Democrats Face Long Odds To Retake House

By Michelle R. Davis — October 30, 2002 3 min read
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Elections 2002

As the midterm elections loom next week, Republicans are jockeying to keep their majority in the House, while Democrats are racing to capture the handful of seats that could put them on top for the first time since 1994.

Political pundits are predicting that Republicans will retain their majority status in the House, where they now hold a 14-vote advantage over Democrats and the one Independent who tends to vote with the Democrats. But they caution that races nationwide are so close that a Democratic overthrow isn’t unthinkable.

All of the 435 seats in the House are up for grabs on Election Day, as is the case every two years. With a Republican in the White House and Democrats holding a razor-thin majority in the Senate, the question of which party controls the House is pivotal.

Political analysts say about 40 House races are competitive—redistricting after the 2000 Census resulted in most congressional districts’ becoming so-called “safe seats,” heavily tilted to one party or the other—but in many of those “competitive” cases, voters are leaning Republican or Democratic. Most analysts seem to agree it’s really a much smaller number of House races, between eight and 12 depending on whom you ask, that really could go either way.

But for Democrats to get control in the House, they must win nearly every race leaning their way as well as all those that are still considered up for grabs, said Mark J. Rozell, the chair of the department of politics at the Catholic University of America, in Washington. “The odds are very slim that in every single circumstance that a race could go one way or another, everything would tip in the direction of one party,” he said.

However, in 1994, the GOP bested similar odds. Such factors as public mood and voter turnout coalesced in the Republicans’ favor, and a tide of GOP members swept into Congress, overturning Democrats’ four- decade entrenchment in the chamber.

But Mr. Rozell said this year is different.

“In a typical midterm-election year with the president’s party trying to lead in a weak economy, the party in the White House would lose 25 seats,” he said. “It’s quite telling that that’s not going to happen.”

But Kim Rubey, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, sees a significant number of vulnerable GOP incumbents.

“We’re confident we’ll pick up the seats we need to regain the majority,” she said.

One issue that Republicans, especially incumbents, believe they can use more effectively this year than in the past is education. In House races nationwide, GOP nominees have been able to point to President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 as proof of significant action on Capitol Hill.

Though education has taken a back seat to issues like the economy and terrorism, it remains one of voters’ top concerns, said Larry J. Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

“Bush did get the education plan passed, and that’s helped Republicans because they actually have something to point to,” he said. “In any race involving a Republican incumbent, you’ll find an education ad.”

Ed Patru, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee agreed: “I can’t think of one Republican who hasn’t used this issue on the campaign.”

But the opposing party isn’t backing off from education, an issue that has traditionally been seen as a Democratic strength. Ms. Rubey said Democrats on the stump have been talking about the importance of the No Child Left Behind Act, which passed with big, bipartisan majorities, but are also stressing that they believe Republicans haven’t put the necessary resources behind it.

Republicans should “answer questions about why they’re not funding it,” she said.

Democrats have also been using education in their advertising in competitive races.

In Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District—which the nonpartisan Cook Political Report ranks as a tossup—Democrats have run ads critical of incumbent Republican Rep. Jim Leach, claiming he voted in favor of a bill that included a proposal to abolish the Department of Education.

Education Sparring

In Pennsylvania’s highly competitive 17th Congressional District—where two incumbents, Republican Rep. George W. Gekas and Democratic Rep. Tim Holden have been thrown into the same district by redistricting—Mr. Holden has been stressing his commitment to safety in schools, Ms. Rubey said.

“Bush neutralized somewhat the typical Democratic Party advantage on this issue ... when he pushed education initiatives,” Mr. Rozell said. “He really outdid the Democrats on their issue in some respects, which is smart in politics.”

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