Here’s Why Winning The House Is Still a Long Shot For Democrats

The government shutdown isn't the end of the Republican majority

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With Republicans bearing the brunt of public anger over an unpopular government shutdown, Democrats smell blood in the water, and some are positively giddy at their prospects of taking back the House next year. But while Democrats have reason to be optimistic that they can take a bite out of the GOP’s 17-seat majority in 2014, returning the speaker’s gavel to Nancy Pelosi is another matter all together.

Public opinion polls since the shutdown and debt-ceiling standoff ended on Oct. 17 consistently show Americans blaming Republicans most for the Washington dysfunction. A CNN poll Tuesday found that three-quarters of Americans think most Republican members of Congress don’t deserve re-election. In an ABC poll released the same day, only 43 percent said they approve of their own member of Congress, and just 25 percent of registered voters said they’re inclined to re-elect their representative. A day after Congress voted to end the shutdown, the influential Cook Political Report moved its forecasts on 14 congressional races in Democrats’ direction (and one seat in the GOP’s direction).

“You have a theme that has developed where the American public sees the Republican Congress, the Republican House in particular, as being reckless and irresponsible,” Jef Pollock, a Democratic pollster who works on House races, told TIME. “It’s kind of remarkable how bad the Republican brand is right now.”

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There’s no doubt the showdown was a PR and fundraising boon for Democrats, whose House campaign arm beat its GOP counterpart in September fundraising by more than $3 million.

But in politics, money and good will isn’t everything. Here are four reasons why, as many party insiders privately acknowledge, House Democrats still face very long odds in 2014.

Long winter (and spring, summer and fall)
There’s a lot of time for Republicans to recover in the court of public opinion before the midterm elections.

“It’s October,” said Brock McCleary, a Republican pollster and former deputy political director for the House GOP’s campaign arm. “I think you don’t really start to look at polling in specific districts and give it too much weight until late winter early spring.”

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National polls don’t mean much

It may actually be true that three-quarters of Americans think most Republicans shouldn’t be returned to Congress, but individual House races are decided at the local level. It’s long been the case that Americans think all members of Congress stink except their own, and while recent polls show some cracks in that trend, incumbents still have more than a year to do damage control back home. Democrats would need to see their national advantage swell to a margin that’s almost unprecedented for the party holding the White House.

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Electoral math and geography favors Republicans

To win a majority, the Democrats not only need to capture a large number of GOP-leaning swing seats, they also have to defend 10 Democratic-held seats that Cook Political Report rates as toss-ups. Meanwhile, so many of the Republican-held seats are increasingly out of reach for Democrats because of how they were redrawn by GOP-controlled legislatures to favor the party — demographically and politically — after the 2010 elections

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The Obamacare rollout

The problem-plagued health care exchange website may yet get fixed and Republicans tend to overstate their political advantage on this front, but Democrats are still in danger of seeing public perception of a law that remains divisive slide further. That hasn’t happened yet, and won’t have much of an effect in strongly red or blue districts. But in swing districts it could prove a potent weapon, and one Republicans are sure to use for the third election cycle in a row. A CBS News poll released Monday found that just 12 percent think the exchanges are working well. It’s a target-rich environment for Republicans to keep Democrats on the defensive — if they can avoid the distraction of shutdowns and fiscal crises.

“The question is,” McCleary said, “are Republicans going to get out of their own way over the course of the next year?”

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