How big will Democratic gains be this fall?

A panel of experts projects the number of seats Democrats will add in the House in November -- and which Democrats are most likely to lose their jobs.

Published July 21, 2008 11:20AM (EDT)

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In the first of two Salon conversations forecasting the November congressional elections, three experts -- Stu Rothenberg, Tim Sahd and David Wasserman -- share their opinions about the prospects for Democratic gains in the House. For two decades, Rothenberg has been editor and publisher of the Rothenberg Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter covering House, Senate and gubernatorial campaigns as well as the race for the presidency. Sahd is the editor of House Race Hotline, a daily update on congressional political campaigns. Wasserman is the House editor of the Cook Political Report, a publication providing analysis of presidential, Senate, House and gubernatorial races. They spoke to Salon by phone. (A separate round table about the Senate will be published later this week.)

Thomas Schaller: Welcome to you all. I recently spoke with Democratic Congressional Campaign chairman Chris Van Hollen, who in a bit of expectations game playing pointed out that after a "wave" election, the party that benefited from that wave historically loses net seats in the House in the next cycle. I wondered if you guys think that the 30-seat gain for the Democrats' last cycle was a wave election. And in your view, whether you think it was a wave election or not, is it likely or unlikely that the Democrats can put together another back-to-back cycle with a double-digit seat gain in November? We'll start with Stu.

Stu Rothenberg: Yes, I think the last election was a wave election. It was about a national theme, which is change and throw the guys who are in out, and this benefited the Democrats. I think frankly, we are in a very similar environment. If anything, the president's numbers have deteriorated. The Republican brand, I hate to use that phrase because it's now become too commonplace, but the Republican Party's reputation has been eroded further. I think Democrats still have the advantage of being the change party. Given that, we are either in an extended 2006 election cycle which has gone into 2007 and the first half of 2008, or we are in a new cycle and an identical one. I think it can produce Democratic gains in the double digits.

Schaller: Tim, is this the second ripple of that wave or is it going to quell this time around?

Tim Sahd: Oh no, I agree with Stu: 2006 was by any definition a wave. And 2008, things are looking worse. If you look at the generic ballot, Democrats are up 15, 18 points in some polls. Things are looking worse or about the same for Republicans as they did in 2006. That doesn't seem to be quelling. That doesn't mean that Democrats are going to see a 30-seat pickup. The dynamics this year are a bit different in that they have to hold some seats. It won't be a 30-seat pickup, but that doesn't mean that the environment isn't as bad for Republicans as it was in 2006.

David Wasserman: As usual, Stu and Tim are right. I think when we look at the 2008 House elections and compare them to the previous elections, sure 2008 is a presidential year, but the environment looks a lot more like 2006 than 2004. In 2004, last time we had a top-of-the-ticket presidential race, we were only paying attention to possibly 40 to 50 congressional elections. This time around we're paying attention to I'd say somewhere between 70 and 100. But I think if there has been change between the 2006 and 2008 environments, it's that the unpopularity of the president and the war has seeped like an inkblot into some of the redder districts across the country.

Schaller: Let me follow this up with Stu and Tim. Are there really more districts in play this cycle than last cycle, even though I don't see anyone calling for a 30-seat pickup?

Rothenberg: Right now, we have about 65 races on our list of races in play. I think David is correct about the numbers. We have races that we're watching that are not on our list at the moment because we don't see the Democrat actually having a chance to win. We see Democrats having a chance in a bunch of other districts to close the gap significantly. But we're watching at least another 20 races. We're watching 85 or 90 races. I don't expect Democratic gains to be that big. I think Tim was right when he said that 30 seats seems like quite a stretch.

But you have to put everything in context. The Republicans are down now to around 200 seats, they've already lost a lot of the marginal seats they once held, Democratic seats they once held. There isn't a lot of fat left. It's going to be a good Democratic year. The question: Is it going to be a really memorable Democratic year, a great Democratic year? How good is good? I think the Democrats have succeeded in recruiting candidates in districts that we haven't seen as being even competitive or marginally competitive for many years. I think the Democrats have done a terrific job putting additional seats in play.

