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Handicapping the 2008 Battle For the House

In the past week, the incoming heads of the Democratic and Republican House campaign committees sought to define the parameters of the 2008 playing field.

And, not surprisingly, both parties say they are on offense.

"At the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] we are aggressively on offense and working to put 35 Republican seats in play," wrote Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) in a recent campaign missive.

"You've got a lot of seats that were won this time in what was their equivalent of [a] 1994, once-in-a-generation election," National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) told C-Span (the official network of The Fix) on Sunday. "Those seats will be, you know, revert to normal next time around."

So, who's right?

Well, they both are -- sort of.

Van Hollen makes the point -- quite rightly -- that recent history suggests that the switch in party control will lead to more retirements by the minority party in the following election. In the memo, Van Hollen noted that in 1996, 28 Democrats retired -- nearly double the number of Democratic House members who voluntarily vacated their seats in the next four election cycles.

And as every political junkie knows, open seats are much more likely to change party control than districts held by an incumbent. (Unless, of course, there is an anti-incumbent mood in the country á la 2006 when 20 Republican incumbents lost -- accounting for two-thirds of the total gains made by Democrats.)

It's tough to predict how deep Republican retirements could cut in 2008, as the new Congress just convened two weeks ago. Cole acknowledged as much, but added: "I have no reason to believe we're going to be losing an abnormal number. I think that's a lot of Democratic wishful thinking, frankly."

In looking back at the number of open seats in the past two election cycles, it does not appear at first glance that a mass of GOP House members was holding off on retiring as long as the party maintained a House majority. In 2006, House Republicans lost 21 members either to retirements or a decision to run for another office; two years earlier, 19 Republican members chose not to run for reelection. By contrast, just 27 Democrats over that four-year span left their seats voluntarily.

It is also true, however, that Republicans have a number of House members who will be approaching (or will be over) 70 years old on Election Day 2008 -- 20 in all who were born in the 1930s. Age is often used as a predictor of congressional retirements, but it is an imperfect measure at best. Typically half of the House incumbents who choose to leave their seats do so in pursuit of a run for governor or Senate, not because they are approaching a milestone age number. For lawmakers approaching their "golden years" who have spent their lives roaming the halls of the Capitol, staying on may well be a more appealing option than returning to private life.

One more additional caveat about handicapping the open-seat landscape: All open seats are not created equal. A retirement announcement by Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-Mich.), who will be 74 on Election Day 2008, little difference in the battle for control, as Ehlers's district is reliably Republican. If, on the other hand, Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del), age 67, decides to call it a career, his seat would be a major Democratic pick-up opportunity.

The other major point of disagreement between Van Hollen and Cole is whether a candidate's narrow margin of victory in 2006 predicts serious vulnerability in 2008.

Van Hollen wrote that Democrats are "poised" to win in the 20 districts where Republicans won by less than five percent of the vote last year. Meanwhile, Cole predicted to C-Span's Ben O'Connell that "we'll have a number of our members that lost narrowly last time that we think are very good members probably come back again."

According to the absolutely indispensable Cook Political Report (The Fix's alma mater), 35 Democrats won with less than 55 percent in 2006 while 41 Republicans failed to crack 55 percent.

Of those, just one Democrat -- Rep. Tim Mahoney (Fla.) -- won with under 50 percent of the vote, while six Republicans carried that ignominious distinction: Reps. John Doolittle (Calif.), Marilyn Musgrave (Colo.), Bill Sali (Idaho), Tim Walberg (Mich.), Jon Porter (Nev.) and Barbara Cubin (Wyo.). Sixteen Democrats took between 50 percent and 52 percent of the vote in 2006; 18 Republicans did the same

Again, these numbers don't tell the whole story. Freshmen House members traditionally are more vulnerable than longer-serving incumbents whose close calls in a particular election are often the result of inattention or rusty campaign machinery.

Of the 35 Democrats who won with 55 percent or less last year, 28 of them are freshmen. Just seven of the 41 Republicans who took 55 percent or less are serving their first term in the 110th Congress. And of the seven Republican freshmen, five hold districts that president Bush won with 55 percent or more of the vote in 2004, including two -- Idaho's 1st and Nebraska's 3rd -- where he took 69 percent and 75 percent, respectively.

So, does The Fix have a grand conclusion about the state of play in the 2008 battle for the House? No -- not yet.

Both parties can point to numbers and historical trends that would seem to justify the views noted by Cole and Van Hollen above. But until the cycle truly engages, which won't happen until this spring/summer at the earliest, we simply don't know enough to paint an accurate picture of the battle for control.

By Chris Cillizza  |  January 17, 2007; 4:01 PM ET
Categories:  House  
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