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Posted at 2:30 PM ET, 01/ 4/2011

The Democrats' tough road back to a House majority

By Aaron Blake

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Just exactly how difficult is the Democrats' path back to the House majority?

It might be tougher than you think.

You'll hear a good deal in the coming months about the 61 districts Republicans hold that were carried by President Obama in 2008, also known as "Obama-Republican" districts.

(Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel repeatedly highlighted those five dozen seats in a recent interview with the Fix.)

Given that Democrats need to win just 25 of these seats to regain the majority, that would appear supremely doable -- especially after three consecutive wave elections brought widespread change to the face of Congress.

But a closer look at the numbers shows that, while winning a majority is definitely doable for Democrats, the math is not quite so simple.

We spent a lot of 2010 talking about all the McCain-Democrat districts.These were districts that House Democrats won in 2008 in spite of the Republican presidential candidate -- Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) -- carrying them at the presidential level.

That statistic was significant because McCain performed so poorly overall -- any district he won in 2008 had very strong Republican underpinnings. These were districts Republicans had to have if they wanted to retake the majority -- a low-water mark, if you will. And Republicans wound up winning the vast majority (about 75 percent) of them.

Obama-Republican districts aren't quite the same thing. While McCain-Democrat districts were a low-water mark for Republicans, the Obama-Republican districts are more of a high-water mark for Democrats. They represent what Democrats can win if lots of things go their way.

Obama won well more than half of all districts in 2008 largely because it was a very good year for Democrats. He won the popular vote by more than 7 percent -- a wide margin by today's standards -- and collected a whopping 365 electoral votes.

A better lens to look at these districts through then might be the 2004 presidential election, in which President Bush beat Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in the popular vote by just more than 2 percent.

Of the 61 Obama-Republican districts, only 14 were also carried by Kerry in 2004, when the country was much more evenly divided.

The Cook Political Report Partisan Vote index, which factors in both of those presidential races and other factors, rates 18 of the 61 Obama-Republican districts as Democratic-leaning, while 36 lean toward Republicans and another seven are rated as bona fide swing districts.

We've also got to remember that the districts we're talking about now are not exactly the same districts we'll be talking about in 2012. That's because there's an all-important round of redistricting ahead in which districts across the country will be redrawn to adjust for population gains and losses.

And that line-drawing process favors Republicans. Of the 61 Obama Republican seats, the GOP will be redrawing the districts of 29 of them, while Democrats will redraw just eight. (And all of those are in one state: Illinois.) That gives the GOP lots of opportunity to draw friendlier districts for many of its members -- a luxury the Democrats simply don't enjoy.

Even those 14 Kerry districts could be quite a bit more Republican next time around, as the GOP draws the lines in eight of them, while Democrats will do them in just two.

All of it paints a pretty friendly picture for a sustained GOP majority.

But there are a few caveats:

1. Republicans can't draw themselves new districts that are a whole lot friendlier in a lot of places, because (as we've discussed before) they already control basically all of the competitive districts in a lot of these states.

For example, there are three Obama-Republican districts in Ohio, where Republicans will have 13 of 18 congressional seats this cycle. Because they are so maxed out and the state is losing two seats to reapportionment, Republicans could have a hard time keeping the 13 seats they have, much less making them easier to hold. (A former state GOP chairman said as much recently.)

The situation is similar in Wisconsin, where Republicans will redraw four Obama-Republican districts but might have to choose between shoring up Rep. Tom Petri, Rep.-elect Sean Duffy and Rep.-elect Reid Ribble.

2. A lot of the districts Obama won but Kerry didn't have experienced genuine demographic change -- i.e. they weren't just following the wave in 2008. Many of these suburban districts (Rep.-elect Joe Heck's Las Vegas-area seat and Rep.-elect Mike Fitzpatrick's Philadelphia-area seat are good examples) have seen a shift towards Democrats in recent years.

It's also important to point out that Democrats won a lot of seats in 2008 in spite of Obama. He fared poorly in the South, for example, but Democrats still won plenty of districts that he lost. So when we're talking about the universe of potential Democratic pickups in 2012, we're not only talking about Obama-Republican districts.

3. Republicans have historically squandered their big majorities. For whatever reason, when Republicans have gotten a majority as big as it is today (49 seats), it hasn't lasted long. They lost 75 seats in the 1948 election and 49 seats in 1930. That could tell us two things: that the country sours on Republicans quickly, or that it's natural state of the American electorate is a few steps to the ideological left of the congressional GOP -- which suggests Democrats have an opportunity for a quick comeback.

All of these Obama-Republican districts are winnable for Democrats, and Obama proved that in 2008. But they aren't the same as the McCain-Democrat districts, and it's important to remember that Obama's big performance will be difficult to repeat both in his own race and in downballot contests.

By Aaron Blake  | January 4, 2011; 2:30 PM ET
Categories:  House  
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