That's a magic number for Democrats as the 2012 elections creep closer. Twenty-five is the number of House seats Democrats need to secure to again rule the House.
That's a tall order. And there is a series of factors already in play which could help swing control of the House in 2013.
26 could be the new 25
The current breakdown is 242-192 in favor of Republicans. There's one vacancy: Former Rep. David Wu (D-OR) resigned earlier this year amid an ethical cloud. That's a district the parties will wrestle over in an upcoming special election. Republicans are optimistic that Wu's demise could present an opening in a place which Democrats have held for more than 30 years. Democrats hold a registration advantage in the district. But special elections are often "special." Just look at the special election upset in New York City last month as voters sent Rep. Bob Turner (R-NY) to Washington to succeed disgraced former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY).
So if Democrats lose this seat, the magic number escalates to 26.
The Giffords Factor
The future of the political career of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) remains unclear. The fact that Giffords rallied to unexpectedly return to Washington for a vote on the debt ceiling agreement in August only fueled speculation that she would run again. She continues to raise money. And there's even a chance that Giffords could run for the Senate seat that Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ) is vacating in 2013. But until Giffords makes a decision, no one can truly handicap this race. If Giffords doesn't run, Republicans would apply a full-court press to capture her seat, as the Arizona Democrat wrested it from Republican control in 2006 when former Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-AZ) retired.
Top of the Ticket
Democrats know who will head their ticket in 2012. And that's the problem. President Obama is aware that there are a lot of places he can't travel to campaign for Democratic House candidates. This problem is especially acute in swing districts where Democrats are trying to either hold a seat or win back a district which they've lost in recent years. President Obama is expected to be a drag on the ticket in these districts. This is a problem because the Democrats can't phone in the big gun for air support when and where they need it most.
Rep. Dan Boren (D-OK) is retiring. Boren is a conservative Democrat and represents an eastern Oklahoma district which Republicans think is prime territory for a pickup. But despite his Democratic bona fides, Boren regularly bucked Democratic leadership on key votes over his career, including voting against health care reform. Even if Boren was running, it's doubtful the president would ever visit his district to campaign because it wouldn't have helped the Congressman's cause.
Democrats possess a similar problem in the districts of other moderate Democrats who are retiring, including Reps. Mike Ross (D-AR) and Jerry Costello (D-IL). The same could be true in western North Carolina and the re-election prospects of Rep. Heath Shuler (D-NC).
These are all districts Democrats need to hold if they have a shot at regaining the House. If they don't, that could sufficiently neutralize the chances of a Democratic resurgence.
What Moves the Meter/Can Republicans Govern?
Big events change electoral prospects. A terrorist attack. A major natural disaster. A financial collapse. War.
But by the same token, some events don't move the opinions of the voting public much at all. President Obama enjoyed a modest bounce in the polls following the killing of Osama bin Laden this spring. But Mr. Obama's successes in the war on terrorism have done little to bolster his re-election prospects.
That said, one key factor remains a constant in this election cycle: the state of the economy. Despite his efforts with the 2009 stimulus package, the president has failed to right the nation's economy. That's precipitated his decline in the polls and explains why he faces an uphill battle winning key electoral states he captured in 2008. Those states include Ohio, Virginia, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Florida, Nevada and others.
Economists doubt the economy will improve much between now and November, 2012. That discontent filters down the ballot to House Democrats if voters link them with Mr. Obama.
That said, it's possible voters could grant Democrats a reprieve in this area. After all, Democrats don't control the House of Representatives. Mindful that they at least bear partial responsibility for governing, Republicans are careful to remind voters and they control "one-half of one-third" of the federal government. That's true. The GOP hopes such assertions will provoke voters to award them control of the Senate and the White House. Meantime, Democrats argue that Republicans are partly to blame because they haven't put forth a "jobs" package this year. The House GOP counters it has debated and passed multiple measures which it believes would spur economic growth. But the GOP adds that the Democratically-controlled Senate stymied many of these efforts.
Regardless, the economy doesn't show many signs of immediate recovery. If voters pin that on President Obama, House Democrats could suffer, whether they are to blame or not.
But the House GOP brass faces another key test next month that centers on whether Republicans can govern.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and other top Republican leaders have threaded a needle all year long. They've barely managed to keep the government open by averting multiple shutdowns and approving an increase in the debt ceiling.
