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Take Back the House? Democrats Aren't Even Ahead on Friendly Turf In 2014

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There’s nothing Democrats can do about gerrymandering, so here’s a radical proposal: Let’s turn our attention to whether Democrats are poised to capitalize on the opportunities that do exist in the House. Because for all the talk about gerrymandering, there are still 17 House Republicans in districts carried by President Obama. And there are another 17 districts that Romney carried by less than 3 points, and still a handful more of even redder districts where weak GOP incumbents won reelection by a narrow margin. If Democrats are going to ride a wave of public frustration with the shutdown, the wave would hit these districts first—and Democrats would need to be poised to ride it. Right now, they’re not.

Last time, Democrats didn’t even come close in most of the districts that Republicans continue to hold that also voted for President Obama. Only one was decided by less than 5 points.

Republican incumbents outperformed Romney in each of the 43 districts where Romney won by less than 5 points. And usually, those Republican incumbents outperformed Romney by a significant margin. They just weren’t close races (another reason why gerrymandering probably didn’t represent the GOP’s margin of victory in the House).

Why couldn’t Democrats compete in these districts? It’s not gerrymandering. The biggest reason is that “these tend to be Republicans who carved out a separate, distinct brand from the national party,” according to Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report. Many of these representatives are moderate, well-entrenched, and even survived the ’06 and ’08 Democratic waves. They’ll probably survive in 2014, too.

Consider my former representative, Dave Reichert (WA-08). He’s better known as the sheriff who caught the Green River killer—and he survived the 06’ and ’08 Democratic waves. Reichert, along with others on the list, have established moderate reputations; many have established ties with Democratic leaning constituencies. Another example: Frank LoBiondo. According to Wasserman, LoBiondo has strong ties to labor in Atlantic City—and you can see it in the results: LoBiondo won Atlantic County by 9 points; Obama won by 16.

But Democrats also have a recruiting problem. Democrats couldn’t get top challengers in a slew of contests, too long to list. And on election night, Democrats were probably surprised by tight races in a host of districts that they didn’t seriously contest, like NY-24 (Reed). And in CA-31, where Obama won by 17, Democrats 

There’s a case that Democrats are doing better than 2012, but they’re not on-track to make the most of the potentially competitive districts. Kyle Kondik of The University of Virginia’s Crystal Ball estimates that the Democrats have “respectable” recruits in about 10 of the 25 most competitive districts. Dave Wasserman suggested that the Democrats will be able to mount more serious challenges in about 5 or 6 districts that they failed to fully contest in 2012, like CO-6, where former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff will mount a serious challenge to Mike Coffman.

But obviously, 10 additional, competitive races won’t get Democrats the 17 seats they need to control the House. And there are a few districts where Democrats might not put up as strong of a fight as they did last time, like WI-8 (Ribble) or IA-3 (Latham). Democrats haven’t recruited top candidates in some of the districts with unpopular incumbents who could potentially underperform Romney by a significant margin, like Lee Terry.

You may have noticed that there are alot of races that look like they could be competitive on the chart, but don't have a Cook rating at all. Those races just don't seem poised to be competitive. Sometimes that's because of a particularly strong Republican incumbent. Other times, there's not yet evidence that Democrats have a candidate who can take advantage of relatively even terrain.

Altogether, Democrats aren’t yet poised to mount serious challenges to a clear majority of the Republicans running on competitive turf, let alone actually win. So you should probably take this morning’s PPP poll with an additional grain of salt: it’s about how House Republicans would fare against a “generic” Democrat, not the mediocre one they’ll face in 2014. Perhaps the shutdown will trigger a wave of GOP retirements and Democratic recruits. But without both, Democrats will probably crest short of 218.