2008 contests for the U.S. House - June update


Last December, when we first sketched out the upcoming House elections, we suggested that Democrats were likely to have a good year. Nothing has changed our forecast in the six months since, and if anything, we now see November 2008 as probably the best year Democrats have had in many a moon. Only a solid presidential victory by John McCain that is strong enough to come with coattails attached can change this vision of the next congressional Election Day.

We always like to start with a bit of history, so let’s review it again. 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 some seats added to its total in the chamber, and other times with some seats subtracted.

It’s still early in the election cycle for Congress, which can be late-breaking in a presidential year since voters are naturally following the presidential race more closely than congressional contests. Yet every initial indication suggests that November 2008 will be a consolidation election for the Democrats. Barring a broad-based triumph by John McCain – not a squeaker – the Democratic House majority is highly unlikely to be threatened.

Furthermore, it appears very likely that Democrats will gain seats in the House, thus padding their majority. The precise number of seats to be added is indeterminate for now, but eight to fourteen is a decent, conservative guess. (As we always do at the Crystal Ball, we will adjust this estimate beginning in early September and ending in early November.) The March 8th Democratic takeover of former GOP Speaker Dennis Hastert‘s seat in Illinois by a little-known challenger, Bill Foster, was the first warning shot across the Republican bow. So too was the special election of Democrat Don Cazayoux on May 3rd for the seat vacated by Republican Rep. Richard Baker.

The third blow was the harshest. On May 13th Democrat Travis Childers of Mississippi captured the seat vacated when Rep. Roger Wicker was appointed to the U.S. Senate – a district George W. Bush had carried by 25 percentage points in 2004. With just 218 needed for a House majority, Democrats now control 236 seats – a comfortable margin going into the fall campaign. The GOP would have to gain 19 seats to take over the House in 2009 – a daunting mountain to climb, and far outside the realm of what appears possible.

Moreover, the same issues and conditions that are producing a gale wind at the back of the eventual Democratic presidential nominee (the bad economy, the Iraq war, and President Bush’s deep unpopularity) will also assist the Democratic congressional candidates. In fact, that is even truer for House candidates. Barack Obama may have serious wounds from the nominating process, and leftover controversies will be exploited to the hilt by McCain, the GOP, and/or “independent” committees. Not so in the House races, for the most part. House members can depend on incumbency for a powerful assist, and Democrats benefit disproportionately since they have more incumbents.

Non-incumbent challengers are relatively unknown in many cases. Incumbents can survive even a presidential drubbing in most districts, as Democratic Congresses proved in 1972, 1984, and 1988, three years of landslide or near-landslide Republican presidential wins. Yes, a lot has changed since then, but not the essence of congressional politics. And given the awful circumstances for Republicans, Obama may come roaring back in the fall, giving coattail assist to Democrats in some districts, especially those with a sizeable African-American population.

Going into the election year, House Democrats have far more than incumbency on their side. Consider these facts:

  1. For the first time in at least two decades, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has dramatically out-raised the National Republican Congressional Committee. As of late May, the DCCC had $45.3 million on hand to spend, compared to a mere $6.7 million for the NRCC.

  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 warchests from the very start of the cycle.

  3. Out of 35 currently open seats for 2008 – places where the incumbent member of Congress has decided to step down and no interim special election has been held – nearly 80 percent (27) are held by Republicans and just 8 by Democrats. Open seats give the opposition party the best chance for a takeover in many instances. As of now, only two retiring Democrats (Bud Cramer of Alabama and Darlene Hooley of Oregon) are leaving a seat easily subject to a takeover bid by a Republican (and Hooley’s seat is leaning Democratic), while a dozen vacant GOP seats are clearly vulnerable. A couple of these seats already favor the Democrats (Jerry Weller, IL-11 and Tom Davis, VA-11), while the others are members of our TOSS-UP category: those of retiring Reps. Mike Ferguson, NJ-7; Vito Fossella, NY-13; Jim McCrery, LA-4; Deborah Pryce, OH-15; Jim Ramstad, MN-3; Rick Renzi, AZ-1; Ralph Regula, OH-16; Tom Reynolds, NY-26; Jim Saxton, NJ-3; James Walsh, NY-25; and Heather Wilson, NM-1. A pair of GOP incumbents are in Toss-Up races (Don Young of Alaska and Robin Hayes of North Carolina), while three Democrats are equally endangered (Tim Mahoney of Florida, Nancy Boyda of Kansas, and Nick Lampson of Texas). [Click here for a list of all 35 vacated House seats as of early June]

State Dist. Incumbent Party
AL 5 Bud Cramer D (OPEN)
FL 16 Tim Mahoney D
KS 2 Nancy Boyda D
TX 22 Nick Lampson D
AK AL Don Young R
AZ 1 Rick Renzi R (OPEN)
LA 4 Jim McCrery III R (OPEN)
MN 3 Jim Ramstad R (OPEN)
NC 8 Robin Hayes R
NJ 3 Jim Saxton R (OPEN)
NJ 7 Mike Ferguson R (OPEN)
NM 1 Heather Wilson R (OPEN)
NY 13 Vito Fossella R (OPEN)
NY 25 James Walsh R (OPEN)
NY 26 Tom Reynolds R (OPEN)
OH 15 Deborah Pryce R (OPEN)
OH 16 Ralph Regula R (OPEN)

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.