Sahd: I'll just say that there are some races that the media has picked up on that would be in places where we certainly wouldn't have thought, heading into this year, would be anywhere in play. And they still might not be. But the fact that the Democrats have put them on the radar means that the Republicans have to defend and the incumbent has to raise a lot of money. Then you've got the by-product of Democrats thinking that this year they were going to have to defend a lot of their seats in Republican-held territory early in the cycle. And they went out and opened the playing field up and went out to places where we normally don't see Democrats playing well. Like in South Florida or with Tom Finney [in central Florida]. They've successfully expanded the playing field and don't have to worry a lot about their incumbents being knocked off.

Schaller: A big part of this open playing field is literally open seats and a lot of Republican retirements. It's commonplace after a change of control for the new minority party to see people who have been thinking about retiring finally retire because it's less sexy to be in the minority. How much, in terms of the trouble for Republicans, how much of the trouble is just trying to find bodies and money to fill these open-seat races?

Wasserman: I think the biggest problem for House Republicans is definitely retirement. It's an even bigger problem than finance for them, which is another disastrous situation. But put yourself in House Republican shoes for a minute. Just about every time you thought things couldn't get any worse this year, they have. First, take a look at the special elections, but the string of retirements kept getting worse as well. For example, in New York's 13th District, when Vito Fossella admitted to an extramarital affair that led to an illegitimate child, following a DUI, the replacement candidate died. This is sort of a tragic situation for Republicans. It puts an exclamation point on the woes that they have. If you look at the numbers in 1994 and 1996, I think it's instructive to the open-seat situation this year. Republicans scored actually a net gain of six seats in the 1996 election on open seats [since many Democrats retired after Republicans won control of the House in the 1994 election]. Of course, [the Republicans] lost seats overall, but it's sort of like [the Democrats] received a card on a board game that said, "Take six steps back before you can actually move forward." I think the same is true for House Republicans this year.

Sahd: That's exactly right. These open seats are the bane of the NRCC's existence at this point. Those seats are the ones everyone is watching this year. Of those couple dozen seats that are open, there are like 18 or 17 or 16 that are highly competitive or at least could be potentially competitive that Republicans actually may have to think about defending. With their finances the way they are, that's not the place they need to be. Now, they've recruited some good [candidates]. Despite their recruitment problems elsewhere, they've recruited some really good [candidates] in some of these open seats who have been able to raise a good amount of money, so that's going for them, but they still have to deal with these open seats, a lot of them in very marginal districts that aren't looking too good for them right now.

Rothenberg: I agree, certainly, when you look at some of these Republican open seats -- Tom Davis in Virginia, Fossella's seat in New York as well, Tom Reynolds' seat in upstate New York, the Renzi open seat in Arizona, the McCrery open seat in Louisiana -- the Republicans really struggled in a lot of these districts to recruit candidates. And when they finally, at the end of the recruiting process, got a candidate, they've gotten maybe a businessman who doesn't have an established political base, doesn't have demonstrated vote-getting ability: somebody, who in November may do well, may turn out to be a good candidate, but is a huge question mark, and in other places we don't even know if they've done that well. I think these open seats are a huge problem. It is still difficult to defeat an incumbent. Last year a number of incumbents went down because of the wave, and this year I expect some incumbents to be defeated. But it's hard to get a really big year without picking up seats in open seats. The Democrats have a terrific opportunity here. If you look on the other side of the ledger, in terms of Republican opportunities with open seats, there are some conservative districts that are going to be open this time that the fundamentals give Republicans a chance ... Bud Cramer's district in Alabama, for example. But they don't have the type of open-seat opportunities that the Democrats do.

Schaller:I was looking at the end-of-May cash on hand for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee, and it's 7 to 1. Now "cash on hand" can be misleading sometimes because you could have invested a lot of money, but I don't think the NRCC have raised nearly what the Democrats have raised. How much of the Democratic advantage is just pure cold hard cash?

Sahd: I think we've seen that in the list the DCCC put out about media buys: $35 million for 31 seats. Now a lot of that could have been showmanship, but it shows you ... Republicans have $7 million on hand right now, Democrats are going out and spending and reserving time, $35 million worth in 31 districts. That shows you the huge problems Republicans are going to have. Places like, these metropolitan districts in metropolitan areas, like Chris Shays' in Connecticut or Mark Kirk's in Illinois. Those places Republicans have spent a lot of money traditionally in holding those seats. That costs millions of dollars to successfully go in there and go on broadcast TV and stuff like that. I don't think they're going to be able to play as much in those districts in 2008 because of that short end they have on the financial side.

