Will Democrats Regain Control of the U.S. House of Representatives on Election Day?

With several months to go until the election, you may already be tired of the seemingly endless speculation in the media about the Democrats’ chances to regain control of the U.S. House of Representatives.  While there is some small discussion among working people about this possibility, for most, the November 7th elections are a long ways away and not worthy of much concern.  Daily life today provides a lot more for workers to think about than the outcome of an election that’s still months away.  Politically-minded folks probably don’t like to hear that, but it’s true.

In liberal and leftwing circles, there is certainly a greater amount of interest.  Virtually all who fall into the traditional “liberal” category — today increasingly described as “progressive” — are almost universally hopeful that the Democrats will win control of the House on November 7th.  For these folks, the restoration of Democratic Party control brings with it nearly as much symbolic as practical relevance.  Their argument has some merit, mostly when it comes to the chances of a Democratic victory slowing the momentum of the (hopefully) final two years of the Bush regime.  I tune out, however, when these friends start trying to sell me on all the great things the Democrats will do if they regain House control, etcetera, etcetera.  Slow down Bush?  Maybe.  Lots of good things from a Democratic majority?  No chance.

For those who still think of themselves as on “the left” — as I do — there is a much greater degree of debate about just how much it would matter if the Democrats regain control.  Some claim that it will matter a lot; some think it would help; others dismiss its significance entirely.  But, regardless of where you find yourself in the how-much-does-it-matter debate, it behooves all of us to step back and take a look at the electoral math and the reality of some key current Democratic Party campaign structures.  Listening to the constantly changing cast of self-appointed Democrats who appear on TV and in print offering opinions on this subject is a pretty dangerous way to proceed.   Most of these folks make money off this process, so they have a vested interest in stretching a few anecdotal nuggets into wide assertions.

Night after night, the talk shows are chock full of pundits and strategists offering varying degrees of alleged expertise on how the Dems might find the exact formula to win control of Congress.  They offer a bushel of free advice on how they might pick up the 15 seats that they lack, maybe even a few more.  All of these paid operators then try to take us along on a frequently self-serving tour of one individual race, or one campaign someplace.  This Democrat looks promising, that Democrat has a lot of campaign money, this one is an Iraq veteran, that one is challenging a weak Republican.  You get the picture.

Let’s ignore these folks and look at the math instead.  The current political party composition of Congress, as of June 2006, finds us with 231 Republican House members, 201 Democrats, 1 Independent, and 2 vacant seats.  My high school education tells me that this gives the Republican Party a 30 seat majority. Most Democratic Party “spokespersons” and “strategists” claim that they need a net gain of 15 seats — meaning they must hold their current number of seats and gain 15 more — giving them a one seat majority in the next Congress.   Here’s our first, albeit minor, problem with the conventional wisdom.  This scenario fails to include the seat held by Bernie Sanders (I-VT) which the Democrats will need to win (as he exits to run for the Senate), and it leaves out the 2 currently vacant seats.  Add in these three seats, and the Democrats need a net gain of at least 17 seats.

The we-can-win-by-one-seat theory starts to really come unglued when you take a moment to review the work of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), led by Illinois House member Rahm Emanuel.  He’s the former Clinton Administration staffer who won his seat in Chicagoland a few years ago and quickly managed to gain control of the flaccid DCCC.  Emanuel has managed to create for himself — with a lot of help from the political media — the reputation as being capable, energetic, and focused on the issue at hand of winning the majority for the Democrats.  Emanuel is viewed by many as an up-and-coming future star of the Democratic establishment, with both closeness to the Clinton machinery and access to big money.  And given what passes for credentials to be a Democratic Party biggie today, those two things will just about make any nobody a somebody.

But does Emanuel’s math add up?  A front page article in the Washington Post newspaper on April 13th reported that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had the 15 seats needed already targeted.  This fluff piece had all the hallmarks of a planted story deliberately contrived by DCCC staff and the Post.  It wasn’t news so much as anecdotal speculation.  The media balloon got another injection of hot air just days later when a front page article in The Hill newspaper on April 27th reported that the DCCC was targeting a total of 22 seats as “priorities” in their plan to win a House majority in November.  The public relations began to slip, however, when in a tiny 3-inch-long article on page 3 of The Hill newspaper on May 9th reported that their staffers had obtained DCCC documents that mentioned only 16 “priority” races, not the 22 previously reported.

