Mid-year analysis of 2010 congressional races
Since World War II, the party in the White House has lost an average of 16 seats in a new President's first off-year election. Congressional Quarterly currently projects Republicans leading in 178 districts, which is exactly the number of seats they hold right now. They lead in three open seats vacated by Democrats, but trail in three of their own. Moreover, they lead in just two more seats than they did at the start of the year. That’s not much Democrat deterioration, considering the President’s plummeting popularity in the wake of inaction on the Gulf oil spill and the weakening economy.
More troubling for Democrats is the number of other seats that now seem competitive. CQ now rates 28 seats as tossups (up from just 13 in January), all but two of which are Democrat-held seats. But Democrats could maintain control of the House just by winning the seats where they are ahead now, even if Republicans swept every tossup contest.
Potential trouble looms for Democrats on the next level. CQ rates another 32 seats (up from 23 in January) as merely “leaning” Democrat, all but one which is currently in Democrat hands. If Republicans kept all of their current leads and swept every tossup contest, they could take control by seizing a dozen of those “Lean Democrat” contests. Realistically, that is a tall order for Republicans, but an improvement over January, when even a sweep of the leaners would have left them five seats short.
To illustrate just how challenging a “Leans Democrat” contest is for Republicans, consider Missouri 4th District represented by 34-year veteran Ike Skelton. This is one of the Democrat seats that CQ downgraded to “Leans Democrat” since my January analysis. Although the district backed John McCain solidly over President Obama, 60%-38%, and President Bush by even more over both Al Gore and John Kerry, Skelton has regularly won reelection with margins of 2-to-1 or better. His smallest margin was 10 points, and that was back in 1982, when Missouri lost a seat in reapportionment and his Republican opponent was also an incumbent congressman. This past election Skelton ran 28 points ahead of President Obama. He will be tough for Republicans to beat.
A realistic scenario at this point in time is for the parties to split the tossups and for each party to win 75% of the contests “leaning” their way. That would give Democrats their 197 seats that CQ rates either Safe or Likely Democrat, 24 of the other seats now “leaning” Democrat, 14 tossup seats, and 3 that are “leaning” Republican. That would be a 17-seat loss, in line with historical averages, and would leave Democrats with 238 seats and control with a 20-seat cushion.
A Republican “wave” might eliminate Democrat wins in Republican leaning districts, give the GOP a 2-1 advantage in tossup contests and reduce Democrat retention of their “lean” contests to 60/40, but even that scenario only costs them 15 more seats, leaving them in control with five to spare. The latest predictions by Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball (32 seat net change) and the Rothenberg Political Report (25-30 seats) don’t go that far.
Prospects for Democrats are brighter in the Senate, in spite of their surprise loss earlier this year in the Massachusetts special election. Only 36 seats (including special elections) are on the ballot, half of which are already held by Republicans. While Democrat chances of gaining one net seat to regain their 60-vote working majority are alive but hurting, the chances of losing a net 10 seats for numerical control of the chamber remain remote.
Since January, Democratic Senators Byron Dorgan (ND), Evan Bayh (IN) and Christopher Dodd (CT) announced their retirements and Robert Byrd (WV) died, but collectively they amount to a net 2010 change (since my January report) of just one seat, because the retirement of scandal-plagued Dodd rescued a Democrat seat formerly at risk. The timing of Byrd’s death will not put that red-state seat at risk until 2012.
CQ projects Republicans leading in 17 contests, up two since January, but still one fewer than they currently hold. Two of those seats are rated as just “leaning” Republican. Nine other seats are rated as tossups (up three since January), and three Democrat seats are merely “leaning” that way. A 1994 redux would require Republicans to sweep every one of those contests. Republicans have fielded weak nominees for four of the key seats (Connecticut, Indiana, Kentucky, and Nevada), and the independent candidacy of Florida Gov. Charlie Crist puts that state’s Republican-held seat in jeopardy. And a poll announced today by Public Policy Polling (a Democrat polling firm) shows the Democrat challenger now tied with Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) in a contest CQ rates “Likely Republican.” Blunders by both major party nominees in Illinois have actually put LeAlan Jones, the Green Party candidate, into double digits in a recent PPP poll, in which Jones is polling higher among conservatives than liberals.
Democrats’ senate chances are better because there are more Republican seats seriously in play. Four of the tossup seats (including Missouri’s) are open seats already held by Republicans. A Democratic takeover of any one of them digs a deeper hole for Republicans and realistically kills any chance to change control.
Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball currently predicts a net Democrat loss of seven senate seats, while the Rothenberg Political Report pegs the expected senate loss at 5-7 seats. That’s well short of change of control, and I think Democrats will do better than that. I see Republicans losing their current seats in Ohio, Florida (to an independent likely to caucus with Democrats) and possibly Kentucky. A still uninspiring campaign by Democrat Robin Carnahan seems to be squandering a chance to seize Missouri’s Republican-held open seat, but Missouri won’t realistically be the reason Democrats fail to reclaim the magic 60th vote. The likely losses of Democrat seats in North Dakota, Arkansas, Colorado and probably Indiana and Delaware will keep Missouri from being pivotal.