Sabato's Crystal Ball

Congressional Combat

Contests for the U.S. House 2008

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics December 20th, 2007

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Truly important election years for the U.S. House of Representatives come around only every so often-years when party control is at stake and the House actually changes hands or the balance of power is significantly altered one way or the other.

Since 1970 we have had five of those years:

1974 – The year of Watergate, when Democrats added 48 net House seats and elected 75 freshmen who shook up the House and made life miserable both for senior Democratic legislative barons and Republican President Gerald R. Ford.

1980 – Ronald Reagan’s initial election as President with strong coattails, when the GOP added 33 House seats. That was not enough to take over but, when combined with the still-large contingent of Southern Democrats, it gave Reagan strong support for his tax-cut and defense policies.

1982 – In the midst of a serious recession, Democrats won back 26 of the 33 seats they had lost two years earlier. With six years to go as President, Reagan was never able to rule the House roost quite as effectively as in his first two years.

1994 – Forty consecutive years of Democratic control in the House of Representatives came to an end, as Newt Gingrich’s Republicans capitalized on a poor performance by President Bill Clinton. The GOP added a remarkable 52 seats to give it a House majority roughly equal to the one Democrats enjoy today.

2006 – After a dozen years out of power, the Democrats came roaring back on the strength of the unpopularity of President Bush and his Iraq War, plus corruption that directly affected about a dozen GOP congressmen. Democrats gained 29 House seats (later expanded to 30 in a special December election in Texas).

Notice that the natural rhythm of two-party politics produces changes that flow from one party to the other (1974=D, 1980=R, 1982=D, 1994=R, 2006=D). Often, though not always, the tsunami elections are followed by consolidation elections. That is, the newly empowered party is confirmed as the governing House authority, sometimes with a few seats added to its total in the chamber, and other times with a few seats subtracted.

It’s early in the election cycle for Congress, and a lot can change, but every initial indication suggests that 2008 will be a consolidation election for the Democrats. They may add a few seats, or lose a few, but their majority is unlikely to be threatened.

Furthermore, again based on information available a year out from Election Day, it appears more likely that Democrats will gain seats in the House, thus padding their new majority. How many seats are added, or indeed whether this tentative prediction holds up at all, will depend partly on the identity of the presidential candidates and the coattails they generate. The currently unforeseeable conditions and circumstances existing at the time of the election (such as the state of play in Iraq and the shape of the American economy) will also play a major role in marginal, competitive House contests.

Let’s stress that if the eventual Republican presidential nominee manages to win or come close next November, Democratic House gains could be reduced or eliminated entirely. The current, deep unpopularity of Congress also gives GOP House nominees an inviting target. They can run against the Democratic Congress just as the Democratic House nominees will undoubtedly run against President Bush.

Going into the election year, though, House Democrats have the wind at their backs. Consider these facts:

  1. For the first time in at least two decades, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has out-raised the National Republican Congressional Committee, and by the sizeable margin of $56.6 million to $40.7 million (with cash on hand: $29.2 million D to $2.5 million R).

  2. The freshmen Democrats, many of them elected from normally GOP constituencies in 2006 and thus potentially vulnerable, have been doing particularly well in fundraising. The House leadership and the DCCC put emphasis on building up the freshmen’s war chests from the very start of the cycle. For example, during the first half of 2007, the 42 first-year Democrats out-raised their 13 Republican counterparts $21.8 million to $4.3 million, for an average of $520,000 per Democrat to $330,000 per Republican. (21 of these Democrats raised over half a million dollars during that time, while 4 Republicans did so.)

  3. Out of 23 open seats for 2008–places where the incumbent member of Congress has decided to step down–nearly three-quarters (17) are held by Republicans. Open seats give the opposition party the best chance for a takeover in many instances. As of now, not a single retiring Democrat is leaving a seat easily subject to a takeover bid by a Republican, while at least seven GOP seats are clearly vulnerable and comprise our TOSS-UP category for the moment: those of retiring Reps. Mike Ferguson (NJ-7); Deborah Pryce (OH-15); Jim Ramstad (MN-3); Rick Renzi (AZ-1); Jerry Weller (IL-11); Ralph Regula (OH-16); and Heather Wilson (NM-1). [Click here for a list of all 23 vacated House seats as of mid-December.]

By the way, the 2008 House GOP exodus is quite normal. When a party loses control of the House, some senior members of the new out-of-power party miss their perks and chairmanships, and they decide to call it a day. There may be more to come. For example, Congress-watchers are closely monitoring Republican Rep. Tom Davis (VA-11). Davis recently gave up a potential bid for the U.S. Senate seat of retiring Republican John W. Warner, and his wife, Jeannemarie Devolites-Davis, was defeated in her reelection bid to the Virginia State Senate in November. Should Davis retire, his seat may well go to a Democrat since his district has been rapidly moving into the Blue column.

