There's less than four months to go before the November midterm elections, and by the looks of things now, Republicans have a legitimate shot at capturing control of the House.
That's the sense of Stuart Rothenberg, the widely respected political analyst who publishes the conveniently-titled "Rothenberg Political Report." Stu sat down and talked politics with All Things Considered host Robert Siegel for an interview that will air this evening.
Of the 435 seats in the House, Democrats currently hold 255, Republicans 178, and there are two vacancies — the Republican seat in Indiana where Mark Souder resigned and the Democratic seat in New York where Eric Massa quit. There are no plans to hold a special election to replace Massa — Gov. David Paterson (D) says the state can't afford it, though Republicans are convinced that he doesn't want to give the GOP a shot at picking up the seat in a special, which it probably would. The Indiana seat is likely to stay in Republican hands in a special election.
So, if we're assuming 179 GOP seats going into November, that means they would need a net gain of 39 to take control of the House and make John Boehner speaker. Doable?
Absolutely, says Rothenberg. He sees a whopping 80 seats in play this year, all but a dozen or so held by the Democrats. "There are enough seats on the table that the Republicans could net the 39" needed for control, he said. "Substantial Republican gains," but it's "premature" to say whether they win a majority.
It's not surprising, of course, for the president's party — in this case, the Democrats — to lose seats in a midterm election. "Voters who were enthusiastic for a new president often do not turn out two years later," he said. Rothenberg points out that other than the exceptions of 2002, where the GOP picked up seats "probably because of 9/11," and 1998, where Democrats made gains because of Republicans "overplaying their hands on impeachment," the party that controls the White House loses congressional seats in the midterm elections.
That's not to say that the GOP won't lose a few of their own seats as well. Stu listed Charles Djou in Hawaii, Joseph Cao in Louisiana and the open seats in Delaware (vacated by Senate candidate Mike Castle) and Illinois (by Senate candidate Mark Kirk) as potential or likely Democratic pickups.
But for the most part, the change is going to go in the opposite direction — towards the GOP. Yes, it's only July, but Rothenberg says that "the general direction of the election is clear." Only the "magnitude" — how many seats, which districts — is uncertain, for that will "change up to the last minute."
Another 1994, where the Republicans won control of the House and Senate? "That's premature," he said. "It depends on the economy and the jobs numbers. Right now I don't think we're there yet. There will be damage to the Democratic side, but not like '94."
Change of control in the Senate is less likely, he noted. Of the 36 seats up in November, 18 are held by each party.
Currently the Senate makeup is 56 Democrats, plus two independents who vote to organize with the Dems, plus the vacancy in West Virginia that will most assuredly be held by a Democratic appointee. For the Republicans to gain control, they need to pick up a net of 10 seats: "Difficult," Stu said. He sees a GOP gain of perhaps five to eight seats. "They will need more states to come into play," he said, "before they have any chance of netting 10."
Democrats would love the the May special election in Pennsylvania's 12th District to be the model. In that race, to succeed the late John Murtha (D), Republicans ran a national campaign — anti-Obama, anti-Pelosi, anti-Washington — while Democrats focused on the local economy. And the Democratic candidate, Mark Critz won.
But November is "going to be about Barack Obama and the economy," Rothenberg said. "You don't see numbers like these" — so many more vulnerable Democratic seats than Republican seats — "if it wasn't a national election. There is a definite political wave building here, like we saw in 2006 and 2008. Only this time it's in the Republicans' direction."
Note: Check out this poll of 70 House districts conducted in June for NPR by Democrat Stan Greenberg and Republican Glen Bolger that forecasts significant gains for the GOP.