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February 28, 2012 7:18 pm
Democrats say they are optimistic that they can regain control of the House of Representatives in the November election, an outcome that would mark a sharp reversal from the thumping defeat dealt to the party in 2010.
“We’ve gone from a gale force wind against us to a sustained breeze at our backs,” said Steve Israel, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, on Tuesday.
Democrats would need to capture 25 seats to take back the House from the Republicans who swept into power in the midterm elections on a wave of Tea Party anger at President Barack Obama. If that were to happen, it would mark the latest in rapid succession of historical political realignments in the House – including the Democratic triumphs of 2006 and 2008.
Most political analysts see Democrats gaining seats – probably between five and 10 – but falling short of recapturing the majority. But Mr Israel says he can envisage a 21-seat gain, putting Democrats “in range” of the target. “I would sign an affidavit that it’s going to be razor close,” he says.
While most of the attention has been on the contest to determine the Republican presidential nominee, the Congressional elections will be crucial in shaping the outcome of the huge fiscal decisions facing the US after November.
Among the questions facing the Congress will be how to handle the expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts, whether to continue payroll tax relief and how to deal with billions in automatic spending cuts in defence and domestic programmes that are scheduled to begin next year. At the same time, lawmakers will probably need to raise the debt ceiling.
The growing confidence in the Democratic party is partly a result of the improving fortunes of Mr Obama, whose approval ratings have risen in recent months on the back of a better economy and the unsettled Republican race.
Mr Israel says Americans are also experiencing a form of “buyer’s remorse” against Republicans, blaming them for the repeated impasses on fiscal policy, from the April standoff on a government shutdown, to the debt ceiling crisis in August, to the payroll tax cut extension fight in December.
The Democratic strategy now is to target those Republicans – some of them Tea Party favourites such as Allen West of Florida, Joe Walsh of Illinois and Chip Cravaack of Minnesota – who won in 2010 in mixed or even Democratic-leaning districts, and are now facing the prospect of a shortlived career on Capitol Hill.
But analysts say the odds of a Democratic takeover of the House remain long. “The last three elections were wave elections. This is going to be more of a whirlpool,” says David Wasserman, of the Cook Political Report in Washington. “There are vulnerabilities on both sides,” he says.
Paul Lindsay, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee, dismissed Mr Israel’s claims.
“Returning Nancy Pelosi to the Speaker’s chair may be a dream for Steve Israel, but Americans have no interest in rewarding Washington Democrats who continue to inflict damage on an already-fragile economy,” he says.
So far, Democrats have an advantage over Republicans in fundraising, with the DCCC raking in $67m in this election cycle, while its Republican counterpart bringing in $59m, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. But the flood of outside money – the super political action committee funds – that are dominating US political campaigns, is a big wild card, and could well tilt the financial balance in Republican favour.
The US Chamber of Commerce, the biggest lobbying group for corporate America, is also weighing in with advertising campaigns mostly to benefit their Republican allies.
“We’re engaging earlier and more aggressively than ever to educate constituents about which leaders recognise the role free enterprise plays in leading our economic recovery,” said Tom Donohue, Chamber president, this month.
If Democrats were to win back the House, it could serve to offset the possibility that Republicans might gain the majority in the Senate, where they only need a net win of four seats to ensure control and are benefiting from the retirement of many Democratic senators in swing states.
Such a “swap” of control of the two chambers of Congress would be unique in post-Civil War US political history, says Kyle Kondik, of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. But Mr Kondik wouldn’t rule it out: “I can definitely see Democrats picking up seats in the House – Republicans are at a high water mark. But it might not get them the majority.”
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