Analysts: Odds of House Dem Takeover Are Slim

This November, it won’t be too hard to keep track of the hot congressional races — out of 435 House contests, only a dozen are still too close to predict, say Washington insiders.

And barring what some say would have to be a “tsunami wave” of new public support, Democrats are not expected to wrest the House from Republican control. The Senate would require something less cataclysmic, say poll watchers.

“At the micro level, the odds of Dems taking the House are less than 1 percent,” said American Enterprise Institute (search) political analyst Norm Ornstein.

Stu Rothenberg, political handicapper and editor of The Rothenberg Report (search), told that 44 seats in the House are currently competitive — about 25 of them are Republican seats, 17 are Democrat, and two of the them are incumbents running against each other in Texas.

Of those 44, Rothenberg said he would place about seven in a pure toss-up category. Charlie Cook's Political Report has indicated about 12 such toss-up races.

“There are very few competitive districts; there aren’t many incumbents at risk,” Rothenberg said, reiterating a report from last month in which he predicted anywhere from “a small Democratic gain of a couple of seats to a small gain of Republican seats.”

This doesn't bode well for Democrats seeking a potential takeover. The current lineup in the House is 228 Republicans, 206 Democrats and one Democratic-leaning independent. The GOP has controlled the House since 1994.

“It’s a long shot for Democrats,” said Karlyn Bowman, editor of "Opinion Pulse" for the American Enterprise magazine. “If (presidential candidate John) Kerry would win big, he might pull in a Democratic win … but that’s a long shot for him.”

Everyone seems to agree that the number of competitive races gets smaller each cycle, and they concur that that's not particularly a good thing.

“The current situation is greatly distorting what our founding fathers had in mind,” said Paul Weyrich, long-time conservative activist and head of the Free Congress Foundation (search).

“They thought of the House as the body closest to the people and that’s why they made the elections every two years,” Weyrich said. “They figured the public would pay attention and know what was going on, and that there would be a great deal of turnover in the House.”

Analysts blame a number of things on the decline of competition in U.S. congressional races: Foremost, they say, the redistricting (search) process has gotten much more sophisticated. Today, redrawing the lines means utilizing serious high-tech computer programs that take into account massive amounts of data to ensure a district that is practically guaranteed to stay in one party’s hands until the next decennial national census.

“You can really draw a map that can determine the outcomes, and is likely to determine the course of a decade,” said Dave Winston, a Republican pollster who was involved in drawing congressional maps for the Republican National Committee (search) in 1990 and 2000.

With a majority of Republican-controlled state legislatures across the country backed by a Republican House, Senate and White House, maps redrawn after the 2000 census have widely favored Republicans.

In Texas, for instance, Republicans hope to pick up at least five seats since the GOP-led state Legislature redrew the lines after the 2002 election cycle.

In other states, Democratic forces worked with Republicans redrawing the lines to protect their more favored incumbents, so that in some cases, everyone won, except of course, challengers.

“Both parties have worked very hard to ensure that their seats are safe, the parties have worked together to make sure their incumbents are safe,” said Bowman.

But Rob Ritchie, executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy (search), downplayed the influence of redistricting, and said that Democrats have become more and more concentrated in certain areas of each state and have failed to reach out and capture the center. Until they do that, they have no chance of taking back the House, he said.

“They have to run more candidates to the right of Al Gore and John Kerry,” Ritchie said. “They would have to have a year where voters turn Democratic. They haven’t had that kind of year since electing (President) Lyndon Johnson (search). It really is a long time.”

But what does this all mean for the next congressional session? Analysts say that on the Senate side, where the current lineup is 51 Republicans, 48 Democrats and one independent, Democrats are in a better position for a takeover. Cook’s Political Report indicates eight highly contested Senate races. Three of those are Republican seats being vacated.

Given the thin margin of the Senate, any resignations and retirements that might come next year could have the effect of tilting the Senate in either direction.

Weyrich warned that if the status quo is preserved on Capitol Hill, voters can expect a continued sense of partisanship. He said the GOP has become “cocky” with power and is not the same party that took over in 1994 after 40 years of being in the minority.

Others have complained that Republicans have neglected their own principles of limited government by engaging in fiscal spending sprees throughout the last two years.

“Anytime a party thinks it's in for good, you might say, they begin behaving different and already, the Republicans have already begun to do that,” Weyrich said. “All of a sudden, Republicans got to be very cocky and started pulling tactics that they criticized the Democrats of doing when they were in control.”

Analysts say the only way to break this scenario is for Democrats to have a big win in November, and the only way that is going to happen is if the War on Terror and the economy both go terribly awry.

Ornstein did note some polls that have shown an increase in Democratic support over Republicans.

"As of today, there are some signs that there is a desire for change, which would mean good things for them, but the odds are slim," he said.