Friday, July 18, 2014

Ranting On...Nancy Pelosi and the 2014 Midterms

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi
Nancy Pelosi is not a dumb woman.  During a recent interview with the Washington Post, the former Speaker of the House insisted that the Democrats would not only win seats this November, but have a legitimate shot at taking back the House.  This is a fool's errand, and she knows it.  Even in the most optimistic of hypotheticals, the Democrats have no shot at winning back the House-they would maybe break even in the best of scenarios, and are more than likely going to lose a handful of seats.  We've discussed this a bit recently.

Pelosi can't say this, of course, at least not in July, for a variety of factors.  For one thing, the DCCC and the Democrats have been inexplicably strong this cycle at fundraising.  According to Roll Call, in the 59 most competitive House races, the Democrats have 30% more cash-on-hand on average than the Republicans.  Outspending from people like the Koch Brothers will probably negate that amount some, but this is still a significant achievement considering the Democrats have no chance of winning in November (though, to be fair, specific Democrats could win).  The DCCC has consistently out-performed the NRCC (and quite frankly, almost every other congressional committee) throughout the cycle, and did again in the second quarter, ending it with more than $50 million on-hand, considerably more than the Republicans.

Why this is is hard to say-you do have both the President and Nancy Pelosi stumping hard for the DCCC, and member dues are required earlier in the cycle than for Republicans.  There's also the fact that Democratic donors could be reactionary to what is happening in Washington-they want to get rid of Boehner, and the only way to do that is to contribute to the DCCC and Democratic candidates.

Either way, though, there's no amount of money that can stop a wave if one is building, and we saw in Florida earlier this year that a cash advantage is no match if the Democrats cannot get turnout.  Alex Sink's loss was a devastating blow because it confirmed that the Democrats cannot win the House.

But, let's for a second entertain the notion that Nancy Pelosi is right.  That the House is in fact in play (we've now entered Hogwarts-level fantasy land here, so bear with me).  What would that look like?  What would the Democrats have to do to win back the House this cycle?

First off, they'd absolutely have to get the President's approval ratings going in a different direction.  Part of what the problem for Democrats is right now is that a malaise has set in on President Obama's approval ratings.  The economy is rebounding.  Obamacare numbers are strong.  Majorities of the country approve of access to birth control, gay marriage, and immigration reform (the border crisis is putting a damper on that last one a bit though).  And people think John Boehner's lawsuit is a political stunt.  In theory, you'd be hard-pressed to find more things that should point to a theoretical rebound of the President's numbers, but it just doesn't seem to be the trick.  If the Democrats were to have any chance at winning back the House or making gains there, the President would need to be approaching 50% again, maybe a bit above it.

Let's then assume President Obama's approval ratings have somehow rebounded.  That doesn't necessarily mean that the Democrats are in the clear.  First off, they still have a lot of red territory where his numbers may rebound a bit, but he's never going to be popular or near 50%.  Really, the point of his rebounding numbers would be to stop the bleeding in Obama-held districts and hopefully insulate some of the marginal Democrats in Romney-held districts.  If the Democrats were really going to win the House, they couldn't afford to lose more than two seats (Mike McIntyre's and Jim Matheson's seats would be the only seats that could migrate against them).  Very vulnerable incumbents like Nick Rahall, Ron Barber, Ann Kirkpatrick, and Joe Garcia would all have to stay Democratic and Bill Owens' open seat would have to be a hold.  One of the things that I always raise an eyebrow about when Nancy Pelosi discusses elections is that she frequently says the Democrats picked up the seats they needed, but doesn't point out that Democrats lost incumbents in 2012 which is why they aren't in charge.  She often cites gerrymandering in these situations, but the reality is that half of the election is keeping what you have, and there'll be no blaming gerrymandering this year-all of the incumbents have survived gerrymandering.

So we move into the seats Pelosi would need to win the Speaker's gavel with a deficit of two.  Most people generally agree that CA-31 and NY-11 are going to the Democrats, which gets her back to seventeen.  At that point, Pelosi would have to win all of the tossup seats currently held by Republicans.  I'd wager even at the most generous of use of that term there are six of those (CO-6, IA-3, NY-19, CA-21, NJ-3, and VA-10).  So she now gets to +6 with these districts, still eleven short.

That means that the Democrats would have to start competing in either seats that no one expects them to do supremely well in and are Romney-held seats in a cycle that doesn't favor the opposing party.  Democrats came very close in 2014 in Illinois-13, Michigan-1, New York-23 and Nebraska-2, but those incumbents have yet another term in office in a cycle that seems to bizarrely favor incumbents (there is less "throw the bums out" than usual this year, despite people loathing Congress...this is probably due to low turnout in the primaries).  These are hardly easy pickups and in reality the Democrats would be extremely lucky in November to grab just one or two of them, but I'm going to struggle to get to seventeen without putting all four into the count, so let's add them and we're now at +10.

To get the final seven (and quite frankly, you'd need a couple of extra to insulate Pelosi against possible  conservative defectors within her party-this is true for John Boehner as well, but he'll have the little extra he needs), the Democrats would require some combination of more open seats in Republican territory or taking out the few Republicans in Obama territory with underwhelming Democratic challengers.  The only other blue-territory districts that seem remotely in play are CA-10, MN-2, NJ-2, NV-3, and VA-2, all of which have challengers that have not caught on with the public in the way Democrats had hoped.  Democrats theoretically have a few more challenges, in both open Republican seats (AR-2, MI-8, PA-6, and WV-2) and seats they have historically done well in but couldn't seal the deal in 2012 (FL-2, MI-7, PA-8), but these are all Romney seats.  And even if you add up all of these seats, there are only twelve.  Pelosi would have to take nearly 60% of seats that she is currently projected to lose (the Democrats are underdogs in all of these races) in order to win back the House.  Short of a major Republican scandal that would somehow involve exactly these specific incumbents, that is impossible

So yes, for 2014 any hope the Democrats have is lost.  Their best bet remains to minimize losses (both with incumbents and promising challengers), and to head into 2016 with much more options (Hillary Clinton will bring her own set of coattails, particularly if she's winning).  And the only way to do that for 2016 is to pretend that 2014 is still an option.

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