Wasserman: I think the money gap does two things fundamentally: There's no denying it's hurt Republican recruitment. It is intimidating for a Republican looking at running a race, especially if you're running in an open seat where candidates tend to be less well-defined. The second thing is it's enabled Democrats to target races outside a normal orbit of targets. Democrats are thinking big about the playing field, and one of the reasons that they can -- and have any shred of credibility when they discuss these raises -- is that they do have this financial edge that really gives them the megaphone. I think the question here is to what extent the Republican National Committee or Freedom's Watch or any other outside group is going to be able to bail out the NRCC à la Freddie Mac.

Schaller: Van Hollen and his people have said to me they're worried about Freedom's Watch. Is that just moaning and complaining, or is there a legitimate threat that Freedom's Watch could bring the Republicans some sort of parity with the outside money?

Wasserman: We've been hearing this for months now from the [Democrats] that Republican 527s are going to come in with big dollars, they'll come in late and change the nature of the game. I'm really skeptical of that. Look, there are 527s, they will participate, they will be a factor. Some of this what you're getting is professional paranoia from campaign strategists. It's their job to worry about what's around the next corner. There is certainly Republican money out there and 527s and Freedom's Watch and business groups. Some of the concern is legitimate, and some of it is an effort to raise more Democratic money. To try to manage expectations. I think the Democrats do have and will have a significant financial advantage.

I think one big question that we haven't mentioned is sometimes you get a slew of late-breaking races. Do the Democrats hold some of this money until October 15th to see whether in the final two, three weeks of the election cycle, there are five or six races that develop and that they hit? Do they splurge early and try to make these races? There are some tactical and strategic decisions that they have to make. But I think there's no doubt that the financial advantage is real and it may well be important, and the question is how much money the Republicans will raise in their outside groups. We just don't know the answer yet.

Schaller: Now the 2008 election cycle has actually already given us three results, and the Democrats have won all three special elections, including in some tough districts -- two in the South and one in, amazingly enough, former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert's old seat. A lot of people want to extrapolate from that and say, "See, that's an early warning that it's going to be a great cycle for the Democrats." Are these really indicators of what's to come, or are they exceptions?

Wasserman: I think a lot of the hype after the final special-election victory in Mississippi was simply hype. I think turnout in November as opposed to any special elections will be universal rather than unilateral. Keep in mind that special elections place a high emphasis on the quality of the candidate because it tends to be the only race on the ballot. In all three of these districts, Republicans emerged really battered and bruised from their primaries. Now do I think these losses are a big problem for Republicans? Yes. Because they've exposed a winning formula for Democrats, which is to run, in the case of the two Southern races, [candidates] who are socially conservative and are able to take advantage of splits in the Republican Party. I'll be very curious to see whether Democrats can hold on to those two seats in the South in November in an election in which they'll have to win plenty of votes from McCain supporters.

Rothenberg: I think it's very dangerous to read into specials. The three together remind us that the public's mood still favors change and it's easier for Democrats to talk about change. All things being equal, the Democrat has the advantage of the change message. But I think in at least two of these cases you had very specific factors. In the Mississippi and Illinois specials, you had divided Republican parties, where the eventual Republican nominee had a lot of enemies within the party. And in Louisiana you had a disastrous Republican nominee who probably couldn't have gotten elected dogcatcher. So I think Democrats deserve to feel good about the results, use them for fundraising and other recruitment and mobilization, but I'd be careful about projecting from those three wins to the size of the Democratic win in November.

Schaller: Let's go around the horn and each of you give me an answer to a three-part question. First, tell me one or two Democratic incumbents you think could lose. And then, two: one or two Republicans who you think are most likely to lose in November. And then finally, give me what I'm calling the J.D. Hayworth pick, which is an incumbent or two from either party who most of the country isn't paying attention to right now who might lose. And this could be a Democrat or a Republican. Someone who we wake up Wednesday after the election and can't believe he or she lost.

