I don’t need to tell you that the bottom has fallen out for House Democrats since my last attempt to offer ratings, back in February. My 6-month absence surely didn’t prevent you from figuring out just how many Democratic districts were trending towards Republicans - and how dramatically.
Suffice it to say, the expectations have shifted considerably over the past year: At this point, anything less than a House takeover would disappoint Republicans.
In fact, the more relevant question at this point is whether the GOP can triumph in a big enough landslide to go way beyond the 39 seats it needs to pick-up to win the House. Can it reach, say, the 50-60 range? (Some Republicans like Dick Morris who clearly have no idea of what it means to manage expectations have been hinting at even higher numbers, but that seems far-fetched.) A grand total of 107 Democratic-held seats are now on the chart - 49 on which are rated no better than “toss-ups” and an incredible 74 of which are considered seriously in play (that means they are no better than “lean Democratic”).
Making matters worse for Democrats is that many of these ratings are more likely to move towards the GOP than towards Democrats, and this for very simple reasons. House races are dramatically underpolled and it is difficult to come by other types of reliable district-by-district information. As such, it’s often tough to get a sense of just where a House contest stands. Since these are individual ratings, it makes it difficult to determine which districts the GOP wave will submerge and which Democratic incumbents are managing to hold on better than others.
In short: There are only 22 Democratic districts rated as “lean GOP” or “likely GOP” in this chart, but that does not make it plausible for Republicans to not win more than that. The national generic ballot as well as tales of epic struggles from countless Democratic incumbents nationwide leave no doubt Republicans will succeed in many more districts.
That is not to say that Democrats are sure to lose the majority, far from it: Republicans have yet to put away many districts which they thought would have been the first to fall. Polls have shown that districts like NV-3, PA-7, NH-2, NM-2, OH-16 and MD-1 (rated as toss-ups) all remain within the margin of error, while the GOP advantage in districts like ND-AL and CO-4 (here rated as lean GOP) is still manageable. Meanwhile, and despite the understandable panic over the ridiculously high number of Democratic seats that are now considered in play, many of the endangered incumbents are for now still narrowly ahead - fragile leads, to be sure, but nothing to guarantee humongous Republican gains.
A slight improvement in Democratic voters’ interest in going to the polls would go a long way towards closing the gap in a number of these districts; it would not save the party from historic losses, but saving incumbents like Patrick Murphy, Dina Titus, Gabrielle Giffords and Phil Hare would at least allow Democrats to hang around the 217 mark.
Furthermore, some Democrats have been successful in their attempts to throw the spotlight on their challengers and using oppo research to discredit them; Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (SD-AL) and Betty Sutton (OH-13) are two incumbents who look to be in a better position today than they were over the summer. Finally, Democrats do have enough pick-up hopes of their own to raise the bar of GOP pick-ups: DE-AL and LA-02 look like sure gains; HI-01, FL-25 and IL-10 are promising; and CA-03 is still on the table. This could require the GOP to pick-up at least 42-43 seats just to secure the narrowest of House majorities.
But there is no question that all the momentum is on the Republican side. For one, and this is the most obvious thing to expect in a wave election, open seats in swing districts are just too difficult for a party to defend when Republicans have such a clear generic advantage. The two Arkansas districts, the two Tennessee districts, MI-1, KS-3, WI-7 - Democrats would have been able to win a lot of these in a balanced year, but in 2010 Democratic incumbents’ late retirements in these districts have given the GOP golden opening they probably won’t miss.
The DCCC’s much-touted financial advantage has faded and that conservative outside groups with anonymous donors have been spending millions of dollars in dozens of districts, helping the NRCC make the most of new opportunities in a way Democrats could not enjoy back in 2006. Indeed, a large number of districts are now on the chart that were not even conceivably competitive six months ago: Phil Hare’s IL-17, Gene Taylor’s MS-4, Dave Loebsack’s IA-2 and, perhaps most shockingly, John Dingell’s MI-15.
In fact, every day brings a new poll showing a Democratic incumbent I had in a relatively good position trailing by double-digits. Last week, it was a WI-8 survey with Rep. Steve Kagen down by almost 20% (it might have been a GOP poll, but Democrats have yet to release a response); yesterday, it was NY-23, where Doug Hoffman’s surprise decision to halt his campaign heightened Bill Owens’ vulnerability. Republicans really have nothing to complain about.
Once upon a time, I would have offered district-by-district explanations of my ratings, but I am unable to do so now for obvious time reasons; but I will have the opportunity to take closer looks at districts once I start changing ratings - just as I have been doing for Senate and Governor’s races.
One last note: It is difficult to project House results. But considering the cycle’s dynamics, a good measure would be to project that, were the election held today, the GOP would win any district that is rated “lean Republican” or “likely Republican,” at least half of the districts that are listed as toss-ups and even a substantial share of districts listed as “lean Democratic.” Using that metric, I’d project a Republican gain of at least 41 seats - but I would love to hear what you make of the House landscape.