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.
“I know of not one Republican candidate who would not appear publicly with Mitt Romney and I know of many Democrats that don’t even want to be in the same city, forget the same stage, with President Obama,” Sessions said.
Israel didn’t exactly push back hard on the idea.
“We've told our candidates if you agree with the president, state your agreement. If you disagree with the president, state your disagreement,” Israel said. “It’s that simple.”
But it isn’t as if House Republicans are gleeful about Romney’s candidacy.
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R) of Texas, a frequent dissenter from mainline Republican talking points, jabbed Romney thus in April:
“If you are not sure about wanting to support Mitt Romney, whether you are liberal, whether you are very conservative, you ought to be excited because he’s been on your side at one time or another,” Mr. Gohmert said in a conversation with reporters.
He followed that up with some tepid praise of Romney: “I’m not as excited as I am desperate.”
Israel flips the dynamic, saying unpopular congressional figures could easily do damage to their up-ballot nominee.
“The question is whether Mitt Romney wants to appear with any House Republicans,” he said. “Has Pete taken a look at the polling on House Republicans lately? I think Mitt Romney probably has.”
Republicans look to lock-in gains
Whatever the presidential impact, Sessions concedes the closeness of the race, but thinks that Republicans are going to come out even or with a small net gain.
That’s for two reasons, chiefly. First, Sessions sees economic headwinds for Obama as a gust at the backs of congressional Republicans.
“The feeling out in the field … is that I believe that our Republican candidates have an effective message and that Democrats are on the defensive because of the stunningly bad [economic] numbers that keep arriving,” Sessions said.
That's in part because Republicans feel they've consolidated their hold on at least 14 GOP-held districts by stuffing them with right-leaning voters through redistricting.
The hope, they said, is to bake in strong Republican majorities for the next decade.
Israel argues that Democrats have avoided the redistricting buzz-saw many predicted for their members.
“Adding any further advantage to an already-safe Republican will have no net effect on the number of seats Republicans win,” wrote Democratic Congressional Campaign Committtee Executive Director Robby Mook in a recent memo on redistricting. “What matters is whether the playing field has stayed strong for Democrats – and it has.”
While Democrats may have avoided getting ripped asunder by redistricting as some early estimates forecast, the redistricting process has not been totally kind, Wasserman wrote in a recent article on the overall state of House races.
“Because redistricting's effect was largely to reinforce the status quo (with the major exception of California), there's no question that Democrats would have a slightly better chance of winning the House if the 2012 elections were still held under the 2010 lines,” Wasserman wrote.
Taken together, then – electoral math, the impact of the presidential race, and redistricting – which party is more likely to be holding the gavel in the 113th Congress’ lower chamber?
As one might expect, the nonpartisan consensus is somewhere between the two parties. A gain by Republicans is, in the opinion of expert House watchers like the Cook Political Report and the Rothenberg Report, very unlikely.
Wasserman estimates that Democrats will likely net a gain of five to 15 seats. The Rothenberg report foresees a “single digit” gain for Democrats as “most likely.”
Sessions, with a wry nod toward his deputy, noted “there are only two people in Washington who believe” the GOP could pick up House seats in November.