Rothenberg: A Democrat who might lose, just to give you one: I think Nick Lampson in Texas' 22nd Congressional District, won on a mega, mega super-duper fluke. This is the former Tom DeLay open seat. And I think he'll have a hard time beating Pete Olson, who is a credible enough candidate. If you're a credible Republican and you still have a pulse and you don't have a long prison record, you probably ought to win in Texas 22. I think Don Cazayoux in Louisiana's 6th District, this is one of the three special election victories we just mentioned, I think he is now going to face a very credible Republican state legislator in a pretty good Republican district. And then if I was to pick a long-term Democratic candidate who should watch his or her behind, there are a number of freshmen I could mention too, but I'll just throw out a different kind of candidate, and that would be Paul Kanjorski in Pennsylvania's 11th in the northeastern part of the state. I'd worry. He's running against Lou Barletta, the mayor of Hazleton, big on anti-immigration issues. I was just up in that part of the state -- Kanjorski is doing some advertising already, an interesting indication that he acknowledges some vulnerability.

Wasserman: I agree with Stu, I think Nick Lampson is the most endangered Democratic incumbent. He represents a district that is the most Republican out of the 30 seats the Democrats picked up in 2006 and that district is simply a political minefield for Democrats, especially one with as liberal a voting record as Nick Lampson, who served a much more Democratic district in the 1990s up until 2004. If I had to take a look at other Democrats who are vulnerable, I think you can make the case that Chris Carney, Nancy Boyda, Carol Shea-Porter, Steve Kagen, these are all Democrats who could face a really serious race. I think Democrats are going to have to lose a few seats this time. And those are all freshmen I mentioned.

If we had to look at a few Republican incumbents who are in real trouble, I tend to think that Tim Walberg in Michigan and Marilyn Musgrave in Colorado are really vulnerable incumbents. If we had say nine columns on our chart, as opposed to seven columns, I would consider Tim Walberg, or Marilyn Musgrave or Don Young, who faces a competitive primary, but if he were to make it through, is more vulnerable than guys like Steve Chabot or Chris Shays, but just the climate puts them all in serious danger. And then if I had to pick a Republican who people are not paying a lot of attention to right now but could be in trouble, I would tend to look at Republicans who have not had a tough race in a while and are really going to have to produce real campaigns to survive this year. And I'm not suggesting that people like Bill English or Sam Graves will lose this year, but I think they will face competitive races. Tom Feeney is another one.

Sahd: I'd agree with David on who he picks for Republicans. They would be more the ones who are causing themselves their own problems. In 2006, a lot of Republicans lost not because they sat in bad districts but because they were their own worst enemies. And the ones that prepared themselves, like Chris Shays or Mark Kirk, they hung on. This time, people like Marilyn Musgrave in Colorado and Tim Walberg in Michigan, those are the ones. Marilyn Musgrave is raising the money but she's also trying to change her profile and her image. I don't know how well that's going over. But in a district the Democrats claim is not as socially conservative as Musgrave is --and they have a great candidate, Betsy Markey -- I think this could be the year Musgrave loses in a year where Democrats and Barack Obama are going to be heavily targeting Colorado.

Rothenberg: Musgrave, Kuhl in New York, Robin Hayes in North Carolina. The Phil English race in Pennsylvania is a good example of someone who's been relatively safe over the years. I can remember when I first came to Washington, we always paid attention to Phil English in that northwestern Pennsylvania congressional district, Erie stretching south, but over the past decade that we've pretty much taken it for granted that Phil English was going to be reelected. He's got a real race this time.

Schaller: In 2006, we had Heath Shuler, sort of a celebrity, former University of Tennessee and not-so-great Redskins quarterback: ran and won as a Democratic freshman from North Carolina. And then George Clooney's dad ran and lost in Kentucky before that. And of course we've had former actors and former football players run for Congress in many elections. Are there any interesting biographies out there, people who are not incumbents obviously, as congressional candidates this cycle?

Sahd: In Alabama's 5th District, there's an open seat, where state Sen. Parker Griffith is running to take over the district of Bud Cramer, who's retiring. He's another one of those socially conservative Democrats. He's a state senator but he's also a funeral director.

