U.S. House

The Emerging House Republican Majority

In the days since I posted my case for a blowout Republican majority in this fall's elections, a number of people have helpfully sent data and other tips for constructing a comprehensive target list of Democrat-held seats we might be able to pick off without warning in a year like this one. 

One started with a copy-paste of the Cook PVI (Partisan Voting Index) scores from Wikipedia for each district. The PVI is a crude metric -- unlike this Thursday's British elections, incumbency matters a great deal in Congress, keeping a minority party incumbent in office long after his constituents have started voting the other way at the Presidential level. Ask Gene Taylor, Chet Edwards, Joseph Cao and Scott Brown about the predictive value of the Cook PVI. 

Nonetheless, even a cursory glance at the PVI numbers exposes, at a 30,000 foot level, a massive Republican underperformance in the House that was there even when we were in the majority, and indeed, may show vestiges of our weakness from our 40 years in the wilderness. For this analysis, I'm not interested in individual districts, but macro-level trends. Suppose every incumbent resigned tomorrow and we held special elections in every district whose overall results would mirror partisan preferences in each district. In the long-term, after all, we are headed for a total cycling out of current incumbents, to be replaced by representatives more in tune with the views of their districts. What would the results be? 

PVI scores show that it would be a Republican blowout: In 234 districts, Republicans perform above average, compared to just 192 districts for Democrats, and 9 that are tied. Split these evenly, and you've got a 239-196 Republican House. This is a shade above the biggest Republican majority in their 12 years in power -- and that's when Republicans perform as expected.

We talk about the Republicans taking over vestigial Southern Democratic House seats in 1994 as though political cognitive dissonance were a thing of the past, but in reality it persists to this day, and in both chambers. Democrats have been simply better at electing Democrats in Republican-leaning districts than Republicans are at returning the favor. How else to explain that there are 30 or so Republican states -- and so, 60 Republican-leaning Senate seats -- in a tied electoral college but the Senate is 59-41 against us? 

I wondered if there were something wrong with the Cook data, whether it had come to be out of balance since 2008. But in fact, a quick tally of total PVI scores on both sides show that Democrats have more overall strength in Dem PVI seats than Republicans do in their greater number of seats, by a total of 2,744 to 2,393 PVI points. It turns out that Republicans are more evenly distributed, with the hulk of net Democratic votes crammed into a smaller number of urban seats. 

Democratic overperfomance in the House grows more striking in swing districts. Let's take a look at seats within 5 points of the national average, and which party they're represented by:

D+5 11 0
D+4 7 1
D+3 11 1
D+2 7 1
D+1 7 2
TIE 4 5
R+1 8 2
R+2 2 2
R+3 4 7
R+4 5 5
R+5 8 6

Now, let's group these together into marginally Democrat and Republican seats by PVI: 

D +1 to +5 43 5
TIE 4 5
R +1 to +5 27 22

These pretty much speak for themselves. We get crushed by a net 38 seats -- 88 to 12 percent in percentage terms -- in seats that lean Democrats. And in lean Republican seats? Democrats beat us there too, by a smaller 27-22 margin. Somehow, we manage to miraculously win the tie seats, giving hope that victories anywhere in political swing districts are attainable. Overall, Democrats hold 74 "swing" districts to Republicans 32, a net of 42 from a quarter of the whole House. 

Sure, you might say this is expected after two good Democratic election cycles. And I can buy that: these numbers show that big changes in the electorate reflect easily in the overall House tally, lending credence to the potential for a big pendulum swing in 2010. 

Yet this doesn't solve the fundamental question that during our high water marks after 1994 and to a lesser extent 2002/04, we weren't able to raid lean Democratic seats to nearly this extent. And it does raise the upside question of whether doing so might be possible in the future by boldly targeting more seats. 

Another way to visualize the upside potential is to consider the fact that while Republicans hold just eight net Dem PVI seats, Democrats hold 69 of "our" seats. (Those eight seats, in case you're wondering, are NJ-2, OH-12, PA-15, WA-8, PA-6, IL-10, DE-AL, and of course, LA-2. Democrats have a serious chance at picking off the last two, even in 2010.) 

