With the congressional primaries done and the field of candidates set, political experts are predicting Democrats will chip away at the Republicans' substantial advantage in the House but fall short of a takeover.
The political landscape has changed significantly since the 2010 congressional elections, when Republicans gained a whopping 63 House seats to take control of the chamber. Redistricting has strengthened Republicans' hand in some states and less-so in others. The tea party-fueled wave that pushed the GOP to victory two years ago has ebbed some, though it's still a potential force. And the presidential race will bring far more voters to the polls than during the midterms.
Other as-yet-unknown factors — like how much money political action committees and so-called super PACs will spend during the final weeks of the campaigns — also make race handicapping a bit tricky.
A composite of generic congressional polling by the website Real Clear Politics shows Democrats leading Republicans by 2-percentage points. That's up from most of the summer, when the GOP enjoyed a 2-to-4 percentage point advantage in most generic polling.
But despite the bump, most political experts say House Democrats will pick up only a half-dozen or so seats in the November elections — far from the 25-seat gain they need to win back control of the chamber.
"I don't see how the Democrats do it," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "If they're lucky they'll get [a] double-digits [gain] ... The most likely outcome is Democrats pick up single-digits."
The independent Rothenberg Political Report says the most probable scenario is for Democrats to pick up seats in the single-digit range, though it adds that anything from a Republican gain of one seat to a Democratic pickup of six is possible.
House Editor David Wasserman of the independent Cook Political Report agrees a Democratic gain in the low-to-mid single digits is most likely.
"There's just no wind blowing in either direction, that's very consistent," he said.
Democrats are counting on several pickups in California. New election laws there have created an open primary system in which the top two vote-getters regardless of party face off in the general election. And with redistricting pitting several incumbents of the same party together in a single race, one Los Angeles district has two Republicans facing each other in November.
Still, "Republicans are doing much better than anybody thought in California they would do," House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, told reporters earlier this week.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel insists reclaiming the House is within reach.
"We have absolutely driven the ball to the Republicans' 20-yard line," said the New York Democrat during a Thursday briefing with reporters. "We can see the goal, we have a path to the goal and we know what plays we need to execute to get to the goal."
Mr. Israel pinned much of that boost on the selection of Rep. Paul Ryan as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's running mate, who as House Budget Committee chairman has called for fundamental, long-term changes to Medicare. Since Democrats have based part of their election strategy on railing against the Wisconsin lawmaker's plan, they see the brighter spotlight on the Medicare debate as a political winner.
"Mitt Romney gave us the bullhorn" on Medicare, Mr. Israel said. "Our candidates grabbed hold of that nationalized debate and have localized that debate in their own districts."
Mr. Israel also pointed to two recent GOP snafus as further generating Democratic momentum: fallout from comments by Rep. W. Todd Akin, who is running for Senate in Missouri, regarding rape and abortion, and reports that surfaced last month that a freshman Republican member of the House from Kansas took a late-night nude swim in the Sea of Galilee during a 2011 trip to Israel.
But Mr. Wasserman says that while Mr. Ryan and the recent GOP embarrassments have provided a temporary boost for Democrats, they are only "the political equivalent of a 5-Hour Energy shot — maybe a 10-hour shot — but not a vitamin B-12 shot or a magic elixir."
"This is predictable cheerleading and Democrats are nowhere near where they need to be to pick up the House," he said. "Voters are angry at both parties, and this makes it very difficult for parties to gain traction and credibility with voters."
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