Wasserman: I would add that on top of being a funeral director, he's also an oncologist and has his own radio station, so talk about a jack-of-all-trades. He could add Congress to his résumé and it'd be on the second or third page. If you had to take a look at some really interesting biographies, I'd pick out perhaps a couple Democrats with stories to tell, such as Ashwin Madia in Minnesota's open 3rd District, who is only 30, I believe, and came back from Iraq and is formerly a Republican and served as the president of the student body at the University of Minnesota. His parents came to America with, I think he said, $19 in their pocket. It's a sort of a by-the-bootstraps story, but he's someone with a profile that's compelling.

Schaller: Where is his family from, what's his ethnic background?

Wasserman: He's Indian. And he's a Democrat. And then if you head to Illinois' 8th District, there's a candidate on the Republican side. Steven Greenberg is a Jewish former minor-league hockey player who's running, and his campaign has sort of stalled for the last couple months, but if he gets his act together and decides that he wants to contribute a lot of his own money into the race, he could still make things interesting. But I think a lot of people have already written off that contest.

Rothenberg: I think the two general categories we're seeing are lots of repeat candidates, so on the Republican side you have John Gard in Wisconsin, you have Melissa Hart in Pennsylvania 4. And on the Democratic side, my goodness, we've got a lot of people who have run before, whether it's Mary Jo Kilroy in the open seat in Ohio or Darcy Burner in Washington. And then you have a number of mayors and state legislators, which leads me to the second category: Democrats are making a major effort with this one profile of socially moderate candidates who are trying to inoculate themselves against charges that they're too liberal, too far left. They're running as cultural moderates. Pro-guns, often pro-life, but at least not easily identifiable as knee-jerk liberals. I think the Democrats have done a really good job recruiting those kind of candidates too.

Schaller: Let's move on and talk about two candidates who everybody knows about, the presidential nominees. One of you alluded earlier to Colorado about potential down-ballot effects. Obviously, the presidential race isn't really run in all 50 states. How much of an effect, down ballot, will either Barack Obama or John McCain have, if they do have one, and what will that effect be?

Wasserman: I think that's the $64 million question of congressional elections this year. If we take a look at sort of the localized effects that the presidential race could have, there are places in a lot of districts where Democrats are going to have to perform better than Barack Obama if they want to win, including a lot of freshman Democrats. I think a challenge for them is really going to be walking that tightrope and negotiating their support for the Democratic nominee with the needs of their own district and the desires of their constituents. In some other places, the likelihood of a Barack Obama wave really puts Republican incumbents in danger. As we get closer to the election, we can expect the races in Illinois 10, Mark Kirk, Connecticut 4, Chris Shays, and some other districts, to really more closely track the standing of the presidential election in those districts. I think those races are likely to tighten, and those Republican incumbents will need to outperform John McCain by say 5 points in order to survive, which is something that is not impossible for them to do, but it's still going to require a serious effort.

Rothenberg: I don't think it's a question of Barack Obama helping the Democrats, as much as other Democrats will benefit from the same mood and environment that is fueling Obama's candidacy. Those two things are very different. For example, just to cite the two examples David just mentioned, the Chris Shays and Mark Kirk seats, it's not as if voters in those two districts -- and let's point out those are two of the most upscale, affluent, educated imaginable in the country -- it's not as if those voters are so silly and lightheaded that they will simply say, "I'm voting for Barack Obama, so I have to vote for the Democrat." But they may say, "We really need change here. And while I like Chris Shays, or I like Mark Kirk -- I think they've done a pretty good job -- we just have to sweep Washington clean." It could happen again, given additional turnout in these districts. Casual voters -- casual voters are more likely to be mood voters. Maybe they'll get all happed up about Obama. They'll come out and say, "We want change," and that will hurt the Republicans.

But let's remind ourselves, we don't have a lot of indication of Republican voters defecting from Republican candidates. It didn't happen in 2006. It did happen in some of these specials, but as we argued, they are unique cases. Until we get closer to November, I'm hesitant to speculate. I really don't think it's the top-of-the-ticket candidate who will benefit the down-ballot candidates so much as the mood that's benefiting the Democrats at the top of ticket will also benefit down-ballot candidates.

