Should Democrats abandon House to defend Senate?

Democrats would need a net gain of 17 seats to retake the House. Meanwhile, over in the Senate, the GOP needs a net gain of six to switch chamber control.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif., meets with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014, the day after President Obama's State of the Union address.

Should Democrats give up on retaking the House in 2014 and shift campaign dollars to the battle for the Senate? That’s the theme of a piece in Politico on Wednesday that says Democratic Party operatives and big donors are talking about such a strategy among themselves.

“It’s a delicate decision for Democrats and one not taken lightly,” Politico’s Alex Isenstadt writes.

Well, the decision may be delicate, but the numbers involved here are anything but. The election is still months away, and a lot can happen. But if current polls hold, continued Republican control of the House is a foregone conclusion. Democrats would need a net gain of 17 seats to retake the chamber, and if you go down the list and look at it race by race, a gain of that size seems highly unlikely.

“Although individual skirmishes will provide plenty of drama, the end result – a Republican hold in the House – is almost a certainty,” write University of Virginia political scientists Larry Sabato, Kyle Kondik, and Geoffrey Skelley in their latest Center for Politics “Crystal Ball” forecast.

For Democrats to regain the speaker’s chair for Rep. Nancy Pelosi, three things would have had to occur, wrote prognosticator David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report late last year. Republican budget intransigence would have had to continue. More GOP members from marginal districts would have had to retire. Democrats would have had to recruit five or 10 additional top-tier candidates to run in districts currently held by the other party.

None of that happened. Instead, Democrats got the drip-drip of the troubled Obamacare rollout. The big-name retirements all seem to be Democrats, with Rep. Henry Waxman of California just the latest example.

As a result, Cook Political Report’s forecast is that Republicans will gain between zero and 10 seats.

The Senate is a different country. Right now it has 53 Democrats, 45 Republicans, and two independents that caucus with the Democrats. The GOP needs a net gain of six to switch chamber control.

Given that midterms generally aren’t favorable to the president’s party, as well as the current general electoral environment, such a Republican jump is possible, maybe even probable.

Crunching the numbers, Andrew Gelman, a Columbia University professor of statistics and political science, currently forecasts the Democratic Party’s chances of losing the Senate at 56 percent, more or less. Right now the margin of uncertainty there is five points or so either way, he adds.

“We’ll learn more as the election gets closer,” he writes on the “Monkey Cage” political science blog.

One big factor here may be President Obama’s low favorability rating. State-by-state outcomes in House and Senate races correlate fairly closely with presidential job ratings, according to RealClearPolitics polling and political analyst Sean Trende.

Right now, about 43 percent of Americans give Mr. Obama a favorable job-approval rating, according to RealClearPolitics' rolling average of major polls. If that figure does not go up, the question won’t be whether the GOP retakes the Senate, Mr. Trende says. It will be whether Republicans end up with 54 or 55 seats.

“If the president is unpopular, it is going to make it really tough for these red state Democrats who are up in 2014,” Trende said in a video interview with The Wall Street Journal.

Given all this, why wouldn’t Democrats shift resources to Senate defense? The real question is whether such a move would make much difference. Dollars can do only so much at the federal campaign level. The national political environment, quality of the candidates, and the state of the economy are all important parts of Senate electoral results.

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