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In Election 2012, how much is the House in play? Three sides to the story.

Steve Israel outlines his scenario for the Democrats winning back the House. Pete Sessions says the GOP could actually increase its hold. Analysts say the reality is somewhere in between.

By Staff writer / May 11, 2012

DCCC chairman, Steve Israel speaks at the St. Regis Hotel in Washington, DC, on Thursday.

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor

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Washington

Rep. Steve Israel (D) of New York and Rep. Pete Sessions (R) of Texas spend their days locked on to the same task: winning the House of Representatives.

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At breakfast forums sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor this week, the two men – the chairmen of the Democratic and Republican congressional campaign committees charged with reelecting their colleagues to the House – laid out their arguments for why their party would appoint the next Speaker of Congress’ lower chamber.

While nonpartisan analysts expect Democrats to edge out small gains, Congressman Israel thinks his party has a plausible route to the 25 net seats Democrats must claim to win back the House.

Representative Sessions, for his part, believes Republicans could eke out a small gain.

“The opportunity we have today is very much like the 2010 cycle,” Sessions said, referring to the tidal wave that sent 63 new Republican members to Washington. “Every single week there is new news that is negative that relates directly to the president’s policies.”

The truth, says David Wasserman, House editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, is between the two.

Sessions has too many vulnerable incumbents to make it into positive territory come November, while Israel, he says, has been successful at convincing the donors and the media of his argument that the House is in play “when it really isn’t right now.”

Steve Israel's math 

In Israel’s mind, however, optimism for the way forward relies on looking at congressional districts favorable to Democrats. Out of the 46 districts that President Obama won in 2008 and that are now represented by a Republican in Congress, Israel thinks Democrats could conservatively hope to win a third.

Then, there are 18 districts that voted for both John Kerry and Obama before electing a Republican in 2010. Israel’s stance on these seats is unyielding.

“I’ll sign an affidavit for you right now and I’ll sign it in blood that we’re going to win two-thirds of them,” he said.

Of the 15 most vulnerable Democrats, Israel says he “won’t concede one,” arguing that if they made it through the 2010 electoral crucible they should be able to survive a much more hospitable 2012 cycle.

If Democrats hold the line with their vulnerable members, they win 27 seats and the speaker’s gavel. If a third of the vulnerable Democrats are defeated – Israel’s worst-case estimate – the party gains 22 net seats.

“This thing is in range. I’m not going to say we’re the majority, [but] we’re in range,” Israel said.

That’s a bit fanciful, argues Cook’s Mr. Wasserman, given six Democratic retirements that are “very dangerous, very precarious” and half a dozen incumbents in serious trouble because of  redistricting. With those seats in mind, Wasserman says Democrats need to clear 35 or 40 seats to retake the House.

The weight of Obama

Whether things stay in Israel’s range will be at least partly up to the parties’ presidential candidates, Barack Obama and, presumably, Mitt Romney. Currently, vulnerable Democrats will have a harder time running alongside Mr. Obama than their Republican counterparts down ballot from Mr. Romney.

“It’s fair to say that more Republicans will be able to use Obama to drag down Democrats than Democrats will be able to use Romney to drag down Republicans,” says Wasserman.

Sessions was eager to push just such an argument.

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