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 (except in the case of VA-11, where Democrats are favored), the incumbent party has a slight advantage, but it is not difficult to imagine the seat being captured by the other party. There are fifteen Democrats and twelve Republicans currently in this classification, not including the special case of VA-11.

State Dist. Incumbent Party State Dist. Incumbent Party
AZ 5 Harold Mitchell D AL 2 Terry Everett R (OPEN)
AZ 8 Gabrielle Giffords D CO 4 Marilyn Musgrave R
CA 11 Jerry McNerney D CT 4 Chris Shays R
GA 8 Jim Marshall D FL 13 Vern Buchanan R
IL 14 Bill Foster D IL 10 Mark Kirk R
IN 9 Baron Hill D MI 7 Tim Walberg R
KY 3 John Yarmuth D NM 2 Steve Pearce R (OPEN)
LA 6 Don Cazayoux D NV 3 Jon Porter, Sr. R
MS 1 Travis Childers D NY 29 Randy Kuhl, Jr. R
NH 1 Carol Shea-Porter D OH 1 Steve Chabot R
NY 20 Kirsten Gillibrand D OH 2 Jean Schmidt R
OR 5 Darlene Hooley D (OPEN) WA 8 Dave Reichert R
PA 4 Jason Altmire D
PA 10 Chris Carney D
VA 11 Tom Davis III R (OPEN)
WI 8 Steve Kagen D

By no means are all of these races equal in competition. Among Democrats, Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter of New Hampshire may be in an especially tough reelection battle. 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 what presidential coattail brings in Republican Indiana. Similarly, for the Republicans, the close party balance in districts held by Tim Walberg and Dave Reichert, among others, threatens their tenure. Of course, these 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.

Our final category in this early sorting-out of 2008 House match-ups is LIKELY Democratic or Republican. There are sixteen seats where Democrats are favored (almost all Democratic incumbents who were elected for the first time in 2006) and twenty-two seats where Republicans have the advantage (including some seats where Republicans 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. As 2008 progresses, some of the names on this list will move up to “leans”, and others will disappear from the competitive lists entirely.

State Dist. Incumbent Party State Dist. Incumbent Party
CT 2 Joe Courtney D AZ 3 John Shadegg R
CT 5 Chris Murphy D CA 4 John Doolittle R (OPEN)
FL 22 Ron Klein D FL 15 Dave Weldon, Jr. R (OPEN)
GA 12 John Barrow D FL 21 Lincoln Diaz-Balart R
IL 8 Melissa Bean D FL 24 Tom Feeney R
IL 11 Jerry Weller R (OPEN) ID 1 Bill Sali R
IN 2 Joe Donnelly D IL 18 Ray LaHood R (OPEN)
IN 7 Andre Carson D KY 2 Ron Lewis R (OPEN)
IN 8 Brad Ellsworth D MD 1 Wayne Gilchrest R (OPEN)
MN 1 Tim Walz D MI 9 Joe Knollenberg R
NC 11 Heath Shuler D MO 6 Sam Graves, Jr. R
NH 2 Paul Hodes D MO 9 Kenny Hulshof R (OPEN)
NY 19 John Joseph Hall D NC 3 Walter Jones, Jr. R
OH 18 Zach Space D
PA 8 Patrick Murphy D
TX 23 Ciro Rodriguez D

If your district is not listed in our “toss-up”, “leans”, or “likely” categories, then you can assume for now that the incumbent party has a big leg up to hold it. Yet there will be plenty of surprises in the months ahead, including perhaps a couple more unexpected retirements or primary defeats, not to mention unpredictable scandals.

One example is the previously mentioned Don Young of Alaska, who may well lose a GOP primary battle to retain his seat on August 26 to Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell. If Parnell wins, Republicans may retain the House seat in November, while Young would be a sitting duck for Democrats.

The House picture could also become complicated by presidential third-parties that may nominate candidates that hurt one party or the other disproportionately.

Finally, the fates of politics may consign most of just one party’s marginal candidates to defeat if a strong trend develops next fall.

To keep up with this ever-changing House picture, we bring you the “HotRace Readings”! This feature is, from now until Election Day, available 24/7 from the “House ’08” page on the Crystal Ball website. It not only is a complete listing of where each House race stands, but summarizes the overall picture as well. Now you don’t have to be a complete political junkie to stay on top of all 435 races, as the latest Crystal Ball forecast is never more than a click away. To check it out, just click the picture above.