Will the House Losses Be Bad or Horrendous?

by Stuart Rothenberg October 27, 2010 · 10:03 AM EDT

With a week to go until Election Day, House Democrats face the potential of a political bloodbath the size of which we haven’t seen since the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The largest midterm House loss for the president’s party during the last 50 years was 52 seats in 1994. The previous largest losses were 55 seats in 1942 and 71 seats in 1938.

While some Democrats say their party will keep Republican gains to fewer than 39 seats, Democratic losses are likely to be much higher.

Democratic district-level polling suggesting manageable losses is contradicted by GOP surveys, which show more than eight dozen Democrats under 50 percent in general election ballot tests, and dozens of Democratic nominees either trailing their Republican opponents or sitting in the mid-40s.

In wave elections, incumbents of the party at risk tend not to receive the votes of people who are undecided late, so most Democrats need to hold comfortable leads and be near the 50 percent mark if they are going to survive on Election Day. (Even if third-party candidates draw more support than usual, their presence on district ballots isn’t likely to help Democrats win more than a race or two.)

Political handicapper Nate Silver has challenged the rule of thumb that incumbents don’t get the undecided vote. But he incorrectly assumes that the rule applies to all elections. In fact, it is relevant only for wave elections, when voters are dissatisfied with incumbents and the direction of the country, not for status-quo elections, when incumbents are more popular.

While Republican and Democratic polls are often at odds in individual districts, national poll data appear to confirm the GOP poll numbers.

If Republicans do hold a 5-point to 7-point advantage in the generic vote among likely voters, independents strongly favor GOP voters and President Barack Obama’s numbers are as low as they appear (particularly in swing districts), it’s difficult to believe Democratic candidates are running as well as some Democrats argue.

Republican polling shows more Democratic incumbents sitting in the mid-40s in ballot tests than I have ever seen. If the patterns of past years hold, Republican gains could well exceed those of 1994.

Having been in Washington, D.C., since 1980 and rated races for more than two decades — including the 1994 and 2006 waves — I’ve seen this before.

A variety of Democrats are in deep trouble.

Many freshmen and sophomore House Democrats, who haven’t seen anything close to this kind of political environment and who won primarily because of the 2006 Democratic wave or the electorate of 2008 in swing and Republican-leaning districts, will be defeated.

Among the likely House Democratic fatalities in that category are Ohio’s Mary Jo Kilroy and Steve Driehaus, Florida’s Suzanne Kosmas and Alan Grayson, Debbie Halvorson (Ill.), Frank Kratovil (Md.), Carol Shea-Porter (N.H.) and Kathy Dahlkemper (Pa.).

Also in the same category, but with a slightly better chance of surviving, are Virginia’s Tom Perriello and Glenn Nye, Ohio’s Zack Space and John Boccieri, Arizona’s Harry Mitchell and Ann Kirkpatrick, Bobby Bright (Ala.), John Hall (N.Y.), Mark Schauer (Mich.), Patrick Murphy (Pa.) and Harry Teague (N.M.).

The Republican wave is reaching historic proportions if supposedly less vulnerable Democrats in the same category — including North Carolina’s Larry Kissell and Heath Shuler, Connecticut’s Christopher Murphy and Jim Himes, Gerry Connolly (Va.) and Walt Minnick (Idaho) — also fall on Election Day.

The second category includes veteran Democratic incumbents, some of them who have held seats for many years and have successfully personalized their districts. These incumbents are finding their longevity is a problem and their Democratic label a disaster.

Of that group, Reps. John Spratt (S.C.) Chet Edwards (Texas), Paul Kanjorski (Pa.), Ike Skelton (Mo.) and Earl Pomeroy (N.D.) are in the most trouble. In a massive wave, Reps. Bob Etheridge (N.C.), Rick Boucher (Va.), James Oberstar (Minn.), Solomon Ortiz (Texas), Jim Costa (Calif.), Sanford Bishop (Ga.), Gene Taylor (Miss.) and Mike McIntyre (N.C.) could also lose.

Democratic losses are likely to be particularly large in the South and the Midwest.

Significant losses in the Northeast — in both New England and upstate New York, and in traditionally Democratic districts, including by Reps. Russ Carnahan (Mo.), Ciro Rodriguez (Texas) and Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.), as well as by Ortiz and Oberstar — would suggest gains well over 50 seats.

Districts with large numbers of blue-collar, culturally conservative “Reagan Democrats” are worth watching. A number of the districts already mentioned — those of Dahlkemper, Oberstar and Carnahan — fit the bill, as do the districts of Reps. Mark Critz (Pa.) and John Yarmuth (Ky.) and retiring Reps. David Obey (Wis.) and Alan Mollohan (W.Va.).

The magnitude of the GOP victory could be evident relatively early in the evening. If Republicans defeat Democratic incumbents Joe Donnelly (Ind.) and/or Ben Chandler (Ky.), or if North Carolina Reps. McIntyre, Shuler and Etheridge fall, massive Democratic losses are likely.

On the other hand, if Reps. Baron Hill (Ind.) and Jim Marshall (Ga.) pull off upsets, or if either Virginia Democrats Nye or Perriello win, it could well be a sign that the GOP wave hasn’t materialized as expected.