Politics 2012: Dems hope to take back House, analysts aren't so sure

By NICOLE DEBEVEC, United Press International   |  Sept. 30, 2012 at 4:01 AM
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Democrats hope to cut into, if not outright overcome, the 241 U.S. House seats now occupied by Republicans.

Democratic leaders, led by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, say recent miscues at the top of the Republican ticket improve Democrats' chances down-ticket -- although most analysts and observers say Republicans will retain their majority after Nov. 6.

Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., the man handling the strategy to push the House leadership back into Democratic hands, told U.S. News & World Report he was cautious despite polls indicating Obama is leading Romney in several key states and backlash from a statement Romney made during a meeting with fundraisers that 47 percent of Americans paid no taxes, took no responsibility and characterized themselves as victims.

"When you have the ball in your opponents' 20 yard line, your ability to score a field goal largely depends on the wind," said Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "Right now we have the wind at our back."

Analysts agree with Israel's outlook, saying gaining the 25 seats Democrats need to take control is highly unlikely, and the party more likely will chip away at the GOP numbers instead of taking the gavel.

"It is highly unlikely looking at the closeness of the presidential race that Democrats would be able to pick up the 25 seats they would need," Jim Campbell, a political scientist and contributor to University of Virginia government Professor Larry J. Sabato's Crystal Ball publication.

"National factors can affect these local races," Campbell said. "At the same time, you could probably [cite] as many factors working against the Democrats -- the grumpy economic news, upset in the Middle East, and who knows what [Vice President] Joe Biden might say next?"

Five member-on-member tilts, the products of redistricting, bear watching, The Hill reported recently. While some member-on-member contests were decided during state party primaries, these contests in Ohio, Iowa, Louisiana and California are a mix of Democrat against Republican, Republican versus Republican and Democrat pitted against Democrat.

Democratic President Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney have concentrated on swing states, but observers have noted a group of dyed-in-the-politics red or blue states have become the battleground for control of the House.

Sabato, veering from conventional wisdom, told the Houston Chronicle results in what he calls "orphan states" could well mean Democrats pick up the 25 seats they need to boot Republican John Boehner and reinstall Pelosi in the speaker's chair.

The two parties also are focusing on 18 other House races in states without a close presidential contest, the Chronicle reported. Democrats hope to pick up four Republican seats in Minnesota, while Republicans have set their sights on Democratic seats in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

"Orphan states are playing an outsized role in the House landscape this year," observed Zach Hunter, a spokesman for the Congressional Leadership Fund, a group working to elect Republicans. "States like California and New York will be central in the battleground for the House for the next decade."

Ed Costantini, a political scientist at the University of California, Davis, said states where the presidential contest isn't in doubt gives parties a huge chance to get their message to voters unfettered by any sniping going on at the top of the ticket.

"When you don't have to think about the presidential [race]," Costantini said, "then the voter can think of things closer to home and come to a not-predetermined decision."

Among some of the more watched races listed in the Chronicle are:

-- Texas' 23rd Congressional District, where freshman Republican Francisco Canseco and Democratic state Rep. Pete Gallego are in a close battle in a majority-Latino district evenly divided between the two major parties.

-- New York's 19th Congressional District, where redistricting forced Albany-area Republican Chris Gibson to seek a second term in a more Democratic district that has a large bloc of new voters.

-- California's 52nd Congressional District, where San Diego Republican Brian Bilbray is trying to fend off Democrat Scott Peters, a one-time city council president, in a newly configured district nearly evenly split among Republicans, Democrats and Independents.

-- Minnesota's Democrat-leaning 8th Congressional District, where first-term Republican Chip Cravaack -- who dumped powerful Democratic committee chairman Jim Oberstar two years ago -- faces stiff competition from Rick Nolan, who once represented the state's 6th Congressional District.

Democrats say Romney's presidential campaign missteps have put Republican incumbents on the defensive all over the country, but most significantly in heavily Democratic states such as California, New York and Illinois.

Democrats are trying to hammer home Romney's "47 percent" comment whenever they can, hoping some of the fallout falls on down-ticket Republicans.

"This helps us in every swing district in America," House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland told U.S. News. "Voters are looking to find a party that they believe cares about them, their interests and their future."

But Republicans warn Democrats not to measure for drapes just yet because redistricting also has given them the opportunity to pluck a couple of seats from Democrats, including as many as four in California and two in New York and Illinois. Plus, GOP insiders said, the party anticipates adding about a half-dozen seats in Republican states such as Utah, Georgia, Arkansas and Oklahoma.

Case in point: Democrat Jim Matheson of Utah risks being the only Democratic incumbent to lose because of Romney's coattails, the San Francisco Chronicle said. Romney is expected to carry Utah by 50 percentage points and could sweep out Matheson, one of the most conservative Democrats left. If she defeats Matheson, Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love, a speaker at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., who would become the first African American Republican woman ever elected to the House, along with being the first black Mormon.

"Republicans [are] poised to make huge gains in the South and perform well in traditionally blue states," Hunter told the Chronicle. "While Democrats were originally bullish on their chances of making huge gains in California, New York and Illinois, they're publicly lowering expectations now because Republicans have real offensive opportunities in these Democratic states."

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