When it comes to midterm predictions, Republicans and conservatives have increasingly divided into two camps: the realistic-but-confident camp that expects decent Republican gains in both houses expressed by Gerald Seib this morning, and the barking-at-the-moon-crazy camp to which Minority Leader John Boehner and some over-enthusiastic pundits belong. Seib’s article is worth reading to appreciate just how difficult a 40-seat gain is under our current system:
Of the 16 seats Democrats are vacating, four are in such predominantly Democratic districts that they seem likely to stay in the “D” category, even in a tough year for the party. That would leave Republicans with 12 to gain in open seats—provided they hold on to the 19 seats where a Republican incumbent is retiring.
If that happens, Republicans would have to knock off another 29 Democratic incumbents running for re-election. Could that happen? The Cook Political Report, the gold standard in rating congressional races, lists 21 seats held by Democrats seeking re-election that are highly competitive—meaning either that they now lean toward the Republicans or are toss-ups—and another 31 Democratic seats where the race leans toward Democrats but is competitive.
So Republicans would, in short, have to win just over half the seats being defended by vulnerable sitting House Democrats. That’s possible, but still a tall order in an era when House incumbents win re-election more than 90% of the time [bold mine-DL].
That’s why most analysts think the most likely outcome is a Republican pickup of 25 to 35 seats—enough to bring the GOP close to even in the House, but not enough to allow them to take over and replace Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi with Republican House Speaker [sic] John Boehner.
It is not at all certain that the Republicans can hold the seats left open by Mike Castle and Mark Kirk, and it is unlikely that Cao in Louisiana will be re-elected. That makes the hill the GOP has to climb a little steeper. The vulnerable Democratic incumbents are already reasonably well-funded, which will make it that much harder to dislodge them. While the House races will inevitably be affected by national issues, nationalizing the House elections could backfire in some parts of the country. It is worth considering that Democrats won both of the House special elections in the last year and a half that the GOP tried to nationalize.
There are also vulnerable Democratic freshmen incumbents in some conservative, McCain-backing districts that have strong local appeal that allowed them to win office in the first place. They will not be so easy to defeat. Travis Childers in MS-01 comes to mind. On paper, he is a highly vulnerable Blue Dog incumbent, and his seat is rated as a toss-up or even Republican-leaning depending on the analyst, but he has the advantage of being a well-liked local political leader with especially strong support from voters in and around the eastern part of his district around Tupelo. It was Childers’ appeal as a respected local official that helped him win his own special election early in 2008. Registration in his district continues to be heavily Democratic, the district has traditionally been represented by Democrats except between 1995-2007, and Childers has mostly voted in line with the conservative leanings of his district. According to CQPolitics, there is a strong contender in the Republican primary, but he faces a tough contest before he can face Childers. MS-01 is one of the seats that Republicans absolutely have to win if they have any hope of winning control of the House, and it is far from a sure thing.
Obviously, Boehner’s prediction of gaining “at least 100 seats” is absurd on its face when there aren’t even 100 truly competitive seats this year, but it is important because this is coming from the minority leader and not just from some overzealous activist. Bloggers and pundits can speculate to their hearts’ content, and it probably doesn’t matter at all, but when a top member of party leadership makes such unreasonable predictions he is encouraging complacency for his party. Just as bad, he is inviting scorn for having absolutely no grasp of the political landscape and disdain for having exceedingly poor political judgment. Being hopeful and confident is one thing, but over-hyping your party’s chances like this can only bring ridicule and disappointment. How can the electorate take any of what Republican leaders say seriously when their electoral projections are completely detached from reality?