Meanwhile, nearly a third of House Democrats hail from districts that were won by Bush and/or McCain. In MS-4 and TX-17, Gene Taylor and Chet Edwards hold the 18th and 19th most demographically Republican seats in the country. The only remotely comparable example is Joseph Cao, in the 28th most Democratic seat. Taylor and Edwards getting re-elected is the direct equivalent of a Republican winning Jan Schakowsky's district on the north side of Chicago. And nor are these two outliers: Democrats routinely get elected in R+10 PVI seats or better. Democratic performance in Republican seats between a +10 and +15 PVI is better than Republican performance in seats between a +1 and +5 Democratic PVI. 

This is why winning back the House alone is not enough. We could get the needed 40 seats by beating every Democrat in an R+5 seat or better. Getting to my outlandish speculation of 70 seats would mean taking out every Democrat in a Republican-leaning seat (that's 69 seats) plus one tie district. And that's before any net takeovers of Democrat PVI seats, which we ought to be winning in spades in a year like this. 

There's a reason why American Congressional elections aren't nice and clean as this analysis would suggest. Old bulls like John Spratt in SC-5 don't go easy. And for the longest time, we didn't challenge these Democrats. For the most part, we are this year. Retirements will also be our best means of forcing change on these districts, and those can come all too slowly.

Still, a few conclusions suggest themselves: 

  • The inexorable tide, all things being equal, is for a more Republican House.
  • Democrats have been able to defy this trend by 1) having more popular Southern holdovers, 2) seeking out and destroying moderate Northeast and Midwest Republicans in a way Republicans haven't been able to do down South, and 3) under Rahm Emanuel's leadership, boldly targeting more takeovers deep in enemy territory, like ID-1 (Walt Minnick) and NC-11 (Heath Shuler). 
  • Picking off the "easy" seats should be a gimme. If we can't beat Chet Edwards this year, we're just going to have to wait till he dies or retires. Guys like him will be hardened targets. Watch those swing Democrat seats as they are the soft underbelly of the Democratic majority. There is no reason they should have a 9-to-1 edge in those seats. Getting to even in those districts would give us half the seats we need for a takeover off of just over 10% of the House.  


Why 2010 Won't Be Like 1994. (It'll Be Bigger.)

I might be setting myself for a healthy serving of crow on November 3rd, but I get a distinct feeling that the GOP may be headed toward to a seat gain in the House of epic proportions -- somewhere over 50 seats and well above the historical high point for recent wave elections (the 50-55 seats we experienced in elections like 1946 and 1994). 

All in all, I don't think a 70 seat gain is out of the question.  

I'll admit that a lot of this is prediction is pure gut. I probably sounded crazy when I said Marco Rubio kinda had a shot against Crist a year ago, and that Scott Brown kinda had a shot against Coakley, but if anything I wished I'd been even bolder in those predictions given the roller-coaster volatility of this political environment.

Not all elections are created equal. In most elections, most incumbents have an impregnable advantage and elections are fought between the 40-yard-lines. 

This is not one of those elections. 

It's true that people are pissed, etc. etc. It's true that Republicans benefit from an enthusiasm gap, etc. etc. But when you see numbers like dissatisfied independents lining up 66 to 13 percent behind the Republican candidate for Congress, and Republicans leading by 20 among very enthusiastic voters, all the momentum -- not most of it -- is in one direction. That last bastion of political stability -- incumbent advantage -- is inoperative in this political environment as incumbency has been become tantamount to a four letter word. Just 49 percent would re-elect their Congressman, compared to 40 percent who would throw the bum out. That's significant. Usually, people want to throw Congress over the ledge while toasting their Congressman

There are a number of structural reasons I think things line up in favor a tsunami-like event: 

The-politics-is-just-getting-crazier thesis. Crist-Rubio. Scott Brown. NY-23. How many situations have we been faced in the last 12 months where the side once given less than 10 percent odds has surged to become the favorite, if not the winner? That's a function of political volatility and voter anger, but it's also a reflection of the fact that the stakes are higher. 

