NPR logo House Democrats' Flickering Hopes For Retaking Control Dim Further

House Democrats' Flickering Hopes For Retaking Control Dim Further

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, House minority leader, and Rep. John Larson, Democratic Caucus chair, have an ever steeper path to regaining House control. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP hide caption

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Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, House minority leader, and Rep. John Larson, Democratic Caucus chair, have an ever steeper path to regaining House control.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Monday's retirement announcement by Rep. Barney Frank, a fixture among House Democrats of more than 30 years, has reportedly dimmed his party's already flickering hopes of winning the 25 seats they need to regain control of the House next year.

The congressman from Massachusetts was only the latest Democrat of long tenure to decide he'd rather not answer the bell again in 2012. He's the 17th Democrat to make the decision, his closely following that of Rep. Charles Gonzalez of Texas, leader of the House Hispanic Caucus. And it's expected there will be more.

So in a number of districts where they had hoped to have well-known incumbents with proven campaign-cash raising abilities, Democrats will now lack those advantages.

While the House Democrats' climb to regaining control of their chamber has looked prodigiously steep to analysts all along, party officials have kept a brave face.

At an early November briefing with reporters, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader, said Democrats had recruited a strong field of candidates and outraised Republicans in the first three quarters of 2011.

"If we hadn't been successful in the recruitment, if we hadn't been successful in raising money, you might make a statement to the extent of 'how on Earth do you think that you can win?' But I think that we have definitely put the House in play."

But even before Frank's announcement, Pelosi's optimism differed markedly from that of a knowledgeable, non-partisan observer of congressional elections like Charlie Cook.

In a National Journal column published before Frank's announcement, Cook wrote:

"House Democrats would still need a significant partisan wave to score the 25-seat net gain they need to capture a majority. Keep in mind that the only time the party holding the White House has netted even 15 House seats in a presidential year was when President Johnson was stomping Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964. Of all of the many scenarios for next year, President Obama winning a landslide of LBJ proportions may be the unlikeliest.

"In a bell curve of House probabilities, the best-case scenario for Republicans would be no net change. The best case for Democrats would be a gain of about 15 seats. Near the top of the bell curve, the most likely outcome today appears to be a Democratic gain of five to 10 seats."

So while Pelosi and the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Rep. Steve Israel of New York, are duty-bound to keep talking up the possibilities of their party regaining control (it's difficult to recruit candidates and attract campaign contributions otherwise) everyone else is free to state the obvious — it's likely not going to happen.

That will only make more House Democrats who might be on the fence about leaving decide to do so since being in the House minority by definition means being marginalized.

A excerpt:

"Members of the House don't focus on their own politics — they focus on whether they are going to be in the majority and can push an agenda," former Democratic Alabama Rep. Artur Davis told POLITICO. "There are very few Democrats who see the prospect of the House shifting."

He added: "I predict there will be five to 10 other senior Democrats that will announce their retirements in the coming months."

All of which is very good news for Republicans since it will give them a better shot at picking up some of those seats now held by Democrats.

Republicans recognize a rush to the lifeboats when they see one since they experienced their own during the wilderness years after the 2006 election when they lost House control. They were in especially bad straits entering the 2008 presidential election year. Sound familiar?

An excerpt from the Hill:

"Members of Congress don't retire when things are good. They just don't," said Matt Mackowiak, a Republican strategist. "I think they're looking at it right now and saying, 'It's unlikely we're gong to win the House back. If anything, it's likely we won't have the Senate, and the White House is a 50-50 shot, at best.' "