Congressional elections may define next presidency

Posted May 07, 2012, at 6:12 p.m.

Several presidential candidates have called the 2012 U.S. elections the most important ever. That seems a reach: more important than 1860 or 1932? Yet there is no doubt that the stakes are high this year, not just in the contest for the White House, but also in the most crucial congressional elections in memory.

The United States faces a potential fiscal train wreck at the end of the year, when the tax cuts passed under President George W. Bush expire. This is compounded by the sunset of the extension of the debt-ceiling agreement, which mandates huge, automatic, and largely indiscriminate, spending cuts with a major focus on defense if a deficit-reduction deal isn’t reached.

The outcome of the congressional elections will play a major role in the ability of a President Barack Obama or Mitt Romney to work through this morass. Hope for any deficit deal in a so-called lame duck session after the November contests probably would vanish if either party scores a convincing victory.

Congress is divided: Democrats have a 53-to-47 advantage in the Senate, Republicans have a 25-seat margin in the larger House of Representatives.

The battle for the House will reveal most about the mood of the electorate; the Senate contests feature higher-profile candidates.

In the Senate, about half of each party’s seats that are up for election are in play. Those numbers give Republicans an advantage, since they have only 10 seats up, while Democrats have 23. (Senators serve six-year terms.)

The two leading U.S. election analysts, Charlie Cook and Stu Rothenberg, both suppose, as of today, control of the next Senate is about a 50-50 proposition.

With such little margin, all eyes are on the Republican primary in Indiana on Tuesday. If six-term Republican Senator Richard Lugar wins, he’s almost a shoo-in for the general election. If he’s defeated by a conservative challenger, Richard Mourdock, the Democrats believe their candidate, Rep. Joe Donnelly, has a real chance to win the Senate seat in November.

This would confirm movement that has tilted slightly more Democratic in recent months. The unexpected retirement of Republican Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine probably means former Governor Angus King, an independent who likely would caucus with the Democrats, will take that seat.

The presidential contest will affect some congressional races. In Virginia, two former governors, Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican George Allen, are competing for an open Senate seat; polls consistently show this tight race closely tracking the presidential one.

Yet few doubt that Obama will clobber Romney in the Republican’s home state of Massachusetts. At the same time, Republicans are cautiously optimistic that their incumbent senator there, Scott Brown, will edge the Democratic challenger, the consumer-advocate Elizabeth Warren. Conversely, Democrats in Montana, which has only voted Democratic once in the last 11 presidential elections, don’t expect Obama to carry the state, but say they believe that their incumbent, Sen. Jon Tester, will squeak out re-election.

In the House, both Cook and Rothenberg see Republicans holding on, as of now. Both note that these races become more fluid as the election nears.

Calculations for the House, as is the case every decade after the census, start with drawing new districts. With the 2010 sweep, Republicans controlled most state houses and initially it was thought they could pick up as many as a dozen House seats through redistricting.

Instead, says Mark Gersh, a Democratic analyst who is the foremost expert on House races, redistricting “ended up a dead heat.” This wash, he believes, means that a Democratic takeover of the House remains “uphill but doable.”

The Republican assessment of redistricting isn’t much different, though the conclusions are. They argue that, even though they didn’t add seats, the party firmly protected at-risk incumbents in states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania. “We were able to shrink the battlefield,” says Paul Lindsay, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

In addition to those incumbents, Republicans figure they need to win a half-dozen or more Democratic seats to provide a cushion. The best opportunity is North Carolina, where Republicans dominated the redistricting and believe that three Democratic seats are very vulnerable in November.

Democrats controlled redistricting in California, Illinois and New York. They acknowledge that they need to capture almost half the necessary gains in those three big states to win control of the House. Although, in a good year, strategists argue, they could take over four or five Republican seats in each of the three.

Some of the more appetizing takeover targets, the Democrats say, are seats Republicans won two years ago when they had a strong political wind to their back.

Some rematches look particularly good. For example in Syracuse, Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle defeated Democratic Rep. Dan Maffei by 648 votes in a district Obama easily carried two years earlier. This time, Democrats like Maffei’s odds of victory.

There may not be a more intriguing or unlikely race than in the district centered in Salt Lake City, a bastion of conservative Mormonism. The Democrat is the six-term incumbent Jim Matheson, son of a popular Democratic governor and a Harvard graduate. Since first winning a House seat 12 years ago, he has survived Republican landslides in Utah year after year, including the 2010 Democratic debacle.

His Republican opponent is even more implausible. Mia Love, a 37-year-old small-town mayor who electrified the state Republican convention with a hard-right speech that secured her a shot at an upset victory against Matheson. She is African- American, raised Catholic and who converted to Mormonism.

Albert R. Hunt is Washington editor at Bloomberg News.

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