Could Democrats Retake the House?

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Updated: May 10, 2011, 2 p.m. E.T.

Six months after suffering a shellacking in November’s midterm elections, Democrats believe they can pick up the 25 seats they need to snatch back the House. Mapping out a path to 2012 may be a fool’s errand this far out. But political momentum and the topography of the electoral landscape suggest that they have a shot at retaking the lower chamber.

In 2010, Republicans vaulted with historic gains on a promise to impose fiscal discipline. So far, their 2012 budget blueprint doesn’t appear to include the kind of austerity most voters had in mind. Acrimonious town halls during last month’s spring recess displayed constituents’ unease over Representative Paul Ryan’s budget. And while Republicans insisted that the raucous crowds were ginned up by Democratic activists, a Quinnipiac poll released last week, which found that 60% of voters opposed changes to Medicare, was the latest to underscore the political perils brought on by Ryan’s plan. “From a political standpoint, Medicare reform is very dangerous territory,” election handicapper Charlie Cook wrote last month. “House Republicans are not just pushing the envelope — they are soaking it with lighter fluid and waving a match at it.” A May 10 CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey found that 50% of registered voters favored Democrats in a generic Congressional ballot, compared to 46% who said they planned to vote for a Republican.

“Republicans voting to end Medicare is a defining issue of this Congress, and the American people are already rejecting it at town-hall meetings across the country,” says Jesse Ferguson, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). “As House Republicans choose taxpayer giveaways for Big Oil and tax breaks for the ultra-rich instead of Medicare for seniors, then seniors and middle-class families are going to choose Democrats in the next election.” The DCCC recently launched an ad campaign, which ranges from radio spots to robocalls, against 50 Republicans it considers vulnerable, decrying their vote for the Ryan budget. Though relatively few dollars have been directed to the effort, the “Drive to 25” campaign marks the start of a sustained push to pillory Republicans for kowtowing to corporate interests instead of safeguarding seniors from rising health care costs.

Paul Lindsay, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), says the notion that Democrats will gain at the polls is premature. “Democrats are spiking the football on their own 5-yard line,” Lindsay said in an e-mail. “The reality is that voters have no interest in rewarding House Democrats who continue to defend the Washington status quo and serve as blank checks for more spending and job-crushing policies at the expense of middle-class families.”

For Democrats, this spring’s glimmers of hope could easily dissolve in the gloom of high unemployment, a still sluggish economy and soaring gas prices. And the recent series of wave elections don’t necessarily suggest another is in the offing. Twenty-five seats is a sizable advantage, and Republicans will enjoy the benefits of incumbency even if their large class of freshmen has struggled to fill their campaign coffers. After notching sweeping gains in statehouses across the country, the GOP also has the upper hand in redistricting, which is taking place in the wake of the decennial U.S. Census. “Even if President Obama’s approval rating begins to rebound and voters begin to see signs in their own lives that the economy is improving, Democrats will still be confronted with the absence of presidential coattails, the Republican advantage in redistricting and battleground districts that tilt toward Republicans,” Glen Bolger and Jim Hobart of Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican polling firm, argued recently in a piece that “guarantees” the GOP will maintain control of the lower chamber.

As negotiations over a deal to raise the federal debt ceiling ramp up, the results of this month’s special election in New York’s 26th Congressional District may signal whether or not Republicans are truly in trouble. The Buffalo-area district is heavily Republican, and even after the ignominious departure of GOP freshman Representative Chris Lee, the DCCC has so far declined to devote money to the race. But as the Ryan budget reverberates and the May 24 election draws closer, Republican candidate Jane Corwin’s lead has dwindled, with one poll showing Corwin’s edge down to 5 points, within the margin of error. “The Republican vote to end Medicare has moved the needle,” DCCC chair Steve Israel told the New York Times. Democrats are hoping it’s the start of a trend that tips the House their way in 2012.

Post updated to include May 10 CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll data