Political observers and pundits are, understandably, primarily focused these days on the 2012 presidential race. There is more to cover on the Republican side, where 10 or so candidates vie for the Republican nomination and the races in various states have more twists than a fun house mirror. Rep. Michele Bachmann was supposed to be a flash in the pan—she is the new campaign poster-child. Jon Huntsman was the dark horse with the hype and the chance—his campaign is sputtering at the moment. Newt Gingrich's entire campaign team essentially resigned, all but signaling that Texas Gov. Rick Perry would enter the race.
The headlines aren't just on the Republican side, however. President Obama is taking significant heat for the time he has already put in fundraising for his 2012 bid. Furthermore, two top White House aides have formed and are helming a so called "SuperPac," Priorities USA, to compete with Karl Rove's American Crossroads juggernaut—a curious move for a president who only two years ago in his State of the Union address publicly chided members of the Supreme Court for their Citizens United decision that permitted the formation of such entities.
Yet, despite the presidential hoopla, true political junkies are also focused on the races in the House and the Senate—where an unprecedented "chamber flip" may be plausible (but not probable).
Republicans have long been favored and, by all accounts, are more than likely to take back the Senate in 2012. This assertion rests not so much on partisan political instinct, but more than anything on simple math. Democrats are defending 23 Senate seats, compared to only 10 for Republicans. Democrats currently hold 51 seats in the Senate, but that number is truly 53, given that the Senate's two independents caucus with their Democratic colleagues. Competitive races in Virginia, Florida, Missouri, Montana, and Wisconsin—as well as a likely Dem loss in Nebraska—all point toward one prediction: It will be very tough for Dems to hold the Senate. [See political cartoons on Democrats.]
The House, however, has become an interesting story in recent days. Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently vowed to "take back the House," and she may not just be howling at the moon.
Republicans currently enjoy a 48 seat majority in the House, meaning that Democrats would need to win 25 seats in 2012 to reclaim the Chamber. By all estimates, this is still a tall order, but there are some factors to which Republicans should pay close attention. Foremost, Rep. Paul Ryan's much touted Medicare plan—which I have full throatily supported in a previous piece in this publication—appears to be a political loser. This is not surprising given that the vast majority of those utilizing Medicare—Republicans and Democrats—oppose altering its composition. Should Speaker John Boehner strike a budget deal with President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, some right wing Republicans may view that as a dreaded compromise or a sellout that placates Democrats. (Not so long ago, we called that legislating.) In that scenario, Tea Partyers may seek to attack those members of Boehner's caucus from the right in primary fights. As was the case in 2010, the Tea Party attacks that take down moderate GOPers in primaries usually result in a net positive for Democrats (see Castle, Mike—Delaware). [Check out editorial cartoons on the budget and deficit.]
By no means is the House sewn up for Pelosi and her Democratic colleagues. Redistricting, a key component in any election immediately following a census, appears to be favoring Republicans. Furthermore, there is little evidence to suggest that while under Democratic control, the House did much to mitigate the financial woes that continue to plague the nation.
Regardless of the presidential outcome, Americans shouldn't ignore the under-card in the 2012 prize fight. It takes three branches to govern, and what ultimately happens in the 2012 congressional elections will certainly shape the immediate future of American public policy.