Over the past few weeks, I have repeatedly discussed how low a number of vulnerable open seats Democrats have to defend in 2010; even with Dennis Moore and John Tanner’s unexpected retirements, the situation bears no resemblance to anything the party experienced in 1994 or that Republicans had to deal within 2006 and in 2008. Via Swing State Project’s Twitter feed, there is another historical comparison that should prevent Republicans from scoring the huge gains they are hoping for.
Going into 1994, Democrats had two big weaknesses. We’ve talked at length about the first - open seats; they lost 22. Teh second was the large number of junior lawmakers in their caucus: Due to a big wave of retirements in the 1992 cycle and to the redistricting changes of 1991, there were 63 freshmen Democrats running for re-election in 1994. (16 ended up losing.) In 2010, there will be a lower number of Democratic freshmen: 37.
This is a great firewall for the party because freshmen are by far the most vulnerable lawmakers: They have not had time to build a solid infrastructure in the district, they have yet to build the fundraising, name recognition and institutional network that allows so many incumbents to keep their seats indefinitely, and they haven’t been in Congress long enough to tout their experience or their seniority. In short, they have to suffer through the disadvantages of incumbency (insider status, tough votes) without many of its benefits. In 1994, 16 of the 63 freshmen Democrats lost (that’s more than 25%); in 2008, 4of the 5 Democrats who lost their seat were freshmen.
Of course, none of this is to say that 37 freshmen is a small number. Quite the contrary, it’s far larger than the number Republicans had to defend in 2006 (18) and in 2008 (13). Republicans could certainly inflict major damage in Democratic ranks since a red wave would be likely to submerge many of these first-term lawmakers; looking at these 37 Democrats, only 10 are sure to win re-election no matter what which does makes 27 pick-up opportunities for Republicans.
For instance, Mason Dixon released a very rare public poll of a House race this week-end, and the result was not pretty for Democrats in a district (NV-03) that Obama won by 12%: freshman Rep. Dina Titus is tied at 40% with former state Sen. Joe Heck. Now, Heck is a top GOP recruit (at the beginning of the cycle, the NRSC was hoping to get him to challenge Reid) and Titus does manage a healthier 48-32 lead against lesser-known Rob Lauer; she will also draw comfort from the fact that she has a 9% lead among independents and has more room to grow among Dems (she’s at 69%). But it goes without saying that any incumbent who polls at 40% is very vulnerable.
My overall point, then, is merely that 37 should prove insufficient compared to the huge number of pick-ups the GOP has to score to recapture the majority - especially when you combine it to the fact that at this point they only have to worry about 5 open seats and to the fact that the GOP hasn’t made a priority of defeating all 27 aforementioned Democrats. (Ann Kirkpatrick, Eric Massa, Michael McMahon, Kurt Schrader or Scott Murphy don’t face that worrisome a cycle for now.)
What’s important to emphasize is that picking-up open seats and beating freshmen can often be done easily. It becomes obvious early in the fall that a district is going to switch so that neither party devotes much attention (and money) to it and the battle is displaced somewhere else; in 2006 and in 2008, Democrats put countless of districts in the bag like this, which allowed them to expand the map. On the other hand, entrenched incumbents can be beat - but that almost always takes a major battle that consumes resources; there’s only so many veterans who can be ousted like that.
In short: Republicans’ ability to expand the map to districts that have sometimes not been contested in decades positions them to make substantial gains, but to approach a 41 seat pick-up they’d need more easy opportunities than they have. Democrats did short of that number in 2006 and in 2008 - and it’s not like the environment (or the number of open seats they had a shot at) left a lot to be desired.