Democrats have dreamed all Fall of making a huge congressional comeback and reinstalling San Francisco’s Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House.
That would be a gigantic turnaround from two years ago, when Republicans won a 50-seat majority in the lower house of Congress, now holding 242 seats to just 192 for the Democrats, with one seat open. But some polls indicate it’s possible for Democrats to seize 25 seats that now belong to Republicans, plus taking that open seat previously occupied by Democrat Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona. That’s the absolute minimum they’d need to win back a majority.
The polls giving Democrats hope started with a mid-August Gallup survey finding that voters nationally prefer a Democratic-controlled House to one run by the GOP by a 7 percent margin. The same poll and others have found public disapproval of Congress at a record low, with the majority of Americans believing most representatives should be replaced.
Of course, that won’t happen because things look considerably different when voters examine candidates in their own districts as opposed to taking a generic, overall look at Congress.
But there is some legitimate Democratic hope for change. If they are to achieve their pipe dream, they will have to do about 20 percent of the job here in California.
University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato rates three California races among his picks for the 15 closest in America. Meanwhile, Allen Hoffenblum, a former Republican consultant who now publishes the relentlessly non-partisan California Target Book rundown on all legislative and congressional races in California, calls 10 House races here close and rates five of them as potential Democratic pickups.
Just about everyone in politics assesses the 26th District in Ventura County as about the tightest race in California. Pitting Republican State Sen. Tony Strickland of Simi Valley against Democratic Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, who moved from Santa Monica to Oak Park at a time when her former Assembly district included both cities, this one is drawing cash and attention from across America.
This is a classic match between a very conservative Republican and a very liberal Democrat in a district with nearly equal voter registration, which means it probably hinges on turnout and the preferences of independent voters who make up the balance of power. Coattails could matter, too.
This is an open seat, but much of the area has been represented by retiring Republican Elton Gallegly, so a Brownley win would be a Democratic pickup.
Said Hoffenblum, “In that district and others, I would hate to be a Republican running if there’s a big turnout for President Obama. Congressional races are listed third on the ballot, after president and the U.S. Senate race where Dianne Feinstein seems like a shoo-in. If you’re a Republican, you don’t want to be in that spot if the president gets a big vote.”
Sabato, meanwhile, calls Brian Bilbray of Solana Beach in San Diego County California’s most vulnerable Republican congressman. He’s in a brand-new district where he won just 41percent of the primary election vote. Opposing him is the locally well-known former San Diego City Council president Scott Peters of La Jolla. This district has a very slight Republican registration edge, but 27 percent of registered voters are independents and they will decide the outcome. Again, a big Obama turnout probably helps the Democratic candidate.
The 7th District race pits Republican Dan Lungren, a former state attorney general and Long Beach congressman who moved to suburban Sacramento more than a decade ago, against Ami Bera, a first-generation American from Elk Grove and a former medical dean at the University of California, Davis. Lungren got 52.7 percent of the vote in the primary, so Bera needs a big increase in Democratic turnout. That means Bera only wins if there’s a big Obama vote.
Another race where Democrats have hope pits incumbent Republican Jeff Denham and Democrat Jose Hernandez, a former astronaut, in the redrawn 10th District. Denham was among junketing congressmen who swam in the Sea of Galilee last summer. Some of his companions roused scandal by skinny dipping, and Hoffenblum says “It’s anyone’s guess how that will impact this race, but Denham speaks fluent Spanish and is a tough campaigner, especially among the Hispanics in his district.” Hernandez will need almost unanimous Latino support to win this Central Valley contest.
For Democrats to take control, state Sen. Alan Lowenthal of Long Beach must also beat Long Beach Councilman Gary DeLong in the open, new 47th District. Much of this area is now represented by Democrat Laura Richardson, so a Lowenthal win would mean only a Democratic “hold,” but if Democrats want a House majority, they can’t lose any current seats.
That also means Democrats must sweep what look like close races involving incumbents John Garamendi of Walnut Grove, Jerry McNerney of Stockton and Lois Capps of Santa Barbara.
The bottom line: Without a big Obama sweep – looking less likely every day, especially since his first debate with Republican Mitt Romney – the GOP can almost certainly figure on running the House for at least two more years.