Sahd: I agree, but I think if there are places where Barack Obama doesn't play well -- Pennsylvania, or some of those places where Hillary Clinton did well -- I think this is where the Democratic fundraising edge comes in, because they already have a good organization up. They have their own get-out-the-vote operations that are independent of these coordinated campaigns that Barack Obama is running in these places where he's likely to do very well. They're well set up in some of these places where he's not quite as popular and most likely won't bring out the demographics he's suggested in other places. That's where their money edge comes in.

Schaller: Let me just be clear: Some people are talking [that] having the Udall cousins on the ballot will help Obama perhaps in New Mexico and Colorado. Are any of you suggesting that there's a potential reverse effect, that there's sort of an up-ballot effect -- arguably for the Democrats because of their investments and field plans -- that could actually help Obama, given what's going on the ground locally?

Wasserman: I think that Stu made an interesting point earlier about casual voters. And I think a key question is, How will the voters who did not turn out in 2006 but will come out in 2008 for a presidential election, how will they view what's going on at the lower levels, and what kind of patterns can we expect to see? Fundamentally, I don't think turnout will be driven by congressional races in any circumstances. Turnout will be driven by the presidential race in the states where it is likely to be competitive, including Colorado, which you mentioned. We can expect to see casual voters help some Republican and Democratic candidates in places that are extremely favorable to one party or another. For example, I think Jean Schmidt in Ohio's 2nd District, who has had a lot of problems convincing voters that she is stable, could benefit from a presidential race because it takes away some of the tension from her. Voters in that district are fundamentally very conservative and it's a very Republican district.

Rothenberg: I didn't mean to suggest that the down-ballot races would help Obama. I think turnout will largely be determined from the top. But when people talk about coattails, often they seem to be thinking that voters come out and they don't evaluate candidates other than who's running at the top of the ticket. I think the top of the ticket can be a factor in turning out these voters, so I would agree with that. But also I agree that there is a flipside here. I don't know how Barack Obama is going to be evaluated at the end of October. If the Republicans successfully pin him as a Northern ultra-liberal Democrat, and big taxer, then he could turn out not to be the huge asset. But right now, Democrats figure he adds to enthusiasm, he'll bring out new voters, and if that's what you mean by coattails, then he could have some coattails. But I think it's pretty early to determine that.

Schaller: Last question. I'm going to put your feet to the fire since this is what you guys do for a living. I realize circumstances change at the national level -- what's your prediction right now, net gain for one party or the other, presumably the Democrats, on Wednesday morning after the election?

Wasserman: I think our current outlook, which projects a Democratic gain of 10 to 20 seats in the House, is more of a punt than a prediction. If I had to say where the pendulum of possibility in the House stands right now, it would be about 15 seats for the Democrats. Unlike 2006, when Democrats held all of their own seats -- I think the Rothenberg Report researched this and found a year all the way back in the earlier part of the last century where this was the case, and you can tell me, Stu, when that was -- but unlike 2006, Democrats are going to have to lose a handful of seats before they start gaining any ground. So I could see Democrats losing five seats and gaining 20 Republican seats to come to that number. But a lot could change between now and then.

Sahd: I'd say 15 to 18. I think for Republicans to keep this in the single digits as we speak now would be a major accomplishment for them, and I would consider it a win for Republicans if they could keep the losses in the single digits. But the way expectations are ratcheted up right now and the mood of the electorate, notwithstanding the seats the Democrats do have to hold, I would say around 15, 17, 18 for Democrats.

Rothenberg: Well, Tom, I never make these sort of predictions, but because of my admiration for your work, I think you do such a good job, I'm actually going to crawl out on a limb, and allow you to saw it off, and I will then deny I ever made this number. But right now, if you asked me to guess -- that's what it is, a guess -- I'd guess 12 to 15 for the Ds. Which would be a very good year for them. They ought to be extremely happy. And the Republicans could probably feel relieved that they don't lose another 25. I think we're all in general agreement about the magnitude of this year. It's going to be quite a good Democratic year. Is it going to be 25 or 30, as some Democrats have said to me? I don't see it yet. I think that's unlikely, but something in the low to mid-teens. If Tim wants to take us into the upper teens, we don't have hard numbers right now, so we're all kind of guessing. It seems to me this is the ballpark we're in. And I say that with the caveat that the ballpark may get torn down and rebuilt with a very different range three or four months from now.

Schaller: This has been a very illuminating conversation. I want to thank our guests.

By Thomas F. Schaller

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