The next level of competition, just below the Toss-Ups, is for seats LEANING to one party or the other. In each of these contests, the incumbent party has a slight advantage, but it is not difficult to imagine the seat being captured by the other party. There are thirteen Democrats and fifteen Republicans currently in this classification:

LEANING DEMOCRATIC LEANING REPUBLICAN
State Dist. Incumbent Party State Dist. Incumbent Party
AZ 5 Harold Mitchell D AK AL Don Young R
CA 11 Jerry McNerney D CA 4 John Doolittle R
FL 16 Tim Mahoney D CO 4 Marilyn Musgrave R
GA 8 Jim Marshall D CT 4 Chris Shays R
KS 2 Nancy Boyda D IL 10 Mark Kirk R
NH 1 Carol Shea-Porter D IL 14 Dennis Hastert R (OPEN)
NY 19 John Joseph Hall D MI 7 Tim Walberg R
NY 20 Kirsten Gillibrand D NC 8 Robin Hayes R
OH 18 Zach Space D NV 3 Jon Porter, Sr. R
PA 4 Jason Altmire D NY 25 James Walsh R
PA 10 Chris Carney D NY 29 Randy Kuhl, Jr. R
TX 22 Nick Lampson D OH 1 Steve Chabot R
WI 8 Steve Kagen D PA 6 Jim Gerlach R
VA 2 Thelma Drake R
WA 8 Dave Reichert R

By no means are all of these races equal in competition. For the Democrats, Congressmen Tim Mahoney, Nancy Boyda, and Nick Lampson may be in especially tough reelection battles, while Congressmen Zach Space and Jason Altmire may have it a bit easier. Similarly, for the Republicans, scandal has damaged John Doolittle and Don Young–Doolittle may not even run again–while most of the other incumbents went through the fire of the heavily Democratic election of 2006, and survived. What does not destroy a politician often strengthens him or her for future fights.

The presidential election will complicate life for many of the congressmen in the LEANS category. Suppose Hillary Clinton is nominated by the Democrats and Rudy Giuliani is not the winner on the GOP side: What effect will Clinton’s likely large margin in New York have on the two Republicans in marginal districts, Randy Kuhl and James Walsh? Take the other side of the same question. Many of the Democrats in the LEANS column are in deeply Republican Red districts. Can they survive a sizeable loss by Clinton or another Democrat at the top of the ticket?

Our final category in this early sorting-out of 2008 House match-ups is LIKELY Democratic or Republican. There are eighteen Democrats (almost all of them elected for the first time in 2006) and eighteen Republicans (some of whom had close calls in 2006). The probability is that a large majority of congressmen in this category will be reelected, but all the districts bear watching. A few incumbents are especially shaky, such as the scandal-tainted Rep. Bill Jefferson (D-LA) and Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-OH), who so far has been consistently weak in her electoral performances. And no one will take their eyes off Rep. Baron Hill (D-IN) in his fourth consecutive clash with Republican Mike Sodrel. Hill won in 2002 and 2006, with Sodrel getting the 2004 term. Hill looks stronger in the fourth round, but we’ll see. As 2008 progresses, some of the names on this list will move up to LEANS, and others will disappear from the competitive lists entirely.

LIKELY DEMOCRATIC LIKELY REPUBLICAN
State Dist. Incumbent Party State Dist. Incumbent Party
AZ 5 Harold Mitchell D WY AL Barbara Cubin R (OPEN)
AZ 8 Gabrielle Giffords D CA 41 Jerry Lewis R
CT 2 Joe Courtney D FL 13 Vern Buchanan R
CT 5 Chris Murphy D ID 1 Bill Sali R
FL 22 Ron Klein D IL 6 Peter Roskam R
GA 12 John Barrow D IL 18 Ray LaHood R (OPEN)
IA 2 Dave Loebsack D MI 9 Joe Knollenberg R
IL 8 Melissa Bean D MO 6 Sam Graves R
IN 2 Joe Donnelly D NC 3 Walter Jones, Jr. R
IN 8 Brad Ellsworth D NJ 3 Jim Saxton R (OPEN)
IN 9 Baron Hill D NM 2 Steve Pearce R
KY 3 John Yarmuth D NV 2 Dean Heller R
LA 2 Bill Jefferson D NY 3 Pete King R
MN 1 Tim Walz D OH 2 Jean Schmidt R
NC 11 Heath Shuler D PA 15 Charlie Dent R
NH 2 Paul Hodes D PA 6 Jim Gerlach R
PA 8 Patrick Murphy D PA 18 Tim Murphy R
TX 23 Ciro Rodriguez D VA 11 Tom Davis III R
IN 7 Julia Carson D (OPEN) WV 2 Shelley Moore Capito R

If your district is not listed in our toss-up, leans, or likely categories, then you can assume for now the incumbent party has a big leg up to hold it. Yet there will be plenty of surprises in the months ahead, including snap retirements, unpredictable scandals, and maybe even an unexpected celebrity candidate or two. The House picture may also become complicated by presidential third-parties that are not yet on the horizon. Finally, the fates of politics may consign most of just one party’s marginal candidates to defeat if a strong trend develops next fall. Your Crystal Ball will stay on the trail. Stay tuned!