Why Democrats Can’t Win Back the House

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Sept. 26 2012 7:12 PM

House of Pain

Obama may be president. Democrats may keep the Senate. But the House isn’t going anywhere.

Nancy Pelosi answers questions during her weekly news conference at the U.S. Capitol last week in Washington, DC.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

A few weeks ago in Charlotte, I sat down in the Huffington Post Oasis’ yoga studio and listened to Rep. Nancy Pelosi describe how she’d get her old job back. Democrats needed 25 seats to take back control of the House. “We’re going to get them,” she said.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at daveweigel@gmail.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.

With no PowerPoint, no chalkboard—not even a calculator—Pelosi proceeded to bring the math. “There are 63 seats which are held by Republicans which were won by President Obama,” she explained. “Of those 63 seats, 18 were also won by John Kerry. There are those who count that as 18 [for us]. We don’t. Give them six. We’ll take 12. Of the 45 remaining, give them 30. I think that’s generous. That’s the worst-case scenario. Fifteen plus 12, that’s 27.”

Could it be that simple? Almost. “There are districts where people are, shall we say, ethically challenged, and we believe we have excellent chances to win,” Pelosi said. What about her party? “We believe that any Democrats who could survive the year from hell have a good chance of winning again.” (She is referring to the “shellacking” of 2010.) And where would the new seats come from? “In California, New York, Illinois, and Texas, we have half of what we need.”

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It was the best spin Democrats could come up with. Nobody in the room—reporters, bloggers, reporter-bloggers—looked terribly convinced. We were in North Carolina, where less than a mile away Republicans were mocking one of Pelosi’s “year from hell” survivors by renting an Uber car and daring Rep. Larry Kissell to ride it into Charlotte. If Democrats were so sure they’d win the House, well, what was Kissell waiting for?

Weeks later, ever since the Charlotte Democrats emptied their confetti cannons, the election’s been breaking their way. Barack Obama leads Mitt Romney outside the margin of error; swing-state polling has him winning around 330 electoral votes. For the first time all year, Obama’s party looks likely to keep control of the U.S. Senate.

But Democrats aren’t winning the House. The Cook Political Report, which meticulously tracks and rates House races, pegs the maximum Democratic gain at eight seats. At this point in 2010, it was predicting Republican gains in the high 40s, and the party wound up with 63 new seats. The Fix, Chris Cillizza’s election bible, gives Democrats the advantage in 182 seats and rates 27 more as “toss-ups.” If Democrats won them all, they’d still by eight seats short.

And any schmuck could have warned you years ago that this would happen. In 2010, Republicans predicted that a broad election win—one that gave them most state legislatures—would keep the House for a decade. “It could end up translating into control of 15 to 25 U.S. House seats for the next five cycles,” said Ed Gillespie, co-founder of the polling and strategy group Resurgent Republic and who spent endless hours counseling Republicans on the down-ballot challenge. (He’s now flacking his heart out for Romney.)

The Republican advantage was tremendous. Most states give the power of the map to whomever happens to run the legislature. As 2011 began, Democrats only controlled the redistricting process for 47 seats—safe blue turf like Maryland and Illinois, which they squeezed for every possible gain. They had to. Republicans controlled the process for 202 seats. The Democrats had built the Pelosi house in states like Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. Then they lost everything, and the other guys got to draw the maps.

“Republicans weren’t thinking ‘Hey, just how do we draw these lines to screw over Democrats?’ ” says John McHenry, a pollster at Resurgent Republic. “It was, ‘How do we make this suburban Philadelphia seat safer for the Republican who just won it?’ The goal wasn’t so much to add seats as it was to hold on to the 2010 gains.”

Republicans and independent analysts figure that the new maps will save at least a dozen seats. In state after state, they followed the same pattern: Create more safe suburban districts and pack the Democrats into a couple of twisty gerrymanders. North Carolina, which narrowly voted for Obama in 2008, is now structured to elect Republicans in at least nine of 13 seats. (This explains that Uber for Kissell.)