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October 24, 2004

Can the Democrats Regain Control of the House of Representatives?

In 1994, Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives. They've been the minority party for a decade now. Redistricting following the 2000 census has placed most incumbents from both parties into safe districts, leading most pundits to believe that the Democrats have no chance of retaking the House of Representatives. But a closer examination of some key districts suggests a slim but possible chance for the Democrats to narrowly take control.


The Current House

There are 435 members of the House of Representatives. That means that for a party to be in control of the House and its leadership positions, they would need 218 members (or form a coalition with smaller parties to create that 218 majority).

The House currently contains 227 Republicans, 205 Democrats, 1 independent, and 2 vacancies previously held by Republicans. The independent, Bernie Saunders of Vermont, historically votes with the Democrats on most matters, particularly for organizational issues. For the purposes of this analysis, we'll include him with the Democrats for our math (with all due apologies to the people from the great state of Vermont).

If Democrats want to seize control, they have a lot of ground to make up - they'll need a net gain of 12 seats to have a majority.


Safe Versus Targeted Seats

Currently, 366 of the seats are considered to be safe for the incumbent member. That leaves 69 seats that are currently being targeted by both parties as the ones that will determine which party controls the House. The good news for the Democrats is that they have a slight edge for these safe seats. (Note that this includes open seats where the incumbent party is considered to have a safe hold on the district.)

House Composition Dems GOP Total
Safe seats 187 179 366
Targeted districts 19 50 69
TOTAL 206 229 435

Almost 60% of the hotspots are currently held by incumbent Republicans considered to be vulnerable this election cycle.

Targeted Districts Dems GOP Total
Incumbents running 11 40 51
Open, but currently held by 3 10 13
Redistricted 5 0 5
TOTAL 19 50 69

Five of these are redistricted Texas seats that the Republican Party targeted in a blatant legislative power-play that has already resulted in a rebuke from the bipartisan House Ethics Commission for Republican Rep. Tom Delay, and has reached the U.S. Supreme Court once already.


The Texas Five

When states redrew congressional districts following the release of new 2000 census data, the Texas Legislature and Governor were unable to come to accord over a reapportionment plan. The matter was therefore thrown into court, resulting in a judicial redrawing of congressional boundaries.

Two years later, Republicans won the gubernatorial election. In 2003, Congress Member Tom DeLay, one of the architects of the 1994 Republican take-over of Congress and the House Majority Leader, drew up a new redistricting plan intended to increase Texas' Republican delegation. The new plan added conservative strongholds to existing Democratic districts and merged neighboring Democratic districts into a single district.

Democratic legislators fought the plan, including leaving the state on more than one occasion to prevent the legislature from achieving quorum in order to vote on the bill. Rep. DeLay tried to prevent them from leaving, including contacting the Federal Aviation Administration to prevent their planes from departing, an action which, combined with other misdeeds, later earned him a rebuke from the bipartisan House Ethics Committee. But eventually one Democrat, perhaps weary of the fight or facing heat from his constituents, broke rank and returned to the capital, giving the Republicans quorum and allowing them to push through a mid-decade redistricting plan.

Democrats took the issue to court. A federal appeals court upheld the Republican plan, but earlier this week the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the appellate decision and remanded the case back to the district court for further consideration.

Unfortunately, any changes made by the district court won't be made in time for the 2004 elections. Republicans hope that their new boundaries will allow them to increase Republicans from Texas by six seats, potentially offsetting gains made elsewhere. But at least one those revised districts appears to be leaning towards the Democrat, according to an analysis on MyDD, and four others are considered to be toss-ups.


The Toss-Ups

Although a large number of the 69 competitive districts are currently held by Republicans, putting them on the defensive and giving Democrats a greater opportunity to take control, the Republicans are still leading in a majority of their vulnerable districts. Eighteen of these races currently appear to be favoring the Democrats, while 33 are favoring the Republicans.

Status Dems GOP Total
Favored by 10 23 33
Narrowly ahead by 8 10 18
TOTAL 18 33 51

That leaves only 18 races that are considered to be true toss-ups. (Note, however, that the above races are still deemed competitive.) These toss-ups represent where the Republicans could lose control of the House - a total of 13 are currently held by Republicans, one more than is needed for the Democrats to regain control. Of these 13, nine are held by vulnerable incumbent Republicans and four are open seats that the Republicans previously held.

Toss-Up Races Dems GOP Total
Incumbent running 0 9 9
Open seat currently held by 5 4 9
TOTAL 5 13 18

It's interesting to note that of the five toss-up districts currently held by Democrats, one is an open seat and four of the others were created by the new Republican redistricting in Texas. There are no incumbent Democrats in a district currently considered to be a toss-up. (Some may still be vulnerable, but they currently have an edge in their races.)


Key Hot-Spots

Some of the key congressional districts facing tight races in 2004

The Hottest of the hot: Congressional Districts facing the biggest challenges in 2004.

A handful of races are proving to be some of the most interesting ones to study.

Illinois - 6 (Rolling Meadows): This seat is home to Republican Henry Hyde, one of the more homophobic and anti-choice members of Congress. With Hyde reportedly in poor health and Democratic Senate candidate Barack Obama expected to win in a landslide, this seemingly safe seat for the Republicans is suddenly seen as challengeable. It's still listed as one of the 23 favoring the Republicans in the data above, but remains as one of the 69 hotspots.

Illinois - 8 (Barrington): Locals call the incumbent, Republican Philip Crane, as one of the most beatable Republicans in the state. The Senate candidate Barack Obama is sending volunteers to campaign on behalf of the challenger, Melissa Bean, who was endorsed by the conservative Chicago Tribune. This district is currently listed as a toss-up above.

North Carolina - 11 (Asheville): The data above listed this as one of the 23 "favored Republican" districts, but late-breaking news suggests that the Republican incumbent is actually behind in the polls. The latest poll shows that Patsy Keever, the Democratic challenger, is ahead with 43% to 41% for incumbent Republican Charles Taylor. That leaves a huge number of undecided voters, which also spells doom for the incumbent since last-minute undecided voters tend to vote for the challenger (especially at the federal level, but also at the congressional level).

New York - 27 (Buffalo): This is an open seat currently held by a Republican, but current polling suggests that it may be leaning towards the Democrats this time. It's listed as one of the eight Leans Democratic districts.

New York - 29 (Rochester): In one of the biggest and least reported scandals of a congressional race, it seems that the incumbent, Republican John Kuhl, allegedly assaulted his ex-wife with a gun, according to their private divorce documents. The documents were reportedly accidentally given to challenger Samara Barend's campaign during part of a routine public documents search. In a weird twist, however, it appears that Barend is now taking the greatest heat for the controversy after it was revealed that her campaign manager leaked the documents to the press.

Texas - 22 (Sugarland): Republican Tom DeLay, who helped engineer the Republican take-over of Congress a decade ago, seems to think that he himself might be vulnerable. Although he's still listed as favored above, he's suddenly starting to pour a lot of money into his own race. Maybe the three rebukes from the House Ethics Commission (two in the last month) are starting to register in his district. Maybe it's because of his three aides indicted a few months ago for a litany of crimes including money laundering and soliciting and receiving illegal campaign contributions. Maybe it's because one of those indicted aides is now fingering DeLay as one of the five men who decided how to distributed those illegal campaign contributions. Maybe it's because of the rumors that he is about to face a subpoena relating to the ongoing investigation. In any event, Tom DeLay seems to be worried about his own race, and that's music to me.


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