IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Long shots offer Dems opportunity and risk

This year, Democrats have a rare, not to say unprecedented, opportunity to increase their advantage in Congress. But, winning big in November means playing defense in 2010.
/ Source: National Journal

For almost 10 years, the battle for Congress was like trench warfare. Democrats and Republicans dug in on about 20 or 30 races and simply pummeled each other for weeks. Whoever won the lion's share of those seats owned the majority in Congress.

This year, Democrats have a rare, not to say unprecedented, opportunity to spread the field. They have an 8-point advantage on the generic ballot, they're up almost $40 million in cash-on-hand, and very few of their own seats are in serious danger. So should they invest in any race that looks remotely competitive -- even in districts that have a serious GOP lean -- or should they just hunker down in the districts that are the most competitive and where the demographic trends work in their favor?

Here's one sign: They've made investments in heavily Republican districts that certainly don't meet the definition of a soft target -- districts like Maryland-01 and Kentucky-02, which are open seats, as well as Arizona-03, home of GOP veteran John Shadegg. So far, according to tracking by Tim Sahd of House Race Hotline, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has spent $10 million in 41 races compared to just $105,000 for the National Republican Congressional Committee in seven districts.

Almost all of the DCCC spending is for offense, as just 12 of these 41 seats are held by Democrats. To be sure, the DCCC has spent heaviest in what would be considered the prime targets, districts that narrowly went for President Bush or John Kerry in the last election. Those include Ohio-15, New Jersey-07, Illinois-11 and Arizona-01 -- all open seats that went Republican in 2006. But with no cavalry coming from a strapped NRCC, the DCCC can flood the airwaves in districts where it's been outspent (or at least matched) in previous contests. Why not double down in swing districts like New Mexico-01 (open: Heather Wilson) or Nevada-03 (incumbent: Jon Porter), where they'll never get this kind of opportunity again?

On the other hand, if they get some of these long-shot districts on the cheap this year, can they afford to hold on to them two years from now? In a tough midterm election, it'll be a lot easier to hold on to Christopher Shays' current seat in Connecticut-04 than Ron Lewis' seat in Kentucky-02.

That's closer to the essential question for Democrats. When it comes to controlling Congress, the whole is more important than the sum of its parts.

It seems likely that the Democrats will be forced to defend lots of tough districts next cycle. If wins in November, we can assume -- based on the track record of the party in the White House losing seats in midterm elections -- that Democrats will be playing defense in 2010. Maybe assuming two years down the road is a dangerous bet in a year when we can't figure out what the next 10 minutes will hold. But the math is merciless: For the Democrats, holding their majority past 2010 means retaining 218 seats. That Democrats went into the '94 election with a 40-seat majority and still lost it only argues for trying to get as many seats as possible.

For the new occupant of the White House, especially if it's Obama, the sum will tell a different story. A President Obama would enjoy a Democratic majority, but it's safe to assume that about a third of the Democratic caucus will be sitting in seats that he didn't carry. This would have a serious impact on how he governs.

But as one Democrat told me in '06 when I asked just how tough it would be to hold all these new seats in '08, "That's not my problem." The campaign committees are supposed to get 'em there. It's up to the House leadership and the new president to figure out what to do with them once they're in.