Representative Steve Israel, the Democrat leading his party’s campaign to win back control of the U.S. House, is managing expectations.
“It’s a steep mountain,” said Israel of New York. “I can’t safely say to anybody that we’re going to win the House. It’s too early to say. But I can guarantee it’s going to be razor close.”
While most attention is focused on the 2012 presidential race, House members are bracing for the fourth consecutive election cycle in which they will face an electorate broiling with frustration about Washington. According to an Aug. 18-22 Associated Press-GfK poll, 87 percent of Americans disapprove of the job Congress is doing compared with 12 percent who approve.
In 2006, voter frustration resulted in the ouster of Republican leadership in both the House and Senate. Two years later, the electorate gave the Democratic Party the White House and complete control of the legislative process. In 2010, voters rebelled anew, setting off a pro-Republican wave that flipped House control and pared the Democrats’ margin of power in the Senate.
As Israel and his party try to recover from those losses, voter unrest in public opinion polls is aimed at both parties -- a dynamic that may threaten some of his incumbents as he confronts a difficult takeover terrain. The AP-GfK poll found that 75 percent of Americans disapprove of how Republicans in Congress are handling their jobs, compared with 68 percent disapproval for Democrats.
Two Dozen Seats
There are 240 Republicans in the House, 192 Democrats and three vacancies. Democrats need a net gain of 24 seats in the 435-member chamber. To get there, they must overcome newly drawn congressional maps that provide more safety to vulnerable Republicans, an opposition with a cash advantage and a president struggling with low job approval ratings as voters worry about a sputtering economy.
“At this point, Democrats’ drive for 24 is not completely unrealistic, but it’s unenviable and arduous,” said David Wasserman, House editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington.
Democrats are pinning their hopes on 61 seats now held by Republicans in districts that President Barack Obama carried in 2008.
The party has so far recruited candidates for 45 districts it wants to win back as it portrays Republicans as willing to cut programs for working-class Americans and reshape entitlement programs such as Medicare for the elderly, while protecting tax breaks for the wealthiest.
Republican lawmakers claimed a mandate for shrinking government through deep budget cuts after winning 63 House seats in the 2010 midterm election. Democrats say public polling and some contentious town hall meetings for Republicans earlier this year are evidence voters are having second thoughts.
“There’s a deep sense of buyers’ remorse that has set in since Republicans took the majority,” Israel said.
Democrats were buoyed in May when their candidate, Kathy Hochul, won a special election in a traditionally Republican New York district. A prominent issue in a race was House Republicans’ approval of a budget that would privatize Medicare for future recipients.
Further voter dissatisfaction came after 66 House Republicans voted against raising the nation’s debt limit to head off a default on U.S. obligations, Israel said.
Independent voters, a swing bloc that backed Democrats in 2006 and 2008 and turned away in 2010, are “fed up with Republicans who have consistently gone too far,” Israel said.
While such sentiment may provide a path for Democrats to pick up a net gain of about 10 seats, reaching the 24-seat threshold will be more difficult, said Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report in Washington.
“There’s a big hurdle between gaining seats and gaining the majority,” he said.
Redistricting, the once-a-decade reconfiguring of House district boundaries, is a major reason for that. States are in the process of using data from the 2010 Census to redraw those lines.
Democrats are set to pick up seats in some states, such as Illinois and California, according to an analysis by the Cook Political Report. Those gains may be blunted because Republicans used redistricting to shore up support for lawmakers vulnerable to a Democratic challenger in states such as Wisconsin.
In about a dozen swing districts “dramatic changes were made,” said Representative Pete Sessions, a Texas Republican who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee.
First-term Republican Renee Ellmers of North Carolina, who defeated a seven-term Democrat by 1,483 votes out of 189,774 cast last year in a district Obama won with 53 percent support in 2008, is the kind of incumbent Democrats must beat to reclaim the House.
After redistricting, Ellmers’ district became 11 percentage points more Republican than the national average, up from 2 percentage points before state lawmakers this year moved the district lines to capture Republican strongholds, according to a partisan voting index by the Cook Political Report.
In Texas, state legislature Republicans strengthened the district of Republican Blake Farenthold, a Tea Party favorite and former radio talk show host who favors shrinking government, to 13 points more Republican from 2 points. Farenthold beat his Democratic opponent by 775 votes in 2010.
Carving Out Democrats
In Wisconsin, first-term Republican Sean Duffy won a race for a vacant seat that had been held by a Democrat for more than 40 years, winning 52 percent of the vote. His district, which was 3 points more Democratic than the national average, is now evenly split.
“We have spent a lot of time attempting to work with delegations and with state legislators to have us take Republican seats and bolster them,” Sessions said.
Republicans can “hold our own and add seats,” in part because Americans will blame Democrats and Obama for the slowdown in economic growth, Sessions said.
Federal Reserve staff at the August meeting cut estimates for the gross domestic product in the second half of 2011. That was the fourth consecutive downward revision to its near-term outlook, the longest series of downward revisions since the recovery began two years ago. The nation’s 9.1 percent unemployment rate is a reminder that a sustained labor-market rebound has yet to develop.
“The people back home are losing their jobs; they are in real economic trouble,” Sessions said.
Republicans also boast a financial edge. The National Republican Congressional Committee entered August with $11.3 million in the bank, more than the $8.1 million reported by its House Democratic counterpart.
Even though Republicans “start with an advantage,” a lot can change more than a year before an election, Gonzales said.
“If the economy is struggling next summer, the bulk of responsibility will be laid on president Obama, and that will put Democrats at risk,” Gonzales said.
--Editors: Jeanne Cummings, Justin Blum
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