The Corner

Charting the Wave: Making Sense of the House Campaign Scorecard

The tea party is winning all the primaries, and blue states like California, Illinois, and Connecticut are center stage in this year’s campaign — right?

Well, that’s only half the story. The 2010 campaign storyline, as told by national publications and cable gabbers, is based predominantly on what’s happening in the U.S. Senate, where Republicans have worked themselves into a chance to draw the tough cards it will take to approach a 51-seat majority against a difficult map.

The narrative in the unwieldy U.S. House is much less understood, even by the most dedicated political junkies. Every handicapper is listing toward a takeover prediction for Republicans, but that single top-line prediction is the full extent of conventional wisdom. With 435 seats and a full quarter of those arguably “in play,” the House has too many moving parts for a town with a cocktail-sized attention span.

So how do you sort it all out into a manageable storyline? The first step is easy — it’s a one-sided cycle. Few House Republicans drew primary challenges, so the spring and summer had less intramural drama in the lower chamber. And fewer than six Republican-held House seats are in even a modest amount of danger from Democratic challengers. The GOP is defending competitive open seats in Delaware and on Chicago’s North Shore, two off-cycle newcomers in Hawaii and urban New Orleans, and one or two senior incumbents with quasi-credible challengers. Even sober Democrats are now predicting Republican losses in those six races to be three at most.

The harder task is breaking down the scores of Democratic vulnerabilities. One way to do that is to see four distinct categories of races: red-country vacancies; war babies; sleeping dogs; and purple suburbia.

RED COUNTRY VACANCIES

The first category, which may end in a series of routs, includes a dozen “red-country vacancies,” districts abandoned by senior Democrats who chose to exit their congressional careers on their own terms, albeit at political gunpoint after surveys back home yielded grim news about 2010 prospects.

These races are in places like Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, South Louisiana’s bayou, and East Arkansas’s cotton fields, places where “thirty-aught-six” is more a part of the parlance than “mocha skim latte.”

George Bush won an average of 55 percent of the vote in these districts in the polarized-base election year of 2004, revealing their deep red DNA. The fact that the DCCC’s advertising is currently on the air in only two of these markets proves where things are headed. Expect Republicans to win all twelve of these races.

WAR BABIES

The second category — and the one that includes opponents of most of the NRCC’s early “Young Guns” — is a group of 23 anti-Bush “war babies.” Just as World War II spawned an actual baby boom, the Iraq War spawned a bumper crop of Democratic congressmen, many elected in conservative districts. Most of these Democrats probably should never have made it to Washington in the first place, and would not have based on their own merit or political skills. They were merely in the right place at the right time — credit Rahm Emanuel’s recruiting and backlash to President Bush and the war. Now Bush is gone, and after November many of these Democrats will be, too.

Demographically, these seats are diverse — ranging from blue-collar neighborhoods in Cincinnati, Erie, South Bend, and the like to Sunbelt exurbs in Arizona and Florida, to small towns above the Mason-Dixon. But beneath this diversity is one common trait — Democratic freshmen and sophomores who won close races in environments far different from what they face today.

Some of them are likable campaigners — e.g., Maryland’s Frank Kratovil — who are just caught too far behind enemy lines to survive a year like this. Others are left-wing fringers, such as antiwar protest candidate Alan Grayson, who were accidental winners in the first place. Sixteen of these are freshmen, facing what is always a tough hurdle to get through: that first reelection. Seven are sophomores effectively facing their first tough races, since they were insulated by Obama’s surge vote in 2008.

Both parties will fight hard for these 23 districts, in no small part because many of the Democrats are liberal ideologues who stuck with Nancy Pelosi on the big votes even as their consultants warned them it was suicidal. The speaker won’t easily abandon her martyrs — members like Tom Perriello and Mary Jo Kilroy — and those votes give challengers more than enough fodder for two months of contrasts. Even with a Democratic money advantage, very few incumbents in this group will be able to escape the predominant urge of the electorate this year to apply a brake pedal to the Pelosi and Obama agenda.

Plenty of these target Democrats are doing lots right tactically in their campaigns, but in most instances, it just won’t matter. Votes for the stimulus, health-care reform, and cap-and-trade ended two-thirds of these races on the House floor months ago. The inescapable truth about martyrdom is that there’s always a rough patch for the martyr.

