The average onlooker typically associates political cycles with the presidential election, prepped to vote only every four years. Little attention gets paid to the races in between, such as the contentious Congressional “mid-term” elections or the bevy of hot races on the House and Senate level.
While all eyes watch the drama unfold on the race to the White House, it’s primarily the political strategists and prognosticators focusing on the House and Senate campaigns. Most voters on the street won’t notice until they see unfamiliar faces pitching to them in television commercials or a list of strange names at the voting booth. Members of Congress, especially on the House side, are forced to into an endless cycle of fundraising, retail politicking, and sweaty poll watching. “This is how it’s done,” jokes one Republican aide speaking on condition of anonymity. “365 days in the year, maybe squeeze out a good 65 days of real governance.”
The race for the White House and Capitol Hill are not mutually exclusive. President Barack Obama’s lead in many national polls, and his strong sprints ahead of Republican nominee Mitt Romney in key swing states like Pennsylvania, may be tightening the Congressional races. Democrats running to either hold on to or snatch hotly contested House and Senate seats are suddenly finding themselves caught up in what some observers are describing as a potential “wave election” for their party, similar to what Republicans experienced in 2010.
“If the president is re-elected, he’ll have coattails,” claims Quinnipiac University pollster Peter Brown in a conversation with the Tribune. “The question is: how long will they be?”
“Six months ago, there was a consensus in Las Vegas — at least among the legal gamblers — that Republicans could take the Senate,” Brown notes. “But, now, that looks to be much less the case.”
While times appear to be good for Democrats on the Senate side, suddenly once unbelievable projections are being made about the House side. Princeton University researcher Sam Wang was one of the first to publicly brave an emerging conventional wisdom among observers that the GOP could actually lose its House majority in November. “Conditions through August showed a 2 percent lead on the generic Congressional ballot for Democrats,” wrote Wang on his Princeton Election Consortium blog. “This could translate to a November loss of the House by Republicans. The probability of a Democratic takeover is 74 percent.”
Wang was even more emphatic on the Senate side, arguing that “top-of-the-ticket moves are closely accompanied by parallel down-ticket effects in the Senate.”
Democrats will need at least 25 pick-ups in the House to claim the majority, with the Real Clear Politics polling average now showing 23 total seats in the “toss-up” column — enough to make Republicans sweat. Currently, there are 190 Democrats and 240 Republicans in the House, with five vacancies. Roll Call’s 2012 map shows 28 toss-ups.
On the Senate side, Democrats currently hold a 48 to 43-seat advantage, and there are 33 seats in play during this 2012 cycle — 23 Democrats and 10 Republicans. Real Clear Politics shows 9 toss-ups; yet, most of the other 11 races are either “Likely Dem” or “Leaning Dem.” Roll Call shows 6 toss-ups. University of Amsterdam’s Andrew S. Tanenbaum currently shows Democrats expanding their majority to 51 on Election Day with Republicans at 47.
Consequently, most of the Senate seats in serious play are in states with massive concentrations of African-American and Latino voters. This is also the case with numerous House races, where minority voter turnout could determine the margins of victory.
On the Senate side, the outcome of races in Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nevada, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin could hinge on how Black and brown voters turn out — or how much of an impact controversial voter ID laws will have. When aligned against a map of voter ID laws, some of these same states — such as Wisconsin and Indiana — have strong voter ID or other “voter suppression” laws in place. Pennsylvania, while not in the danger zone column for Senate Democrats, is still faced with the prospect of one of the most stringent voter ID laws in the country.
Meanwhile, models such as those employed by Wang and Tanenbaum, have caused some stir. Predictably, many Republican observers — some pointing to Wang’s obvious Democratic leanings — are concerned that such numbers are inflated.
“The House is not in play,” Republican consultant Matt Machowiak shot back in an email to the Tribune. “This week alone the Democratic campaign arm pulled out of targeted races in Florida, Wisconsin and North Carolina. In order to win a net of 25 seats, they'd really have to win 35-40, and that's not possible.”
“It's possible for Democrats to win a majority in the House, but not likely,” says Nathan Gonzales of the Rothenberg Political Report and founder of PoliticsinStereo.com. Even though they have a narrow advantage in the generic ballot nationally, we’re not seeing a big enough shift toward Democrats on a district-by-district level.
“Part of the challenge for Democrats is that there a few states where they could pick up handfuls of seats, such as Illinois, California and New York, but will likely lose at least a few of their own seats in the South and conservative seats elsewhere. So some of their takeovers will be wiped away by their own losses,” Gonzales adds.