Bailouts, stimulus, health care not baked in yet. Voters have not had a chance to render their judgment on the 50% expansion of government power and influence since September 2008. Both candidates for President in 2008 supported the TARP bailout. The stimulus was slipped in after the election, and Obama never campaigned on a package of that magnitude. 

Voters now strongly disapprove of the three great government expansions of the last two years -- TARP, the stimulus, and the health care bill. The political impact of these events has not yet been reflected in the partisan makeup of Congress in any competitive race except one -- the Massachusetts Senate special election.

The case for a tidal wave can be summed up as follows. There have been great changes in the country since the last election that voters resoundingly reject, and combined with still high unemployment and voter anxiety, the conditions are there for a much greater than usual counter-response. (In 1993-94, Bill Clinton was only able to trim marginally around the edges compared to the last months of Bush and then Obama, and the economy was much stronger than it is today.) 

We can safely double Cook and Rothenberg. Charlie Cook and Stu Rothenberg are the deans of House race prognostication. Their current model projects a seat gain somewhere in the low-20s. Election Projection largely mirrors this. But a 20-30 seat projection is based on woefully incomplete information: you're pretty much only factoring in the obvious McCain seats with Democrats elected in 2006 or after, or open seats, and largely guessing based on fundraising numbers because there has been next to no polling done in individual House races yet. 

[UPDATE: A reader writes in to note that Cook has been talking up seat gains of between 30-40 seats for a month or more.]

Cook and Rothenberg also tend to be conservative: if a district is Democratic for any reason, they probably won't move it to toss-up or lean R without a string of polls with the Republican in the lead or some sort of phenomenal candidate recruitment disparity. Scott Brown wasn't projected by anyone to be a lean takeover until the very end. 

The traditional political tip sheets don't reflect newly competitive candidates with a living, breathing Republican candidate against long-term Democratic incumbents in conservative seats for the first time in ages -- candidates like Rick Berg in ND-AL, Sean Duffy in WI-7 (disclaimer: client), Morgan Griffith in VA-9, and the primary winner in MO-4 against Ike Skelton. 

There is a tendency to underestimate waves. This wave has been on the horizon for a while, but those who were around in 1994 will remember how it took everyone by surprise, with even a more mild 40-seat gain needed to take control regarded as a remote possibility in October. The media -- particularly this media -- will always underestimate waves, and doubly so with Republican waves. 

This was also true to an extent with the Democrats in 2006. The Democrats' 30-seat gain was the high end of mainstream projections, but things really turned south for Republicans in late September with the Mark Foley scandal. In September, Republicans were seen as an even bet to keep the House on Intrade, and the bar the Democrats needed to clear then was a piddling 15 seats. Right now, Intrade already has Republicans as close to an even bet to take the 40 seats they need to claim the majority. 

Finally, and this is more of an intangible macro-level effect, does the fact that the 2010 wave has been far more well discussed in advance than the 1994 wave make it more or less likely to exceed expectations? New media has certainly made it possible to organize and move information faster than in 1994, but what about the Democrats ability to get inside this cycle? 

We are coming off two successive, ahistorical Democratic wave elections. Democrats have managed to swing something like 52 House seats in the last two elections. They are at an historic high water mark, as President Obama recently acknowledged. 

The fact that Democrats were able to pad their majority in 2008 would not have happened but for the fact that Obama changed the electorate. As I noted right after the election, Republicans in Congress were killed by the fact that young people voted straight ticket -- for Obama and then for Democrats in Congress. 

One could argue that 2008's political environment wasn't any for crappier for Congressional Republicans nationally than 2006 -- and in some ways it was better since we managed to pick off some seats, yet the surge in youth and minority turnout produced a double Democratic wave. 