The current spending bill which funds government operations expires November 18. Senior House Republican sources have suggested that approving an "omnibus" spending package to keep the government running won't involve some of the same brinksmanship present on the previous spending bills. But other senior Republican sources aren't so sure. One key source indicated to FOX that the November battle could be the biggest challenge yet. That's because some Republicans will demand a significant reduction in spending for pet Democratic items like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and Planned Parenthood. Many conservative Republicans may balk because the omnibus spending bill spends more money than what the GOP already agreed to in the budget blueprint crafted by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI). The fact that Republicans reneged on the "Ryan Budget" and agreed to an additional $24 billion in spending for Fiscal Year 2012 infuriates budget hawks and tea party loyalists.
One school of thought on Capitol Hill argues that November 18 could produce the biggest showdown of the year in the spending wars. If that's the case and there's a government shutdown, Democrats could finally point to Republicans as being "extreme." They'll argue that "radicals" control the GOP and underscore the perception that Republicans can't govern.
To be fair, a "government shutdown" is far from reality. But it's one of few "crisis" events which could alter the playing field for Democrats and Republicans. It's likely a shutdown or a standoff could give Democrats a trump card to play in the 2012 elections, arguing that the GOP isn't fit to be in charge.
But no one really knows the chances of a shutdown and it's too premature to handicap the chances of one in mid-November.
Congressional redistricting will be one of the most prominent factors in determining who controls the House in 2013. For instance, state redistricting boards and commissions have generally favored Republicans in drawing lines for districts. In addition, they've often rewarded many House Republicans who represent swing districts a bump in the number of GOP voters, contingent upon how they've drawn the lines. In addition, population shifts could mean more overall "Republican" districts around the country.
A good example of this can be found in southwest Ohio where Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH) lost in 2008 and returned in 2010. The state rewarded Chabot with a newly-minted district that leans more toward the GOP column. Meantime, the Census results stripped Iowa of one Congressional seat. That pits veterans Reps. Tom Latham (R-IA) and Leonard Boswell (D-IA) against each other. A Boswell victory would go a long way toward helping Democrats return to the majority.
Due to population shifts, both South Carolina and Utah are each on track to pick up an additional Republican seat in 2012.
Other places to look are Texas and North Carolina. Texas gained four House seats after the last election. But it's unclear whether a retooled Congressional map will split the four districts evenly between the parties or favor the GOP three districts to one. Meantime, North Carolina, which presently has a seven to six Democratic advantage in its House delegation, could switch to ten Republican seats against just three Democratic seats under the new plan. Either way, longtime Reps. David Price (D-NC) and Brad Miller (D-NC) could find themselves running against one another. Meantime, the district held by freshman Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC) gained more Republican votes. She'll need it. In 2010, Ellmers unexpectedly defeated Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-NC) by fewer than 1,500 votes. Plus, she has raised very little money this campaign cycle.
That said, Republicans could face trouble winning re-election in other venues. A controversial map concocted in Maryland could give Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) the toughest race of his career. New York has yet to present its newly-formatted map. The state loses two seats after the 2010 Census. Prior to 2010, there were only two Republicans in the entire Empire State delegation. That changed last year with an influx of GOP freshmen and buoyed by the unexpected victory of Rep. Bob Turner (R-NY) following the hasty resignation of former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY). But Democrats are hopeful that former Rep. Dan Maffei (D-NY) can take back the seat he lost last cycle to Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle (R-NY) by just 567 votes.
Much of the same turf which emerged as battleground turf in the 2006, 2008 and 2010 Congressional elections will be front and center again in this round. That highlights districts in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota. Many of the keys to President Obama's 2008 victories, to say nothing of significant Democratic House wins in 2006 and 2008, were found along this corridor. Republicans obliterated Democratic gains recorded here in 2010. Mr. Obama is now struggling in these regions and that could complicate things for Democrats.
Twenty-five is the magic number for Democrats in 2012. And Republicans would like to build on their already-robust majority. In fact, even though the GOP would relish a double-digit pickup in the House, some strategists believe the GOP would be content with just maintaining its majority. After all, a party is the most vulnerable at losing its majority the next time out on the track.
Therein lies the rub. Considering the major swings of the past three elections, 25 seats is not an insurmountable number for Democrats. But it also gives Republicans a significant cushion, too. It's a cushion much bigger than the GOP ever had when it controlled the House from 1995-1997.
And at the end of the day, who controls the House may come down to something else: who takes the White House.