House Speaker John Boehner did not mean to set off a panic, but he did mean to issue a strong and loud wake-up call earlier this week when he said on Fox News that Democrats had a "one-in-three chance" of winning back the lower chamber of Congress in November.
It won't be easy for Democrats. The Republicans hold 242 seats, the most for them since 1946. Democrats would need to pick up a net 25 seats to retake control. Even if President Obama wins re-election in November, only once since World War II has the party that won the White House gained more than 15 seats in the House during the same election.
Polling experts don't expect the gavel to change hands. Republican pollster Glenn Bolger has guaranteed the Republicans will retain control, and even nonpartisan political analyst Charlie Cook rates a Democratic pickup "highly unlikely."
And Democrats won't be able to focus solely--or even chiefly--on this goal for two reasons: The president himself likely will be locked in a tight battle until November, and Republicans have a better chance of retaking the Senate than Democrats do of retaking the House. Democrats must defend 23 Senate seats this cycle to 10 for Republicans, and seven of the 10 that will be open in November belong now to Democrats.
On the other hand, Speaker Boehner is right to be concerned--and not just because a good offense starts with a good defense.
First, down-ballot races won't catch the attention of voters and, more importantly, donors until mid-fall as focus now turns to the presidential race, conventions, and the American Idol-like fixation of the media on who Romney will select as vice president. This enables Democrats in tossup-or-close-to-it districts to amass significant war chests and organizational advantages in districts that don't heed the speaker's warnings.
Second, the National Republican Campaign Committee's cash-reserves advantage has all but dried up in recent weeks as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has amassed its strongest cash position since 2002.
Third, when we draw closer than the 10,000-foot level, a surprising number of Republican lawmakers are vulnerable for various reasons. The Rothenberg Political Report currently rates 13 House races as complete tossups--and Republicans hold six of those seats. Moreover, two of the four races in districts it rates "Tilt Democratic" are Republican held; as well as three of the five in districts he rates "Lean Democratic" and three of the eight in the "Democratic favored" column.
Meanwhile, 60 Republicans must stand for election in districts won by President Obama in 2008. And Democrats currently hold just seven of the 39 closest races in districts that tilt, lean, or favor Republicans. In other words, far more Republicans are in dangerously Democratic districts than Democrats in Republican districts. Add in the fact turnout is expected to be low outside of the presidential battleground states, and several traditionally Democratic districts that went Republican in the wave election of 2010 could revert to form, which would be bad for Republicans.
It could get even worse for Republicans if President Obama somehow builds a substantial lead a month or more out from the election. The president has not demonstrated significant coattails to date, but that could change if he takes a clear lead because, according to Alan Abramowitz, a senior columnist with Larry Sabato's voter analysis organization, straight-ticket voting is at a 40-year high.
The chances may not be quite one-in-three Democrats could retake the House in 2012. But Speaker Boehner is right to sound the alarm. The time for Republican candidates to redouble efforts at fund-raising and organization building is now, while neither presidential campaign has captured the momentum.
Waiting could be dangerous--which was exactly the speaker's point.