House 2014: Handicapping the 'Drive to 245'

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(Photo: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)Members of the 113th Congress bow their heads in prayer as they convene in the Capitol in Washington January 3, 2013. In the wake of bruising fights in their own ranks over the "fiscal cliff" and aid for victims of superstorm Sandy - Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives open a new Congress on Thursday more divided than ever.

A Republican at the end of 1928 could look back on the previous few decades and smile: His party was quite clearly the dominant force in American politics. Starting in 1896, Republicans had held the White House for 24 of 32 years, interrupted only by the GOP split that helped Democrat Woodrow Wilson get elected in 1912. (Another Republican, Herbert Hoover, was about to stretch that streak in the White House to 28 of 36 years.)

In the House, Republicans also had held control for 24 of 32 years, and Hoover's 444-electoral vote landslide in 1928 boosted the House GOP majority to 270 seats, a Republican edge whose size was only eclipsed by the 302-member Republican caucus elected in 1920 (the House expanded to its present 435 seats in 1913).

Things appeared so bleak for the Party of Jackson that "there was real fear at the time that the Democrats would follow the Whigs into oblivion," according to the recently deceased prolific historian Robert Remini in The House: The History of the House of Representatives.

Of course, the stock market crashed in 1929. Democrats would recapture the House two years later — and hold it for 60 of the next 64 years.

Since that 270-seat Republican majority, the high water mark for the GOP in the lower chamber was 246 seats, achieved in 1946. That majority was wiped out two years later in President Harry Truman's surprising reelection triumph. As of now, the GOP House majority — virtually assured of continuing for at least one more cycle — stands at 234 seats. A gain of 13 seats would put the Republicans at 247, eclipsing 1946 and delivering the biggest GOP majority since the Roaring '20s.

The National Republican Congressional Committee and its chairman, Rep. Greg Walden (R, OR-2), have set their sights slightly lower: 245 seats, or a net gain of 11. "Drive to 245" sounds better than "Revvin' for 247" or "247th Heaven" (sorry, best we could come up with), which probably played into the creation of that message. So too did the fact that even a modest, double-digit gain is going to be a challenge this year for Republicans.

In a chamber where a simple majority rules, the difference between whether the ruling party has 234 seats or 245 seats — or somewhere in between — seems rather unimportant at first blush. But don't tell that to Speaker John Boehner (R, OH-8) and his leadership team, who often have trouble getting their caucus to go along with their plans. More Republicans, particularly more Republicans from marginal districts who have general election voters to answer to as opposed to primary voters to satisfy, probably means more votes in the speaker's pocket.

To be clear, the overall House atmosphere favors Republicans. The president's party almost always loses seats in a midterm: an average of 33 seats per election in the 38 midterms held since the start of the Civil War. Of course, those elections often come after the president's party was elected with acclaim two years prior to the midterm, inflating the president's party's numbers in the House to artificial heights, but President Obama and his Democrats are already at a rather low ebb in the House, where they hold just 201 seats (assuming two safe Democratic vacancies in NC-12 and NJ-1 are filled by Democrats in upcoming special elections). President Obama's approval rating is 43%, two points lower than where he was on Election Day 2010. The national House generic ballot is roughly tied, although these polls generally have a built-in Democratic slant, so Republicans probably have a tiny edge in all actuality (though considerably smaller than 2010 at this time).

But the GOP is limited in the sense that the House playing field is small: The most recent Crystal Ball House ratings list just 37 seats in the most competitive categories, Toss-up or Leans Democratic/Republican. Of those seats, 21 are currently held by Democrats and 16 by Republicans. This is a much smaller number than in previous cycles. For instance, in 2012 around this time we had 59 races in the most competitive categories, and in 2010 we listed 69 seats in these categories. Even if there's a wave coming — and there's not much sign of that right now — there are only so many Democratic seats that would get swept up.

What follows is a gaming out of the most competitive House races, and also how the Republicans could potentially get to an 11-seat gain, and their goal. Interspersed in the description of the state of play below are explanations of 13 House rating changes we're making this week, which are listed here.

Gaming out the House map

Just to be clear, the Republicans start with 234 seats they hold right now, and the Democrats start with 201 (again, assuming they hold the two safe, open seats).

Republicans should immediately start with two pickups: NC-7, a heavily Republican seat being vacated by retiring Rep. Mike McIntyre (D), and UT-4, which we're moving from Likely Republican to Safe Republican this week. This seat is being vacated by Rep. Jim Matheson (D), who barely hung on against former Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love (R) last cycle. Love is running again and should be fine against Doug Owens (D), the son of former Rep. Wayne Owens (D). That gets the Republicans to 236, or +2 net.

But Democrats have a couple of pickup opportunities of their own: an open, Democratic-leaning seat in California (CA-31) and NY-11, where Rep. Michael Grimm (R) is under indictment. Both these seats are rated Leans Democratic. Let's say they go to the Democrats. That puts the GOP back at 234.

Democrats have a small but plausible list of targets beyond CA-31 and NY-11. At a Christian Science Monitor briefing for reporters last week, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rep. Steve Israel (D, NY-3) listed seven prime pickup opportunities for his party: The two aforementioned seats along with five others:

• CO-6, where Rep. Mike Coffman (R) and former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff (D) are locked in a race long seen by the Crystal Ball and others as a Toss-up.
• IA-3, an open seat where former state Sen. Staci Appel (D) and surprise nominee David Young (R), a former chief of staff to Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) who won a convention in June after finishing fifth in an earlier primary, are locked in a Toss-up race.
• FL-2, held by Rep. Steve Southerland (R). Southerland, a somewhat weak incumbent, is facing Gwen Graham (D), daughter of former governor and senator Bob Graham (D) and an impressive challenger. We now see this race as a Toss-up instead of Leans Republican, as do both parties, even though this Florida panhandle seat gave Mitt Romney 52% of the vote in 2012.
• NJ-3 and VA-10, two open, suburban seats that we rate as Leans Republican.

Let's say, for the sake of argument that Democrats win just one of these five races: One of CO-6, FL-2, or IA-3.

While Democrats do have other targets, there are only a handful more — we list just 11 GOP-held seats in the Leans Republican column, and that may be charitable. That category now includes NY-19, where Rep. Chris Gibson (R) appears to have moved out of Toss-up territory against wealthy opponent Sean Eldridge (D), and does not include a few suburban Philadelphia seats where we now perceive a clear Republican edge: The open seat in PA-6 and Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick's (R, PA-8) seat. In the case of the latter, Democrats might be better off waiting two years to really take a shot there because Fitzpatrick pledged to serve only three terms when he recaptured the seat in 2010, so it might be an open seat in 2016. Also moving further away from Democrats is MI-8, another open seat where Republicans avoided a headache after former state Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop (R) won the nomination Tuesday night. All three of these seats go from Leans Republican to Likely Republican. (A couple other long-shot Democratic targets are now off the board completely: Rep. David McKinley of WV-1 should be fine this time, as should new MI-11 Republican nominee David Trott, who beat accidental Rep. Kerry Bentivolio in the Michigan primary Tuesday night. Both go from Likely Republican to Safe Republican.)

Kyle Kondik is the Director of Communications at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. A sought after political analyst, he previously served as the Director of Policy and Research for former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray.