(Wall Street Journal) – As the battle for control of the U.S. House began to wind down on Tuesday, prospects remained slim for a major breakthrough by either party.
A tight national race between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney—coupled with several advantages for Republicans—made it increasingly likely that the GOP will remain in power in the House for the next two years.
Early returns showed both parties scoring points. In the battleground state of Florida, GOP incumbents Allen West and David Rivera were slightly trailing their Democratic opponents in very early going. Florida Democrat Alan Grayson, a combative former lawmaker who was defeated in the 2010 election that returned Republicans to control of the House, also was poised to reclaim a congressional seat in a newly created district.
Elsewhere in the South, Republicans appeared to be making advances of their own. In Kentucky, Democratic Rep. Ben Chandler, grandson of former governor and senator A.B. “Happy” Chandler, was trailing challenger Andy Barr, a Lexington attorney, by 51.5% to 45.7% with more than 80% of the vote counted.
Early returns in North Carolina also suggested that Democratic Rep. Larry Kissell was in trouble against GOP challenger Richard Hudson, a marketing executive and former congressional aide. But another vulnerable Democrat, Rep. Mike McIntyre, held a narrow lead in early going against Republican David Rouzer.
Following Republicans’ blowout victory in the 2010 midterm elections, the current House breakdown is 242 Republicans and 193 Democrats. Democrats would need to flip 25 seats this time around to retake the majority they lost two years ago.
One problem for Democrats, according to David Wasserman, House analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, is that Mr. Obama’s coalition relies on big cities, college towns and other areas where liberal-leaning voters are concentrated rather than potential swing House districts in suburban and rural areas.
Prospects for a big Democratic wave were never great during the 2012 election cycle, and their chances appear to have diminished, particularly as Mr. Romney closed in on Mr. Obama during October.
David Brady, political science professor at Stanford University, joins The News Hub to preview tonight’s election results. Photo: Getty Images.
By the same token, Republicans never had much chance of adding significantly to their advantage, given voters’ disapproval of Congress.
A status quo election could strengthen the hand of House Speaker John Boehner as Republicans pivot to confront a wrenching set of decisions over fiscal issues at the end of the year—the “fiscal cliff.” Mr. Boehner is likely to argue that success in holding his majority amounts to a mandate from voters to resist the tax increases Mr. Obama wants.
Polls on the state and national level have been, in many cases, razor close. What happens if the candidates tie in the popular vote? In the electoral vote? WSJ’s Neil King and Professor of Government Linda Fowler join the News Hub. Photo: AP Images.
But Mr. Wasserman of the Cook Political Report said tea party influence in the GOP caucus is likely to be strengthened somewhat, not diminished, as some expect. That’s because of the movement’s continuing sway in the GOP nominating process. That could make it more difficult for Republicans to negotiate any deal with Democrats.
The election could be even more problematic for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the former speaker, particularly if Democratic candidates underperform.
By this past weekend, voters were essentially deadlocked on the question of which party they wanted to control Congress, according to the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. About 47% of likely voters favored Democrats, while 45% favored Republicans—a difference within the poll’s 2.55-percentage-point margin of error.
With voters so evenly divided, the battle for the House settled into a grinding war, with each side pouring large amounts of money and manpower into about 70 targeted districts.
In recent days, the nonpartisan Rothenberg Report lowered its forecast for change. It is now projecting anything from a Republican gain of two seats to a Democratic gain of eight seats. That is a downgrade of Democratic prospects from earlier projections.
The Cook Report similarly predicts the net change could range from a five-seat pickup for Republicans to a 10-seat pickup for Democrats, with the most likely outcome being a net Democratic gain of as many as five seats.
A number of crosscurrents have appeared to diminish the prospects for a big wave election in the House in either direction.
Mr. Romney’s generally strong finish in the presidential race after a difficult summer has helped buoy Republicans, including at the House level.
Republicans also scored more advantages than Democrats from the once-a-decade process of redistricting in many states, thanks to large gains the party scored in state legislatures in 2010. Democrats also faced a large wave of retirements in the South and West, and sometimes failed to field strong replacement candidates.
At the same time, Democrats have made some headway with their argument that Republicans plan to gut Medicare.
Many seniors also appear worried by GOP attacks on Mr. Obama’s 2010 health-care overhaul.
GOP prospects, meanwhile, continue to be weighed down by Congress’s unpopularity overall and congressional Republicans in particular. Republicans also are facing a difficult political landscape because of redistricting in several big states, particularly California, Illinois and New York.
Jesse Ferguson, spokesman for the House Democrats’ campaign arm, sought to play down expectations, saying Democrats view the 2012 campaign as a step in the right direction. “The big picture is that we are going to start rolling back the tea-party wave that took over Congress in 2010,” he said. “There’s no question the national environment has tightened” and that outside conservative groups have helped Republicans outspend their Democratic rivals overall.
That is a far different tune from the one sung by Rep. Steve Israel (D, N.Y.), who heads up the committee, in the summer. Then he spoke about “the wind being” at Democrats’ backs in their bid to recapture the House.
Mr. Ferguson predicted some gains in West Coast districts that might not get much attention Tuesday night. Democrats also will elect “the most diverse Democratic caucus in history,” he added.
Republicans hope their political map reflects strong prospects for Mr. Romney, too. “It’s one reason I’m bullish about Romney’s chances,” said Paul Lindsay, spokesman for the House Republicans’ campaign committee. “The fact that so many House Republican incumbents are in strong positions for re-election tells you where independents are in this country and where the electorate is.”