Sabato's Crystal Ball

Remember the Alamo

170 years later, could it be the GOP's last stand in 2006?

David Wasserman and Larry J. Sabato, U.Va. Center for Politics August 24th, 2006

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With less than two weeks to go before the traditional Labor Day kickoff of the fall election season, there’s never been a better time to take stock of the races that will determine partisan control of Congress beyond 2006. In some races, the same elements have been at play for many months and little has changed to give one party an unexpected advantage or setback heading into the homestretch. In plenty of other races, the political winds are shifting faster than you can say “Macaca.” And in the end, as the Crystal Ball will reveal later in this article, the totality of the midterm maelstrom for control of Congress just might be decided by a single shootout.

The battle for the House in this “sixth-year itch” election has proven especially volatile. As the Crystal Ball outlined at the outset of August, the vast majority of campaign developments that have taken place this summer have boosted Democratic fortunes. And in the absence of a truly major rally-around-the-flag intervening event, that unidirectional movement shows no signs of reversing course: every news day that goes by gives us more and more confidence that Republican losses in the lower chamber will number in the teens.

But where in the teens? Greater or lesser than that tipping point of control, that magic number, 15? That is, of course, the question keeping both GOP Speaker Dennis Hastert and would-be speaker Nancy Pelosi (D) up at night. Although it’s possible that voters could shock everyone and give the Democrats only a small gain–or a gain of several dozen–it’s more likely that the 110th Congress will feature some of the smallest congressional majorities in the nation’s history. One side or the other will be heartbroken to be on the short end of the stick, as a handful of votes in fewer than ten districts will almost certainly decide whose hands hold the gavels in the post-2006 House. What better reason for those voters to take the time to cast ballots in these critical midterm races!

With the crest of a pro-Democratic wave in view and the nation embroiled in a foreign war, the stakes for each party this November are higher than ever. Republicans know the end of a congressional majority would accelerate the Bush administration’s descent into a lame duck lagoon and stymie the party’s ability to pass any major item on its agenda. Meanwhile, Democrats know that they will likely have no greater opportunity than 2006 to capitalize on the opposition’s unpopularity and make major gains this decade. Unlike the exceptions to the rule that were the past two midterm elections of 1998 and 2002, we are in the midst of the sixth year itch, and all the marbles are on the line.

In such a supercharged atmosphere, it’s no surprise candidates are promising voters everything but the moon and stars and resorting to unprecedented strategies to prove their points. Many Republican incumbents are scrambling to distance themselves from their national party and its highest officeholder and stressing the importance of funding multitudinous local projects. And long-shot Democratic challengers in at least two states have taken to subsidizing motorists’ gas at local fill-up stations to draw media attention to the increase in fuel prices since their opponents took office (the chances of the candidates continuing to fund their publicity stunt once elected, to be sure, are about as slim as the chance that their opponents can be singularly blamed for the skyrocketing prices of oil).

Nonetheless, the fight for a majority of the House’s 435 seats carries on under such circumstances. And here’s the unique feature of this year’s showdown: although seats in every state are technically up for grabs, the Democrats’ foray for 218 will be won or lost in just a handful of states and media markets! This year, the Crystal Ball has observed an unusually high number of instances in which competitive House races are occurring as twins–such as two former GOP congressmen making comeback bids against Democratic incumbents in neighboring Georgia districts–or even triplets! As evidence, here is a triplet of triplets:

We could go on and on, but the trend line is clear. Democrats are almost exclusively the party on the offensive, and they stand to gain seats in bunches if there is a macro-wave on November 7th. What’s more, Democrats continue to sense fresh opportunities in places long considered off limits. A year ago, it was almost unimaginable that aforementioned GOP incumbents Johnson, Chocola, and Weldon would be among the majority’s most endangered representatives in 2006. Now those races are central in the battle for Congress, and new formerly out-of-reach districts are on the Democrats’ horizon line. For example, landlocked as Wyoming may be, some Democrats smell blood in the water following six-term GOP Rep. Barbara Cubin’s relatively weak primary showing on Tuesday.

For political analysts like us, evolving circumstances sometimes present formatting difficulties. The Crystal Ball realizes that our big board designed to keep track of competitive House elections shrunk from the “Nifty Fifty” to the “Dirty Thirty” only three years ago, but 2006 has surprised us. As we near November, we must admit that the outsized number of truly competitive House races no longer snugly fits our “Dirty Thirty” model. Largely because of the changing political climate’s power to put additional races into play, there now realistically exist on the order of forty genuinely engaged contests. And conveniently for the Crystal Ball, all of these races happen to be, in a word, ferocious!