I don't think I'm making an Earth-shattering statement when I say that the Obama coalition will not be there in 2010. In fact, one could argue that if one simply returned to the dismal, scandal-ridden 2006 environment with that same electorate, we'd be 10 to 20 seats better off than we are now. Now, start factoring in stuff like Republicans tied or leading in the generic ballot, which they hardly ever were even in years the successfully held the House, like 2002 and 2004. And more tellingly, the bumper crop of good candidates that's stepped forward after the drought of 2006 and 2008. 

I've argued thus far that political whiplash may be greater this year. But in truth, it may not be that much worse than the utter Republican collapse from 2004 to 2006. That collapse produced a loss of 30 House seats. But the starting point was a stable equilibrium established over 5 successive election cycles without a double digit gain in seats by either party. The starting point in 2010 is a very unstable one where Democrats have accumulated more than 50 new seats in four years, over 20 of them somewhat artificially because of the Obama coalition. 

The A-factor. Much of this argument so far has been a paint-by-numbers look at the national environment and the reasons why Republican gains may be underestimated. But what will supercharge our gains -- taking a 40 seat gain and stretching it into a 50, 60, even 70 seat gain -- will be continued voter anger and frustration with Washington which manifests itself in record-low Congressional job approval numbers after two successive elections when Americans voted for "change." 

In this kind of election, we will probably be talking about half a dozen to a dozen takeovers on Election Night that weren't on anyone's target list, that didn't see a dime in national advertising, that it was just assumed Democrats would win 60-40. There will be moments like Dan Rostenkowski or Dollar Bill Jefforson losing their seats completely out of the blue. 

Where? I'd look to any seat where the incumbent Democrat has done something to anger voters locally (flip-flopping on HCR seems to be a common theme) where we've got a strong candidate. In Massachusetts, we seem to have attracted good candidates in the wake of Scott Brown, and I could see Niki Tsongas and Barney Frank getting real races (Brown carried both their districts). Other sleeper districts include NY-1 (Rob Bishop), TN-5 (Jim Cooper), and FL-22 (Allen West vs. Ron Klein), where, oh by the way, we lead.

Even if I'm being optimistic, there is a certain logic (that the netroots have employed in a few election cycles now) of more traditional "smart money" going into the most winnable seats, and the online grassroots playing to expand the map. This year the perfect opportunity to put such a plan in action. If it's true that no Democrat is safe, we need to be looking at the seats that aren't even on the Cook and Rothenberg reports, or at best, on the very edges, for potential pickup opportunities to invest in. In the 30 to 45 days of the cycle, there should be a moneybomb every day to one of these targeted districts designed to drag them into contention and create a "terrorism effect" for every Democrat on the ballot. 

This first starts with good information. Earlier tonight on Twitter, I started a conversation about building a target list that would rank ALL 253 Democrat seats by likelihood of a Republican takeover, similar to what exists in Britain right now. Let's start thinking of where we can knock the Dems off balance and extend what are sure to be considerable gains. 

Good resources for House races: Election Projection and Key House Races.


Paul Teller: Deputy Director U.S. House Republican Study Committee (RSC)

Message from Paul Teller:


Just wanted to give you a heads-up about the electronic résumé referral service for new House Members here:


I believe it is accessible from computers on and off the Hill, but I haven’t tested that yet. If it does NOT work from off the Hill, you can stop into room B-240 Longworth House Office Building (or call 202-225-7078) to get instructions and forms for submitting your résumés in hard copy. I believe there is a fee to submit in hard copy after November 21st.

Hang in there…

Paul S. Teller
Deputy Director
U.S. House Republican Study Committee (RSC)
Office of Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX), Chairman
(202) 226-9718--phone
(202) 226-0236--fax

WEBSITE: http://www.house.gov/hensarling/rsc/
BLOG: http://www.house.gov/hensarling/rsc/blog.shtml
EMAIL UPDATES: http://www.house.gov/hensarling/rsc/email_updates.shtml

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