Can the Dems retake the House?

The possibility that the Democrats could retake the Senate in November has recently become a staple of discussion among political consultants and reporters.

But if any Democrat had suggested six months ago that the party could also win back the House of Representatives, you'd have asked them to take a drug test.

Democrats would only need a net gain of 11 seats to win back the House -- not a huge number when you consider that 435 seats are up for grabs. Still, that target seemed beyond reach in light of the 2000 congressional redistricting, which drew lines that made practically all incumbents -- Democrats and Republicans -- pretty safe from challenges.

What's more, Republicans' chances of holding the House were further enhanced by their huge funding-raising advantage and the popularity of the president.

But the landscape may have changed, giving the Democrats a shot at winning a Triple Crown of the White House, Senate and House of Representatives. The third leg is still a steep climb, but hardly an impossible one.

Instead of a perfect storm, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer believes Democrats need only "a breeze." That's the weather-forecast bite line Hoyer has been spreading all over Boston this week. And he spent an hour with TIME editors and correspondents explaining the new math.

Hoyer's historical benchmark is 1994, the year Newt Gingrich and his band of GOP guerrillas stunned Democrats and captured the House. At the end of June 1994, there were 68 congressional seats around the country considered competitive -- open seats contested by first-time Republican and Democratic candidates, or seats in which a vulnerable incumbent faced a strong challenge.

Of those competitive seats, Republicans had to win at least 38 to take the House, which they did. That meant winning one out of every 1.8 competitive races.

How does the 1994 math look ten years later? Democrats see 33 seats across the country as competitive -- far less than the 68 in play in 1994, but then the Dems only need a net gain of 11 to win back the House. That means winning one out of every three competitive races -- easier, perhaps, than the one out of every 1.8 Gingrich's Republicans had to win in 1994.

Money is a second indicator encouraging Hoyer's optimism. Republicans have always raised truckloads more cash than Democrats in past elections. But for April, May and June of this year, House Democrats surged and by June 30, the Democratic campaign organization for the House had $18.5 million on hand compared with $20.2 million in GOP coffers -- a far narrower Republican cash-on-hand advantage of than in the past.

Also, the polls are looking better for Democrats. John Kerry has managed to survive the spring and summer barrage of GOP attack ads while President Bush's numbers have been sinking. But the polls to which congressional leaders in Washington pay more attention are the "generic" ones, where voters are asked whether they'll vote for a Republican or a Democrat in congressional races.

By early August 1994, Republicans had overtaken the Democrats in the generic polls and were leading by about two percentage points. In June and July of 2004, Democrats have had anywhere from a 6- to a 15-point advantage, depending on the poll.

That wide spread is unlikely to hold through October when the public starts paying more attention to politics and races tighten. But Rep. Bob Matsui, who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and who briefed reporters this week in another session, believes Democrats need only be about 3 points ahead on the generic polls by November to win the House.

No surprise, though, that Republicans have a different view of this math. Sure, a 1-in-3 competitive races margin required for victory looks more favorable for the Democrats than the 1-in-1.8 required for Gingrich's troops.

But Democrats have to win big in a much smaller universe of 33 seats, and there's less wiggle room for error. Democratic staffers on Capitol Hill admit privately that will be hard to do. Moreover, Democrats have to hold onto their incumbent seats or challenge GOP incumbents in a number of Bush-friendly states such as Texas, Colorado, Louisiana, Georgia and Indiana.

Democrats had a strong money show for the second quarter, but they know House Republicans will mount a fund-raising surge in July, August and September. Also, while the generic poll numbers are bad for the GOP now, back in the 1994 mid-terms, Newt's insurgents won on a unified message, embodied in the Contract With America.

House Democrats don't have an equivalent message, and because this is a presidential year, their national message will be Kerry's. If Kerry wins, it helps House Democrats; if Kerry loses, House Republicans expect to keep their majority.

Those realities make Democrats stop short of declaring this a slam-dunk. But Hoyer insists the "context is there" for a win.

Says Matsui: "Now, I'm not going to predict that we're going to win. But I'm certainly not going to say we're going to lose." And that's enough to put the House in play for political watchers.

 

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