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House likely to stay in GOP hands - redistricting limits competitive contests

Author: Paul Kane and Ed O'Keefe
Lexington Herald-Leader
October 28, 2012

President Barack Obama remains at least an even bet to win re-election. Democrats are favored to hold on to the Senate - an outcome few prognosticators envisioned at the beginning of the year. And yet, with a little more than a week to go, the party holds almost no chance of winning back the House.

"They called the fight. It's over. We're going to have a House next year that's going to look an awful lot like the last House," said Stuart Rothenberg, the independent analyst who runs the Rothenberg Political Report.

The outlines of a comeback for Democrats seemed possible. From its opening act, the 112th Congress was dominated by a raucous class of House freshmen who pushed Washington to the brink of several government shutdowns and almost prompted a first-ever default on the federal debt. It became the most unpopular Congress in the history of polling and, by some measures, the least productive.

Analysts cite several factors why the Democrats haven't been able to take advantage. First was a redistricting process that made some Republicans virtually impervious to a challenge and re-election more difficult for about 10 Democrats. And Republicans have leveraged their majority into a fund-raising operation that has outmuscled the Democrats.

That means that regardless of who wins the White House, the Republican caucus of Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio will remain a critical player in the coming showdowns over tax and spending cuts.

Rothenberg predicted modest gains for Democrats in about a handful of seats, a symbolic victory but well short of their "Drive to 25" for the net gain needed for the majority. Privately, Democrats do not dispute those estimates but contend the gains will set the stakes for a 2014 campaign in which they will shoot for the majority.

Republicans, however, believe they have used congressional redistricting to shore up enough of their seats to remain in power for years to come. Rather than aggressively seek more seats, Boehner's leadership team counseled Republican-led state legislatures to fortify those Republicans already serving on Capitol Hill.

The result has been that House Republicans start off with 190 districts that have a historic performance safely in their corner, while Democrats begin with 146 such districts, according to an analysis by the independent Cook Political Report.

That leaves 99 districts viewed as regularly competitive, an all-time low. Democrats will likely have to carry 72 of those 99 seats to reach the bare majority of 218.

"That's a really bad omen for Democrats, not just this year but in future years," said David Wasserman, the House editor for the Cook report.

Though more than 80 GOP freshmen are standing for re-election, just two dozen are facing tough challenges and only 15 are in significant danger of losing.

Democrats have put a few high-profile Tea Party lawmakers on the defensive. Rep. Joe Walsh, R-Ill., whose confrontational style made him a YouTube sensation and a regular on Fox News, is running behind in his suburban Chicago district.

In Florida, Rep. Allen West, a Republican and former Army lieutenant colonel, moved north of his previous Palm Beach-based district but still faces stiff competition, even as he declines to tone down his rhetoric.

Beyond the freshmen, Republican Reps. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Steve King of Iowa are fighting for their political lives. Bachmann's Quixotic presidential campaign left her open to charges of ignoring her district. King is facing Christie Vilsack, the wife of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a still-popular former governor. She is also focusing on local issues rather than King's national conservative platform.

Democrats believe that such high-profile victories could send a signal that hyper-partisanship is not the route to re-election, giving hope for more bipartisan work in 2013.