WASHINGTON — Congressional approval ratings hover at historic lows. The Republican Party's brand has tanked. More people than ever think their own congressman should be sent packing. And the most notable act in one of the most unproductive legislative periods on record was shutting down the government for 16 days.
Yet Republicans are forecast to pick up as many as a dozen U.S. House seats this November, strengthening their grip on the House majority. "I'd rather be us than them," crows Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., who chairs the House GOP's 2014 campaign operation.
Democrats say they expect to make gains in the House, but Republicans have a host of built-in advantages this year, including:
• Recently redrawn districts have resulted in fewer competitive seats.
• Historical midterm-election-year trends indicate a limited Democratic turnout.
• President Obama's waning popularity is part of a political climate suggesting that Democrats cannot expect a "wave" election to turn the tide in their favor.
Democrats and Republicans are locked in a competitive struggle over who will control the U.S. Senate next year. But barring a seismic political event between now and Election Day, the GOP's control of the U.S. House is not in question. Here's why.
If it ain't got that swing
It's hard to win the hand when the deck is stacked.
In 2012, congressional district lines were redrawn, as is constitutionally required every 10 years, based on population shifts. Republicans had the upper hand in many states after the GOP won control of governorships and state legislatures following the 2010 Tea Party wave. The end result has been a precipitous drop in the number of competitive seats and a rise in the number of seats considered so safely Republican or Democratic that they are unlikely to ever switch party control.
Today, roughly 50 districts in the 435-member House make up the entirety of the 2014 battleground.
The non-partisan Cook Political Report ranks just 16 of those districts, 13 held by Democrats and three by Republicans, as competitive enough that neither party has a clear advantage with fewer than 100 days to go before Election Day.
The current House makeup includes 234 Republicans and 199 Democrats, and there are two vacant seats that are safely Democratic. That means Democrats need a net gain of 17 seats for a takeover. They'd have to pick up 17 Republican seats and lose none of their own, or make even greater gains in GOP territory to make up for any losses.
Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., who runs the House Democrats' campaign operation, maintains that the election climate is still unfolding. He believes Democrats could easily benefit from mounting voter frustration at the House GOP's ongoing struggles with governing. "You're going into a midterm election with voter revulsion aimed at Republicans," he says.
At a recent roundtable with reporters, Israel would not concede that Republicans will maintain control, but he stopped short of predicting a Democratic majority. "My job is not to get hung up in punditry but to obsess on what's in my control," he says.
However, he agreed that Democrats need to do a better job in the next round of redistricting to level the playing field.
"We have to be smart and better going in to the 2020 redistricting, I will say that," he says.
The downside for Democrats?
They won't have a chance to run in new, redesigned districts until the 2022 elections.