Every time I run into Charlie Cook, one of the veteran political handicappers of Washington, I say to him, “So?” He knows what I’m asking: Will the Republicans win back the House in November? For months now, he has told me — and plenty of others — that the House is within the grasp of the GOP, which needs to pick up 39 seats to take control. As the savvy and non-partisan Cook has explained, when he and the number-crunchers in his shop examine the House races one by one, they have spotted 30 or so contests where the Democrats are likely to lose the seat. These calculations, Cook has said, do not take into account any possible anti-Democratic or anti-incumbent wave. If such a tsunami of voter sentiment is indeed heading toward Capitol Hill, gaining another nine seats is quite possible for the Repubs — and, presto, Rep. John Boehner is speaker.
Cook’s analysis has history on its side: The party in charge of the White House almost always gets clobbered in the first midterm elections, and high unemployment usually spells doom for the folks in charge. Recent polls have shown Democrats with a slight edge when voters are asked whether they prefer a generic Democratic or Republican congressional candidate. Yet a Gallupsurvey found that Republican voters are far more enthusiastic about the 2010 congressional elections. (Half of GOPers said they were pumped up to vote; only 28 percent of the Dems reported they were jazzed.) With less than 100 days to go, Cook’s dire (for Democrats) prognostication still seems realistic.
Which is why his latest column was intriguing. Noting that he has long been forecasting that the Republicans are close to bouncing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Cook evaluated the case made by Democratic strategists who insist that their party has a good shot at retaining the House. And it’s not a bad argument.
As Cook reports, the D’s say they are likely to win four House seats now held by Republicans, including those of Delaware’s Michael Castle and Illinois’ Mike Kirk, who each are running for Senate. (The D’s count Louisiana Republican Joseph Cao in this group, though recent polls have shown Cao running strong.) There are a handful of other House GOP incumbents the D’s believe they might be able to topple. This means, in the Dems’ estimation, that the Republicans must win not 39 seats now held by Democrats but 43.
Cook explains further that Democratic strategists feel they can hold on to eight of the 16 House seats being vacated by Democrats. Put all this together, and the R’s will have to defeat 35 sitting Democratic representatives to claim the House. That is a tall order. Especially when the Democrats have whopping fundraising advantages in many of the districts in play. As Politicoreported last week, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party outfit tasked with preserving the Democratic majority in the House, has booked $28 million of television ad time to defend 39 of its must vulnerable House incumbents. This is a lot of moolah. And at the Netroots Nation conference on Friday, Jon Vogel, the executive director of the DCCC, noted that the DCCC would soon be making some “tough choices” — meaning it will have to prioritize which House Democrats to back (with ads and money) and which to cut loose. This sounds ominous — especially for those incumbents who might be deemed too far gone for the DCCC to save — but it signals the DCCC is willing to be ruthless and smart in spending its millions. As Cook points out, the DCCC’s “14-3 record in House special elections since the beginning of 2008 shows that it has some real pros running the operation, and that is one of the best things the House majority has going for it.”
You might notice that none of this discussion so far has touched on message or what President Obama does for — or to — his fellow Democrats. Clearly, the themes sounded by Democrats between now and Election Day and the president’s actions could make a difference (particularly when it comes to a specific issue: jobs). Yet the election that’s coming is not a national vote but a collection of individual contests. There are 435 House seats, but only 70 or so might be competitive. While the critical contests could be shaped by national trends, they also could be determined by individual and local factors, such as how well the candidates campaign.
The Democratic case conveyed by Cook — which, no doubt, is what Democratic insiders are telling their funders — is within the realm of the possible. The campaign pros of the DCCC can be expected to maximize the odds for their endangered House incumbents. But the obvious question is, can money, professionalism, and sound strategy beat back a wave? The obvious answer is: depends on how big the wave is. Its size cannot be measured until it hits.