One of House Democrats’ favorite talking points this cycle has dwelled on one statistic: the number of Republicans holding seats in districts that President Obama carried in 2008 and the newly created seats that the president won (66). It’s a reminder of the days of yore, intended to demonstrate that the midterm wave in 2010 was something of a fluke. But the real revelation this year – and why House Democrats aren’t close to netting the 25 seats to take back the majority – is how far the president’s standing has fallen from four years ago.
With Mitt Romney running ahead of Obama nationally, 2004 is shaping up to be a much more instructive baseline for the upcoming elections than Obama’s historic win in 2008. Indeed, only eight House Republicans hold districts that John Kerry won in 2004. That, more than anything, explains how the Democratic expectation of being within striking distance of the majority is falling far short of reality. Call it the 2008 illusion.
One of the most striking discrepancies between the perception of this year’s electorate and the realities behind it is taking place in Obama’s home state of Illinois, one of the few states gerrymandered to maximize opportunities for Democrats. Four House Republicans – Reps. Joe Walsh, Bobby Schilling, Judy Biggert and Robert Dold -- were drawn into districts that Obama carried with at least 60 percent in 2008. In two other districts where the incumbent retired (one Democrat, one Republican), the president carried more than 55 percent of the vote. All of this pointed to significant Democratic gains in the state, providing them a bouncing-off point for a comeback.
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That still could happen, but it’s looking a lot less likely several weeks before November. Walsh is still likely to lose, but it’s not quite the foregone conclusion that analysts expected several months ago. But all of the other races are pure toss-ups. Dold, in a suburban Chicago district that the president carried by 27 points, is running resiliently against Brad Schneider. Down south, Schilling, benefiting from rural voters’ growing dissatisfaction with the president, is neck and neck with Democrat Cheri Bustos. Biggert is holding her own against former Rep. Bill Foster in a merged district drawn to elect a Democrat. And in the two downstate open seat races, Republican candidates Jason Plummer and Rodney Davis have slight advantages.
Democrats could still run the table on a good night, but it’s more likely that they’ll only net about two seats from the Land of Lincoln – less than the five originally anticipated. And one major reason behind the potential disappointment is that the supposedly solid Democratic districts are actually much more competitive than advertised, at least when you look at how they performed in 2004.
That merged district that Biggert is running in designed to elect a Democrat? It gave former President Bush 49 percent of the vote. Walsh’s redrawn seat, likewise, was a 49 percent Bush district. Bush even took 46 percent in Dold's and Schilling’s famously difficult districts. All told, it paints a picture of toss-up seats that the right Republican can win in the right year. It brings flashbacks of the Pennsylvania “dummymander” in 2001, when -- in an effort to maximize GOP opportunities with creative line-drawing -- Republicans ended up helping Democrats when the political environment shifted away from them.
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It’s not just Illinois. This week, Democrats canceled costly ad reservations in the Philadelphia media market originally designed to use against suburban Philly GOP Reps. Mike Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., and Jon Runyan, R-N.J., districts that usually go Democratic in a good year for the party. The party and outside groups also withdrew attack ads against Rep. Scott Rigell, representing the one (Tidewater) bellwether district in the battleground state of Virginia. In Florida, even Democratic operatives are now sounding pessimistic about their prospects of defeating outspoken conservative Rep. Allen West, despite early predictions that he’d be one of the most vulnerable Republicans from the freshman class. These are all districts Obama carried in 2008.
If Democrats want to regain the majority, they’ll need to dominate in the suburbs of major metropolitan areas. The fact that Republicans are holding their own there isn’t a good sign for the party, or for the president.
To be sure, some House districts that have undergone significant demographic change in the last decade will be much closer to the 2008 baselines. Democrats are rightfully bullish on over-performing in California, thanks to Hispanic growth in several newly drawn Republican-held districts -- those represented by Reps. Jeff Denham, Mary Bono Mack, Dan Lungren, and Brian Bilbray. In turn, some of the more vulnerable California Democrats -- Reps. Lois Capps, Jerry McNerney, and John Garamendi -- now look safer.
Likewise, Democrats look to be in solid shape in Arizona, another state where a surge in Hispanic voters has changed the political landscape. Despite a flawed nominee, Democrats could well manage to win the newly created seat around Tempe that Bush carried and have a good chance at picking up another competitive seat that former Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick is again contesting. But these are more the exceptions to the rule; most of the House battlegrounds have remained demographically similar.
The lasting legacy of the 2012 election could end up being the unexpected stability of the House Republican majority over the next decade, thanks to gerrymandering and key elements of the Obama coalition (minorities, college students) clustered into districts overwhelmingly favoring Democrats. Democrats continue to struggle in predominantly white districts, only contesting 14 of the 110 districts, according to an analysis from House Race Hotline Editor Scott Bland. The GOP wave ushered in 84 freshman House Republicans, but relatively few of them are in trouble.
Democrats have been crowing that polls show the GOP party brand is in the toilet, which makes it all the more significant that they are not in striking distance of taking the majority. But to understand why a promising environment isn’t translating into results, they’ll need to recognize that it’s not 2008 any more.