By now you have hopefully asked yourself why it is that the Democrats generally, and the DCCC specifically, only seem to desire a one-vote margin of victory in November.  It is, after all, the only plan that they seem to be discussing or implementing.  Not quite.  It appears that the DCCC is lending financial support to about 35 Democrats who are challenging Republicans in open seats and supporting a total of 90-odd Democrats challenging Republican incumbents.  The average support, however, has been $49,000, ten races having consumed 87% of all DCCC funding.  If you know the logistics and costs of House races today, this is peanuts.  And, there are more than 100 Democrats running for House seats who have received zero DCCC support, so far.  My favorite example here is Democrat Steve Porter.  He is challenging for a second time entrenched anti-labor Representative Phil English (R) in northwest Pennsylvania.  Despite the fact that Porter’s primary vote total almost equaled that of English, the DCCC still refuses to even acknowledge that his campaign exists.  If Steve Porter pulls this off, it won’t have anything to do with the DCCC.

These figures and calculations will change as we approach November and the Federal Election Commission statistics are updated, but the trend is clear.  The DCCC, like most of the Democratic consultants and operatives, are quite happy spending tens of millions of dollars on a handful of races and risk failure, again.  This, my friends, is the punch line.  These experts and know-it-alls will get paid, and get rich, no matter who wins in November.  And the notion that they can somehow surgically zero in exactly on the 15 key races is preposterous.  The assumption that every Democratic House seat can be held, and that the 15 (remember, it’s really 17)  seats needed will be won is a gamble with odds not much better than the Powerball.  These guys are smart, but not that smart.

42 Democrats Who Voted
Against the U.S. Withdrawal from Iraq
Barrow Cramer Marshall
Bean Cuellar Matheson
Berman Davis (TN) McCarthy
Berry Edwards McIntyre
Bishop (GA) Etheridge Melancon
Boren Gordon Moore (KS)
Boswell Gene Green (TX) Peterson (MN)
Boucher Herseth Ross
Cardoza Higgins Salazar
Case Holden Smith (WA)
Chandler (KY) Kind Snyder
Cooper Larsen (WA) Spratt
Costa Lipinski Taylor (MS)
Costello Lynch Thompson (MS)

Here comes the second punch line.  Even if Emanuel and company are right — and they win a one or two seat majority on November 7th — there will still be no Democratic Party “majority” as you and I would think of it.  As the record of the current Congress reflects, on virtually every vote of importance, a group of half a dozen to three or four dozen Democrats regularly slip across the aisle into the Republican camp.  Need a fresh example?  Try the House vote on June 16th, when 42 Democrats crawled over into the Bush camp to support the Iraq war and oppose setting a date for withdrawal.  The 256-153 margin of victory for the Republicans is a case in point of the foolishness of trying to convince yourself that a one, two, five, or ten vote margin of victory for the Democrats in November will make some radical difference.  It won’t.

Based on this math, and this evidence, I am sorry to say that I do not see a functioning Democratic Party majority winning control of the House of Representatives this November.  In the first place, the campaign structures and financial support are far too narrowly focused.  The support that has been lent has been far too little, and far too late, for many Democratic challengers.  This practically guarantees that an actual numerical Democratic Party majority is unlikely, despite whatever tailwind Bush and his Republicans provide before the election.  Second, even if a small majority is won by the Democrats somehow, the voting patterns indicate that there will be no fundamental shift in the voting trends.  The Bush agenda will chug along, propped up by a handful of Democrats.

Only a political surge of historic proportions will propel the House Democrats to victory now.  Yes, this is a worthy goal, but a goal that is fading rapidly, if it ever existed.  In my world — the trade union world — this would be the equivalent of field organizers engaging in union organizing from the start planning on campaigning only half of the workers, and planning to win by one vote on election day.  If you have ever been around a union campaign, you also know the answer to how often this strategy is successful.

I look forward to a Republican defeat on Election Day, November 7th.  It’s possible.  But, I know better than to believe in miracles.  Many in our movement are right now falling prey to the election ritual of believing in miracles.  Give them a hand and show them the math.  Not to demoralize them, but to help them understand that victories come from real campaigns run on real issues by real political party structures, not from rhetorical baloney peddled by consultants and PR men.

Chris Townsend is Political Action Director of the United Electrical Workers Union (UE).