So, with a tear in our eye, we bid adieu to the Dirty Thirty, at least for now. We hardly knew ye! And in its place, the Crystal Ball presents the August installment of the 2006 “Ferocious Forty:”

The All-New 2006 “Ferocious Forty” Competitive House Races

State District Incumbent Party Current Outlook Link to State Page
Arizona 05 Republican Leans Republican Read more
Arizona 08 Republican (OPEN) Toss-up Read more
Colorado 07 Republican (OPEN) Toss-up Read more
Connecticut 02 Republican Toss-up Read more
Connecticut 04 Republican Toss-up Read more
Connecticut 05 Republican Leans Republican Read more
Florida 13 Republican (OPEN) Leans Republican Read more
Florida 22 Republican Toss-up Read more
Georgia 08 Democratic Leans Democratic Read more
Georgia 12 Democratic Leans Democratic Read more
Illinois 06 Republican (OPEN) Toss-up Read more
Illinois 08 Democratic Toss-up Read more
Indiana 02 Republican Leans Republican Read more
Indiana 08 Republican Toss-up Read more
Indiana 09 Republican Toss-up Read more
Iowa 01 Republican (OPEN) Toss-up Read more
Iowa 03 Democratic Leans Democratic Read more
Kentucky 04 Republican Toss-up Read more
Louisiana 03 Democratic Leans Democratic Read more
Minnesota 06 Republican (OPEN) Toss-up Read more
New Mexico 01 Republican Toss-up Read more
New York 20 Republican Leans Republican Read more
New York 24 Republican (OPEN) Toss-up Read more
North Carolina 11 Republican Leans Republican Read more
Ohio 01 Republican Leans Republican Read more
Ohio 06 Democratic (OPEN) Leans Democratic Read more
Ohio 15 Republican Leans Republican Read more
Ohio 18 Republican (OPEN) Toss-up Read more
Pennsylvania 06 Republican Leans Democratic Read more
Pennsylvania 07 Republican Leans Republican Read more
Pennsylvania 08 Republican Leans Republican Read more
Pennsylvania 10 Republican Leans Republican Read more
Texas 17 Democratic Leans Democratic Read more
Texas 22 Republican (OPEN) Leans Democratic Read more
Texas 23 Republican Leans Republican Read more
Vermont AL Independent (OPEN) Leans Democratic Read more
Virginia 02 Republican Toss-up Read more
Washington 08 Republican Leans Republican Read more
West Virginia 01 Democratic Leans Democratic Read more
Wisconsin 08 Republican (OPEN) Leans Republican Read more

Where does the “Ferocious Forty” leave us? Well, for starters, 31 out of 40 are currently held by the GOP, which means Democrats would need only to win 24 of the 40 to seize control of the House–a much easier feat than previously estimated.

The chart can help us estimate which scenario might play out on Election Day. First, let’s assume that in a Democratic “wave” on November 7th, Democrats pick up the two GOP seats currently “leaning” to them (Texas 22nd and Pennsylvania 6th) and hold onto all of their own “leaners.” Next, they pick up exactly three quarters of the tossups (an eleven seat net gain not implausible in a pro-Democratic year) and pick off just one of the GOP-held “leaners” (a somewhat conservative estimate). If this were to occur, Democrats and Republicans would be tied at 217 seats each, with potentially one additional Republican-held seat in an intriguing special circumstance.

If you’ve been reading the Crystal Ball long enough, you are probably familiar with our fondness for using our predictions to forecast freakish political outcomes. Although they occur rarely–we were admittedly a tad off in our 2004 prediction of a tied Electoral College–their rate of occurrence is higher than would be expected as a result of random selection. There’s some truth to the notion that all electoral systems contain some bias towards parity; after all, what were the chances Florida would experience “overtime” in the 2000 presidential race? And as tiny a chance exists that the 2006 battle for the House could face a similar fate, a new twist in one district means we cannot rule it out.

So where might this lone special district be located–other than in limbo? The answer: the Lone Star State. As a result of a June Supreme Court ruling that the Hispanic majority in southwest Texas’s 23rd District had been unconstitutionally diluted in the GOP-led mid-decade redistricting leading up to 2004, the district’s lines were substantially altered earlier this month–after this year’s primary elections–to include more Hispanic voters. Lower courts held that the line-changing would necessitate a Louisiana-style free-for-all open primary on November 7th, to be followed by a December runoff between the two top vote-getters.

Although incumbent GOP Rep. Henry Bonilla can claim deep roots in the reconfigured district, the redraw (which features a shape somewhat comparable to a wrench around downtown San Antonio) throws a whole new wrench into his party’s struggle to maintain control of the House. Even in a much more heavily Democratic district, the well-financed Bonilla must be at least slightly favored to win another term over former Democratic Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, his best-known challenger. But with a large field of candidates vying to get out the vote on November 7th, it’s entirely possible that Bonilla and Rodriguez could advance to the December runoff, neither having reached 50 percent plus one, with national Democrats eagerly rallying alongside Rodriguez to get out the vote on Bexar County’s historically liberal but notoriously low-turnout south side.

If Democrats win a large share of the clusters of races around the country on November 7th and each party ends up stuck at 217, it would be quite fitting for San Antonio, Texas, to be the final theater in the battle for the House. Far fetched, we realize. But imagine all of the nation’s eyes on one poor, nonwhite sprawling border district for an entire month! How would the GOP fare in their “last stand?” Amid such a spectacle, you can bet both Dennis Hastert and Nancy Pelosi would be furiously brushing up on their Spanish, desperately seeking to avoid Davy Crockett’s fate. And the battle cry of the losing party in the 2008 congressional elections? That’s easy: “Remember the Alamo.”

P.S. To our extra-observant Texan readers: yes, we know the Alamo is technically located in the 20th District, not the 23rd…but close enough. As political junkies, we can only dream!