Don’t get your hopes up, Democrats.
Yes, Mitt Romney is sliding in polls — both nationally and in the all-important battleground states. Yes, President Barack Obama’s numbers are on the upswing. And yes, Democrats suddenly look well-positioned to keep control of the Senate.
But no, Democrats — barring a drastic change in the political environment between now and Nov. 6 — are still unlikely to win the House.
It’s a reality that Democratic higher-ups are loath to admit publicly. But privately, many of the consultants and donors involved in House campaigns acknowledge that Democrats likely will fall short of the 25 seats they need to seize control of the lower congressional chamber.
Unlike the battles for the White House and Senate — both which seem to be breaking for Democrats — there’s been little shift in momentum in the race for the House. Both parties are moving their resources from race to race in an attempt to find opportunities. But neither side is cracking through in a way that would lead to a sea change on Election Day.
The question, Democrats concede, isn’t whether they nab 25 seats — it’s whether they can break out of a single-digit gain into double digits.
“The interesting thing about all the congressional races is that they have been stable. There hasn’t been a lot of movement,” said John Anzalone, a Democratic pollster who counts many congressional candidates as clients. “I don’t think we’re in a wave election, but I do believe we’re going to pick up seats in the House.”
One senior Democratic strategist deeply involved in congressional races said, “The euphoria over Obama hasn’t quite caught up to the House.”
As Democratic strategists map out a path to the majority, they have begun to examine why they’re having a hard time pushing through in the House despite Romney’s free fall. Some of them suggest that voters are simply more focused on the high-stakes presidential race. Others say that because most of the ads in House races aren’t running until the final weeks before the election, some voters really haven’t made up their minds yet.
A POLITICO-George Washington University Battleground Poll out Monday shows Democrats holding a 46 percent to 44 percent lead on the general question of who voters would support in congressional races, with 10 percent undecided.
“It’s natural that Senate and White House numbers are going to move first,” said Jon Vogel, a former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee executive director who is now crafting TV ads for his party.
But there’s also a very good case to be made that for all the last-minute tactical decisions being made in the House battle, congressional Republicans are uniquely well-cushioned to sustain the fallout that a potential Romney collapse would bring.
The first level of that firewall: the map.
A battery of polls released this week showed Romney falling behind in all-important battleground states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and Virginia. The problem for congressional Democrats, however, is that there aren’t many ways for them to break through in in those states because of redistricting and failure to recruit strong candidates.
In Ohio, Democrats will be lucky to pick up two seats. In Pennsylvania, the highest likely gain is one. In Florida, it likely would be no more than two or three. In Virginia, they might get one seat.
Much of the Democratic barrage is focused on three states not in play for the presidential race — California, New York and Illinois. Obama is expected to win each with minimal opposition from Romney, leaving congressional Republicans there vulnerable. Republicans now say it is possible they could be wiped out in those states, costing them as many as 15 seats.
But even under those circumstances, Democrats would need to find 10 more seats to get them to the majority — and probably much more. With Democrats likely to lose 10 to 15 of their own seats due to redistricting and vulnerable Democratic incumbents, the party would need to look across the map and run the table in a host of states in order to compensate.
The second level of the Republican firewall: money.
If the dynamics turn further south for Romney and Senate Republicans, a team of well-funded GOP super PACs is prepared to flood House races to protect the majority. The effort may already be under way: American Crossroads, the prominent outside group co-founded by Karl Rove, has begun spending heavily in two New York districts, and the Chamber of Commerce announced that it is shelling out $3 million in California, where Republicans are vigorously trying to stem the Democratic tide.
That means the Republican spending advantage — which so far has been minimal — could quickly multiply.
Speaking at a recent news conference, DCCC Chairman Steve Israel acknowledged the concern.
“Republicans are claiming that they are going to spend $80 million to $100 million against us,” Israel said. “If they are truly going to spend $80 million to $100 million against us, we are going to have to rely on allies to reduce that spending disparity.”
So far, Democrats have been able to count on allies — namely, a newly formed super PAC, House Majority PAC — but party officials acknowledge they will be unable to meet the GOP spending barrage dollar for dollar.
This isn’t to say Republicans are unworried.
With Romney’s bid faltering, GOP strategists say they will spend the coming week polling district by district to determine what the nominee’s sinking fortunes mean for the party’s congressional wing. The strategists say they are particularly worried about Romney’s impact in four states — Colorado, Nevada, Iowa and Wisconsin — where Democrats will need to score big in order to get to the majority.
Last week, the Weekly Standard’s William Kristol tried to warn Republicans not to get complacent.
“Based on current polling, I don’t think one can say that it’s now out of the question that we could wake up on the morning of Nov. 7 to the prospect of … Speaker Nancy Pelosi.”
Democrats, meanwhile, are experimenting with different ways if injecting the increasingly unpopular Romney into House races. The DCCC has begun running ads against two freshman Republicans in New York — where Romney is faring particularly poorly — using images of the GOP nominee.
But for Democrats — who have repeatedly said their goal is to seize the House — one of the largest questions is whether they will set a new barometer for success.
During his recent press conference, Israel waved off a question about whether anything other than a 25-seat gain would be a win on Election Day.
“To be honest, if I think about my success, I’m not thinking about [our candidates’] success,” he said. “And I could not be more pleased with this class of candidates.”
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