Democrats face tough odds to regain House control

WASHINGTON — Not all politics is necessarily local this election cycle, and nowhere is that more evident than in New Hampshire’s First Congressional House district.

That race — in which former representative Carol Shea-Porter is trying to win back the seat she lost two years ago to Tea Party enthusiast Frank Guinta — is one of several dozen closely contested races around the country in which national issues, not local ones, often drive the debate.

Shea-Porter frames Nov. 6 as a referendum to save Medicare and protect Americans from the austerity plan offered by GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, and favored by Tea Partiers. Guinta, who sits on the House Budget Committee with Ryan, dismisses that as “Washington Democratic talking points’’ and says the election is really about jobs and the deficit — and President Obama’s failures to gain ground on either.


Such tossup House races will determine which party controls the US House.

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With the economy soft and 25 seats needed to retake the chamber, Democrats face considerable odds. Even as polls show public approval of Congress sinking to an all-time low, the vast majority of incumbents will win easy reelection.

That leaves 26 House seats — 8 now held by Democrats, 18 by Republicans — being considered too close to call, according to the Cook Political Report, a leading prognosticator. An additional 13 seats lean Democratic and 17 lean Republican but remain competitive.

“The battle for the House in 2012 is a trench warfare struggle. There will be a lot of money spent, and a lot of resources will be poured in,’’ said Kyle Kondik, who monitors House races for the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “At the end of the day, the lines might not move that much.”

Such predictions do little to dissuade Democrats. Two years ago, Republicans picked up 63 Democratic seats, giving them their largest House majority since the 1946 elections. Democrats insist up to 83 seats are in play this time around, and they are raising impressive sums of money — $115.5 million to the Republicans $109.1 million, according to the Federal Elections Commission — to fully compete.


The key to the Democrats strategy appears to be trumpeting themes being played out in the presidential campaign between Obama and Republican Mitt Romney.

“Take the national debate about Medicare that Paul Ryan on the Republican ticket has given us, and win this battle in your district,” Democrat Steve Israel ordered his colleagues in a memo last month. Israel chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

During a briefing with reporters last week, Israel spoke confidently about his party’s chances against Republicans in November. “They got swept in on a Tea Party tsunami,’’ he said. “The wave has receded, and they are being left high and dry by their voting record.”

Republicans have twice passed Ryan’s budget plan, seeking to cut projected spending for Medicare by at least $700 billion over 10 years and remake part of it into a voucher system that would allow seniors to buy private insurance instead of having the government pay for services. Democrats say the plan would “end Medicare as we know it.”

The issue could be a potent weapon. A poll last week by the National Journal, mirroring similar surveys, showed two-thirds of respondents want politicians to keep their hands off the entitlement program.


The Democrats already have a blueprint for victory on this issue. In a special election in May 2011, Democrat Kathy Hochul captured an open House seat in a conservative upstate New York district by concentrating her campaign on searing criticism of Ryan’s plan.

Shea-Porter and other Democrats are hoping for the same results. Fellow New Hampshire Democrat Ann McLane Kuster is employing a similar strategy against Representative Charlie Bass, as he defends the open seat he won against her in 2010. Bass had openly courted support from the Tea Party.

Democrats are coupling that Medicare argument with a dissection of plans by Romney and Ryan to cut other government spending. The Ryan budget would slice $5.3 trillion from projected government spending over 10 years, which could mean huge cuts for such programs as food stamps, college Pell grants, Medicaid, and other aid for struggling families.

Last month, the Democratic campaign committee began airing ads in Michigan and North Carolina hitting the GOP on Medicare and the Ryan budget.

Republican ads depict Democrats as big spenders who have no interest in taming budget deficits. Last week, the National Republican Campaign Committee dispatched statements to media in about 80 congressional districts blasting Democrats for their records on jobs.

“The reality is that the highest number of Americans in 30 years have lost faith in their job situation getting better,” said the committee’s communications director, Paul Lindsay.

To have any chance of regaining control of the House, Democrats must limit the number of seats they lose. In Massachusetts, two races may be at play. Joe Kennedy III is hoping to return the family name into national politics by filling the seat vacated by Representative Barney Frank of Newton, who is retiring. Kennedy is being opposed by the GOP’s Sean Bielat, who posed a formidable challenge to Frank two years ago.

But the contest to watch in Massachusetts is between Republican Richard Tisei and Representative John Tierney, a Salem Democrat under scrutiny because of the legal troubles of his wife and her family.

House brass, including majority leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, are hoping Tisei will steal the seat. During the Republican National Convention last month, Cantor boldly predicted his party would increase its cushion by another 10 seats.

As a sign of confidence in Tisei, the YG Action Fund, a super PAC linked to GOP “young guns” Cantor and Ryan, has spent $818,200 to benefit the Bay State Republican’s campaign.

Outside money is flooding the races in New Hampshire as well. Two years ago, such funds helped Guinta surge ahead of Shea-Porter in the final weeks of the campaign, even as polls showed her ahead. She again leads Guinta by a few points in the polls, but she is girding for another onslaught.

Outside groups spent $1.85 million against Shea-Porter in 2010, according to, the bulk of it from the GOP’s campaign committee and $741,281 from the Tea Party group Revere America.

In the other New Hampshire race, Kuster’s $2.5 million in fund-raising was about twice that of Bass’s, but she lost by 3 percentage points. Americans for Prosperity, which helped organize Tea Party protests two years ago, has spent $75,762 thus far to benefit Bass.

Such large amounts of outside money reflect how these races have become national in interest, as well as with issues.

“These races aren’t going to be about winning the political argument,’’ said Andy Smith, a political scientist and pollster at the University of New Hampshire. “You are at the mercy of stronger political forces.” The mightiest, he said, will be the presidential race. “For Democrats to win the House, they have to win the presidency by a more significant margin in the popular vote,” Smith said.

Bobby Caina Calvan can be reached at

Correction: Because of a production error, a graphic displaying which House seats were tossups in November was outdated and incorrect. According to Cook Political Report, 156 seats are solidly Democratic, 13 likely Democratic, 13 leaning Democratic, 26 tossups, 17 leaning Republican, 22 likely Republican, and 188 solidly Republican.