Amid all the bad news on Election Day, there was one bright spot for Republicans: At least the GOP kept the House.
It lost probably seven or eight seats. It’s impossible to know for certain because in a handful of districts the winner remains undetermined. Currently, Republicans have definitely won 233 seats, when they started the cycle with 242. Compared with the scenario that might have unfolded, with so many Senate races and battleground states swinging the wrong way, that feels like a victory.
One key reason that Republicans held down their losses was the party’s decision to concentrate on winning more seats, not just keeping the 63 seats the party had gained in 2010.
Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R., Wa.), vice chair of the House GOP conference, traveled to 22 states and raised $1.3 million for the NRCC and individual candidates. She sees a silver lining:
We not only started early to hold on to as many of those freshmen as possible, but we also made a deliberate decision to go on offense and continue to take our message to every corner of this country, with candidates who could deliver our message. We continued to recruit new candidates to run for open seats. And we also took on some Democrats. And we were able to win in some new districts this fall.
While Republicans didn’t gain on net, the GOP was able to win ten new seats this cycle. “After 2010, we still had twelve Democrat-held seats whose districts voted for McCain in 2008,” remarks Paul Lindsay, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “We still had a lot of opportunities left on the table. We had a lot of close calls that were also close races in 2010.”
“Chairman [Pete] Sessions had a very aggressive vision at the beginning of this cycle, coming off our 2010 wins, that we were going to pick up seats and remain on offense,” Lindsay adds. “And while we didn’t pick up, that vision drove the entire committee and everything we did for two years.”
Democratic targets included Oklahoma’s Dan Boren, Kentucky’s Ben Chandler, and Arkansas’s Mike Ross.
“Our GOP pickups were a result of our strategy from the beginning, which was to force Democrats to play defense for many of their seats,” Lindsay says. “And when you’re the minority party and you’re spending money on Democrats in states like Rhode Island and North Carolina, it’s a lot tougher to get the seats you need to win back the majority.”
For instance, Boren — who had been identified as the NRCC’s top target — announced his retirement in June 2011. Republican Markwayne Mullins won the seat. North Carolina’s Heath Shuler was another blue-dog Democrat who retired. His successor is Republican Mark Meadows. Chandler lost his seat to Republican Andy Barr, and Ross lost to Republican Tom Cotton. Representative Kathy Hochul (D., N.Y.), who won a Republican district in a 2011 special election, focused on Medicare and, in a race complicated by a third-party candidate who described himself as “tea party,” was defeated by Republican Chris Collins.
But one powerful advantage Republicans had was that the huge gains the party made in 2010 in state legislatures — picking up 675 seats — gave Republicans a significant edge when it came to redistricting.
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, attributes the GOP’s House victories primarily to redistricting and the advantage of having many incumbent contenders. “After all,” he says, “since World War II, almost 93 percent of all incumbent representatives who sought another term have won one.”
Lindsay doesn’t deny that redistricting helped. “I think losers come up with a lot of excuses about why they didn’t win,” he says. “The fact is, they’re losers for a reason. Redistricting is one of the ways in which Democrats failed this cycle. And they failed because they were unable to defend an indefensible agenda — the failed agenda that allowed Republicans to take control of the House and the state legislatures in 2010.”
“The Democrats can cry about it all they want,” he adds, “but they lost.” That’s something Republicans haven’t been able to say much since Election Day, but it’s true of the House.