Sabato's Crystal Ball

Republican Renaissance?

GOP will gain significantly, but probably remain in House minority

Isaac Wood, House Race Editor February 18th, 2010

The last two U.S. House of Representatives elections have been Democratic landslides that have left them with a 79-seat majority. In 2006, Democrats picked up 29 seats on election night (exactly as the Crystal Ball predicted, by the way) and didn’t lose a single seat of their own, even adding another pick-up in a December runoff. The winning streak continued in 2008, with Democrats netting 21 new seats in what was a Blue year across the board.

A month and a half into the midterm year of 2010, already Republicans can feel the tide turning. The electoral disasters of 2006 and 2008, due to the toxic unpopularity of George W. Bush and the war in Iraq, represented the dark ages for the GOP, but now they sense a Republican Renaissance in 2010.

Some pundits are already predicting the GOP could even take back the House, which would require a net gain of 40 seats this November. To put that into perspective, in the past sixty years there have been thirty House elections, but only four have resulted in either party gaining 40 seats or more. In fact, over the past thirty-five years (and sixteen House elections), only once has either party picked up 40 seats or more. That year, of course, was 1994 when Republicans came to power following a net gain of 52 House seats.

While the Crystal Ball believes 2010 will reverse Democratic gains at all levels, there is still no convincing evidence that a GOP wave will deliver Republicans the majority in the House. Examining history and House races on a district-by-district basis shows instead that Republicans are headed to a more typical, if better than average, midterm year, picking up between 24 and 30 seats as the Crystal Ball has predicted since September. The average pick-up in a midterm year (since 1946) is 22 seats and Republicans should exceed that, but the magic number of 40 still seems out of reach, as of February.

The key to this year’s midterm elections is the economy. If the economy improves between now and November, Democratic losses could be slight and they would still retain a mid-size majority in the House. The adage “timing is everything” rings true in politics as well-timed economic news could trump many months of malaise in the minds of voters. Yet if the economy stays stalled or sours further, Republicans could well boost their House gains to levels not seen since 1994.

So long as Obama’s popularity ratings hover around 50% or higher, though, Republicans will be hard-pressed to produce the magnitude of gains they hope for. The Crystal Ball has moved 29 Democratic House seats in the Republicans’ direction since our last batch of ratings, but those movements merely indicate which seats the GOP have a good chance of taking. The fundamentals of 2010 have not changed much over the past months: Republicans are still headed for significant gains in November, but as of today it appears they will fall short of the 40 seats they need to become the majority party in the House.

The chart below shows all 102 districts the Crystal Ball considers to be competitive in 2010. The columns show our ratings for each individual race, while those districts not listed are considered safe for the incumbent party. Already we show 13 Democratic seats falling into Republican hands, but many of the 18 toss-up Democratic districts could join them in the coming months. While Democrats achieved their 2006 gains without losing a single seat of their own, Republicans are unlikely to repeat this feat as Democrats are favored in Joseph Cao’s LA-02 district (which Obama carried with 75% of the vote in 2008) and in Delaware, where Republican Mike Castle has left the at-large seat open to pursue a run for the Senate. There is also a toss-up race in IL-10 where Republican Mark Kirk retired to run for Senate, adding another potential Republican loss to offset their probable gains.

Beyond the most competitive races, there are 19 Democratic districts that we rate as “Leans Democratic” and 28 rated “Likely Democratic” while Republicans are defending 7 Leans Republican and 14 Likely Republican districts. The huge disparity (47 potentially endangered Democrats to just 21 Republicans) shows the upside potential for the GOP, as they could gain more than just the toss-up seats and those districts where they are already favored. While many of these endangered Democrats may survive, some will surely be picked off by strong Republican candidates aided by disillusioned voters. Two straight cycles of Democratic pick-ups have left Democrats without many more seats to target, while Republicans have a rich universe of vulnerable Democrats to choose from.

All in all, the Crystal Ball projects that Republicans would gain 27 seats if the election were held today. Both parties have reason to be glad the election is not until November: Democrats still have time to recover and Republicans can push their gains even higher. All of us observing can celebrate as well: 257 more days of House campaigning to enjoy!

Italics indicate freshman members of Congress.

* Wrote a letter to Congressman Jim Moran (VA-8) requesting support of Senator Mark Warner’s FY 2010 Labor HHS Appropriations request for the Center for Politics’ Youth Leadership Initiative.