Thursday, January 18, 2007

Battle for the House: 2008

I think Chris Cillizza may win the award for the earliest attempt to predict what will happen in the House races of 2008. His conclusion? That it's too early to say. I tend to agree; I won't be ready to make my predictions for November 2008 for at least 3 more weeks.

But while it is too early for predictions, Cillizza starts out with some important points:

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 รก la 2006 when 20 Republican incumbents lost -- accounting for two-thirds of the total gains made by Democrats...)

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...

There are a lot of things that have to happen before we can get any sense as to whether the GOP will be in position to gain the 15 seats needed to reclaim House control. Will this be seen as a failed or overreaching Congress? How many retirements will there be for both parties? How will candidate recruitment go in swing seats? Will the Democratic or Republican Presidential nominee win in a rout, or will they be competitive in non-traditional regions?

I am optimistic about GOP retirements not being particularly high. When they were in the majority, Republican retirements kept pace with Democratic retirements, so there is no great pool of frustrated former committee chairmen now eager to quit.

Further, I think that more of those Democrats who won by narrow margins will be vulnerable in 2008 than will equally-situated Republicans. First off, it's not unusual for an incumbent to face a surprisingly-close race one year, and rebound for a big victory in the next cycle. That's likely to be the case for some Republicans. Also, a number of Democrats won aberrant victories in GOP seats in 2006. Nick Lampson, Zack Space, Nancy Boyda, and Tim Mahoney will have a hard time capturing lightning in a bottle and prevailing again. That's no surprise. Democrats had their best year in decades in 2006; some of those surprise gains are going to be wiped out in 2008.

But beyond that, I think 2008 is up for grabs. We won't know for more than a year whether 15 seats will be in reach for Tom Cole and the NRCC, or a bridge too far.

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