There’s a lot of campaign remaining, but watch for 17 or more Republican gains from this group of 23 — and it might be closer to 23 than 17.

SLEEPING DOGS

The next group of key races is a credit to NRCC chair Pete Sessions. Call them the “sleeping dogs,” a cadre of mostly senior Democrats, many of them Blue Dogs, who haven’t had serious races in years. Sessions’s predecessors at the NRCC in the last decade put little emphasis on challenger races and most of these Blue Dogs snoozed through easy reelections despite facing very conservative constituencies.

But Sessions, who nearly beat an incumbent of this ilk himself in a non-targeted 1994 Texas race, put these presumably safe Democrats on his list at the outset of the cycle. Remember that far back? Then, the president was still popular and the potential for a rout was a construct of only Sessions’s imagination.

The poster boy for this group is Budget Committee chairman John Spratt, who wrote the reconciliation language that enabled the passage of Obamacare. Other prototypical sleeping dogs include Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin, who began the cycle with a paltry bank account and got caught completely flat-footed by challenger Kristi Noem, and Lincoln Davis, whose rural Tennessee district is so red he could lose to any Republican in any cycle.

During the Bush years, this group could point to a series of military and foreign-affairs votes to prove their independence from liberal Democratic leaders — think of Ric Boucher and Allen Boyd. But with the war offstage and the Obama agenda central to voters’ attention, independence will be much harder to prove.

Even though many Democrats in this group have residual local appeal at home, almost all of them are facing their toughest opponents ever in the worst electoral climate in their entire careers.

The sleeping dogs were reelected, on average, with a comfortable 62 percent in 2008, but don’t be surprised if their 2010 challengers get outspent three-to-one and still win at least 12 of the 16.

PURPLE SUBURBIA

The fourth group of challenge races presents the toughest row of hurdles for Republicans: ten campaigns waged in purple suburbia. These pure swing districts packed with two-income families are exactly the kinds of places where national races are won or lost. The GOP presidential nominee averaged 48 percent in these districts in the last decade — a perfect mirror of the national average.

While you can expect closer outcomes than in the Red America seats that make up the 50 in the other three categories, don’t think the wave won’t be just as evident here.

In recessionary times, with pocketbook issues at the forefront, middle-class suburbanites always skew away from the party of taxes. Combine that with the primal impulse swing voters have to seek divided government, and you’ve got geography that looks less purple by the day. The proof is in survey after survey this year showing independent voters siding with Republicans on the generic ballot by large margins. Independent voters will decide all ten of these races.

The X factor for the GOP is that these seats also have some of the most attractive Republican candidates — Dr. Joe Heck in Las Vegas, Jamie Herrera in Vancouver, Washington and war vet Adam Kinzinger in the Joliet-centered 11th district of Illinois, to name a few. Democrats are already canceling October air time in two of these districts, in Phoenix and outer Chicago.

Republicans will have the right candidates to win a minimum of six of these ten seats, and eight or more is plenty likely.

THE HORDES TO FOLLOW

With much work yet to be done, the path outlined above could put John Boehner well past the 39 seats he needs to put Pelosi on a back bench — but the worst news for Democrats is that those races are just the beginning of their problems. As the August recess wore on, dozens of Democrats who thought they were safe went home to find themselves surprisingly in trouble. Aside from the 60 races in Democrat-held seats above, there are three or four dozen more Democratic incumbents in various degrees of jeopardy. That’s right, four dozen.

If 1994 and 2006, the two most recent wave elections, are the barometers, a good number of these off-the-radar challenges will succeed. Remember Republican Sue Kelly? Few D.C. operatives knew the New York moderate even had a problem until election night. How about Democrat David Price? He lost in 1994 in a North Carolina district chock full of college professors and scientists. Or Virgil Goode in 2008, who still had hundreds of thousands of dollars in his campaign account when he got surprised by netroots fringer Tom Perriello. These 35 or 40 races that are getting scant attention from either party right now could yield handfuls of new Republican freshmen, if history is any guide. If Democrats don’t cut bait on their higher-profile but already beaten freshmen soon, they’ll never get the chance to mitigate these surprises — and minus-39 seats might start looking awfully attractive.

Brad Todd of OnMessage Inc. is a Republican media consultant who this cycle has advised a variety of Senate, gubernatorial, and House candidates, along with the National Republican Congressional Committee. These opinions are his alone.

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