping the majority extraordinarily high, but they have opportunity to win a sizable number of seats that narrowly eluded them last year.
The first advantage that Republicans see is an essentially unchanged issue environment from 2010. “It’s a cliché that ‘a year is a lifetime in politics,’ but we are still talking about the big issues from 2010,” said NRCC political director Mike Shields on a conference call Wednesday. “Unemployment, spending, debt, taxes — we’re still having that fight. Those issues were huge drivers of votes among both independents and our base voters, and they’re still what we’re talking about — we’re still debating it this week! If the mood of the country shifts or underlying issues change, then the coming year’s election will be different from last year’s, but we seem to be heading into a similar political environment.”
The biggest change from 2010 will be altered district lines in many populous states — minor changes in some, dramatic changes in others. Shields says that the NRCC believes that 15 once-competitive seats have become safely Republican through redistricting.
Pennsylvania appears to be on the verge of finalizing a new map that illustrates the phenomenon well. The Keystone State lost one congressional seat from population shifts in the past decade, and the result is likely to be at least one fewer Democrat in the state’s delegation and several more Republicans with better odds for reelection. In the Cook Partisan Voting Index, Rep. Mike Kelly’s northwestern 3rd district has shifted from R+3 to R+5; Rep. Jim Gerlach’s 6th district has shifted from D+4 to R+1; and Rep. Lou Barletta’s 11th district leaped from D+4 to R+6.
Republican lawmakers achieved this by making some heavily Republican districts less Republican, but still safe (Rep. Bill Shuster’s 9th district, the most Republican in the state, changed from R+17 to R+10) and safe Democratic districts even more heavily Democratic (Rep. Allyson Schwartz’s 13th district shifted from D+7 to D+13) — essentially, moving excess Republicans into swing districts, and moving swing districts’ Democrats into districts that already go Democratic anyway.
“[Democratic incumbents] Mark Critz and Jason Altmire are now drawn into [the] same district, and it’s an R+6,” Shields says. “It doesn’t look like the [former Democratic Rep. John] Murtha district anymore. . . . We feel pretty bullish about Pennsylvania and North Carolina. In one, we shored up some of our members, and we unzipped a ludicrously Democratic map in the other. The most heavily Republican district in that state is [three-term Democratic congressman] Heath Shuler’s.”
The redistricting process is not yet complete nationwide; to the NRCC, the biggest unresolved issues remain in New York, Florida, New Jersey, and Texas.
Adam Temple, a spokesman for the Republican State Leadership Committee, offered perspective on the process so far: “As of today, new maps for 278 of the 435 U.S. House seats have been enacted — although 81 seats are located in states in which [federal] approval of their plans is required under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act . . . and that approval has not yet been granted. This means that 64 percent of the congressional redistricting is completed. Right now our projection is that the GOP/Democrat box score is a +1, but a more cautious view might be −1.” He also notes that in some states — including New Mexico, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Illinois, North Carolina, and Virginia — courts are hearing cases that challenge decisions or seek to resolve deadlock.
Asked which challengers have him particularly excited at this point in the cycle, Shields immediately names Ricky Gill in California. Gill is running against a three-term Democratic incumbent, Jerry McNerney, in the newly drawn 9th district, which comprises parts of San Joaquin County, East Contra Costa County, and southern Sacramento County.
“We came close in the last cycle in this district [McNerney won by one percentage point over Republican David Harmer], and while this district became a little more Democratic in redistricting, it now includes more of the San Joaquin Valley. Ricky is from that part of the district,” Shields says.
Gill, an Indian-American law-school student, will be 25 — the minimum age to serve in the House — on Election Day 2012. In 2004, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger nominated Ricky to the California State Board of Education. Following his confirmation by the California state senate, Ricky served as the youngest member of the administration and the sole representative of more than 6 million public-school students.
Shields is also happy to see that several GOP candidates who came close in 2010 are coming back in 2012. “When you have a big wave election, a sort of hangover happens — you see a continuation of momentum some cycles. Some Democrats become not so sure they want to run with Barack Obama; some of our guys feel like they may have missed a good opportunity in 2010.” He mentions Randy Altschuler in New York, Andy Barr in Kentucky, and Jackie Walorski in Indiana as near-misses who may get over the top with the experience of the previous cycle. Those three lost the closest, fourth-closest, and eleventh-closest House races in the country in 2010.
“We reject the notion that we have to play defense this cycle,” Shields says. “Last year the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] said they were going to play offense, and they ended up playing offense [i.e., funding challenges to incumbent Republicans] in two districts. This year, we think we’re in 14 districts where we have solid races, and we could get to 17–18 by the time we’re done.”
The Presidential Race’s Impact
On paper, a high-stakes presidential campaign should bring out each party’s base and create potential trouble for red-state Democrats and blue-state Republicans. But Shields says he’s actually more worried about what he calls “orphan states” — ones that are considered not competitive in the presidential race, and thus are less likely to see considerable investment from other party committees and grassroots groups.
“California, Illinois, and New York — those are states where we have competitive offensive opportunities, but we need to create the infrastructure,” Shields says. “In the last 20 years in California, there have hardly ever been any competitive races. This cycle, we could have eight, nine, maybe ten competitive races there.” By contrast, House Republicans in states such as Ohio, Colorado, and Wisconsin will be helped by the expected furious get-out-the-vote campaigns by the Republican nominee’s campaign and its allies, and of course will face similar efforts from the Obama campaign and its allies.
“When we won our majorities, we did not win with a bunch of swing-y states that go with the tide,” Shields said. “We won our majority by winning a lot of Republican seats that we really never should have lost,” pointing to seats in conservative, often rural regions in places such as Alabama, Missouri, and Arkansas. “These are ones that are never going back. Our map is built on those types of districts, and through redistricting, we’ve been able to strengthen some of those marginal seats.”
Clichés about quick reversals of fortune in politics are cited for good reason, but for now, in an election cycle marked by continued debate about anxiety about employment, the political leader in Washington with the best odds of keeping his job might be House Speaker John Boehner.
— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.