Republicans are likely to keep — and maybe even expand — their majority in the U.S. House in the midterm elections, experts say.
President Obama’s slide in popularity, the troubled Obama-care rollout and the tug of history could combine to thwart Democrats from regaining control of the lower chamber.
"The bottom line is, this cycle is shaping up to be the perfect six-year itch," said David Wasserman, an expert on House elections for the Cook Political Report.
Democrats need a net 17 seats to regain the majority. The Republicans hold 233 seats to the Democrats’ 200 in the 435-seat legislative body. There are two vacancies.
Thirteen House members since fall have announced that they will not seek re-election, including nine Republicans. That’s significant, because about 90 percent of incumbents win re-election, said Kyle Kondik, a politics expert at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
In Florida, the death of GOP Rep. Bill Young opened a seat in the 13th Congressional District, potentially opening opportunity for the Democrats. The district opted for Obama in 2012 by a 50-49 percent margin.
To replace Young, the Democrats have turned to businesswoman Alex Sink, the party’s unsuccessful nominee for governor in 2010. Sink appears to be a stronger candidate than her potential Republican rivals — lobbyist David Jolly, a onetime aide to Young, and freshman state Rep. Kathleen Peters — because Sink has raised more money for the primary race and has better name recognition, Kondik said.
"Democrats can chip away at the GOP edge if they win this special election," he said.
Josh Schwerin, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in Washington, is bullish about prospects for that race. He said Sink "has a track record of working across the aisle to solve problems, while the Republican candidates are engaged in an expensive and divisive race to the right that will alienate independent-minded voters."
The 2012 presidential vote was close in districts in which seats will be open because of Republican retirements in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Iowa. They eventually could turn Democratic, Kondik said, though not likely this time. "Over several cycles, Democrats need to pick up seats like these," he said.
The four Democrat retirements, including Rep. Jim Matheson of Utah and Mike McIntyre of North Carolina, probably will benefit the Republicans because "they are where Mitt Romney did best" in that election, Kondik said.
Rep. George Miller, a Democrat from California, said on Monday that he will retire at the end of his term, after 40 years in Congress.
Since 2000, voters have less frequently split tickets, causing a gradual elimination of "crossover" districts in which they supported different parties for president and Congress. Twenty-six such seats exist, experts say.
"Even independents are becoming fairly predictable in their voting patterns," said Brad Todd, a Republican media strategist at On Message in Washington. "People are trusting the political parties less, just like they trust every institution less, from Sears, Roebuck to the Methodist Church, but they are becoming pretty loyal to an ideology."
The Democrats’ best target this year might be Republican Rep. Gary Miller’s seat in California, where Obama won 57 percent of the vote in the last election, "more than any other district held by a Republican in the country," Kondik said.
Yet a recent national survey by Pew Research Center showed an enthusiasm gap for this year’s elections. The poll of 1,005 adults, taken Jan. 2-5, found 63 percent of Republicans and 53 percent of Democrats are anticipating the midterms.
Obama’s job approval numbers declined steadily in 2013, from 56 percent in January to 41 percent by December, according to Gallup’s daily tracking poll, and that decline likely will affect House races. "A president’s approval ratings impact whoever is down-ballot," Wasserman said.
In 2010, some House Democrats who survived that midterm election detached themselves from Obama; conversely, in 2012, House Republicans who lost were unable to distance themselves from Romney, Todd said.
"This election will be about Obama, and it’s going to be waged with him at his least popular point," Todd predicted, noting that Obamacare will be at the center of debate.
"If the president had been willing to put the brakes on Obamacare, we could have had an election about a different subject and probably one of his choosing," Todd said.
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Political Reporter