April Madness: Can GOP Win Back the House in 2010?

Stuart Rothenberg April 27, 2009 · 12:05 AM EDT

Cheerleading has its place, including on a high school or college basketball court. But not when it comes to political analysis.

Over the past couple of weeks, at least three Republicans — House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.), former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and campaign consultant Tony Marsh — have raised the possibility of the GOP winning back the House of Representatives next year.

That idea is lunacy and ought to be put to rest immediately.

None of the three actually predicted that Republicans would gain the 40 seats that they need for a majority, but all three held out hope that that’s possible. It isn’t.

“I don’t remove the prospect that we could take the majority back in 2010,” Cantor said at a breakfast with reporters early this month.

Gingrich recently told Roll Call contributing writer Nathan Gonzales that Democratic support for the budget and the stimulus bill could help the GOP “beat enough Democrats to get Republicans back into the majority.”

Tony Marsh, a consultant to Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, went further in a Townhall.com piece. He argued that Republicans can win back the House next year by expanding the playing field, running smarter campaigns and offering a “contrasting and visionary message to America.”

Yes, Republicans have plenty of opportunities in good districts following their loss of 53 House seats over the past two cycles. And yes, there are signs that the Republican hemorrhage has stopped and even possibly that the party’s fortunes have begun to reverse course.

But there are no signs of a dramatic rebound for the party, and the chance of Republicans winning control of either chamber in the 2010 midterm elections is zero. Not “close to zero.” Not “slight” or “small.” Zero.

Big changes in the House require a political wave. You can cherry-pick your way to a five- or eight-seat gain, but to win dozens of seats, a party needs a wave.

Recruiting better candidates and running better campaigns won’t produce anything like what took place in 1980, 1994, 2006 and 2008, when waves resulted in huge gains for one party. The current political environment actually minimizes the chance of a near-term wave developing.

The problem for Republicans is that they aren’t yet in the position — and won’t be in one by November of next year — to run on a pure message of change, or on pent-up demand for change.

Waves are built on dissatisfaction and frustration, and there is little in national survey data that suggest most voters are upset with President Barack Obama’s performance or the performance of his party.

Obama’s job approval generally falls between 55 percent and 63 percent, and his personal favorable numbers are as strong or slightly better. The trend line on the right direction/wrong track question shows a growing optimism, as do attitudes about the direction of the economy.

A recent Pew Research Center poll found two out of three Americans saying that they were optimistic “that Barack Obama’s policies will improve economic conditions in the country.”

All of these numbers show a public that is more upbeat than it was before the last election, and optimism produces status quo elections, not an electorate demanding change.

The uptick in mood, combined with the public’s still-vivid memory of the disappointing Bush years, makes it almost impossible for Republicans to deliver a change argument successfully. GOP candidates and strategists will have to wait for at least another election cycle before they can hope that a change message will resonate with voters.

Of course, there are millions of Americans who are unhappy with Obama’s agenda and with the direction of the country. But those people have never liked Obama, and more importantly, they don’t come close to constituting a majority of Americans.

Most Americans — even many of those who are still worried and pessimistic — are willing to give Obama more time and to give him the benefit of the doubt.

The benefit of the doubt is exactly what voters gave President Franklin Roosevelt and his party in the 1934 midterms, when Democrats gained seats after two disastrous elections for the GOP during which the party lost a total of 150 seats in the House. Democrats gained seats for a third successive election in 1934 (nine seats) and for a fourth cycle in a row in 1936 (11 seats).

It’s not yet clear which party will gain seats in next year’s midterms or how large the swing will be. The GOP could well gain back some ground, given how far its House numbers have fallen.

But a small gain is not the standard of success that Marsh and company have set. They’ve talked about the country making a 180-degree turn after two years and following a Democratic wave for change with a Republican wave for change.

Since there is no sign of that happening, we are left with the obvious conclusion: Cantor, Gingrich and Marsh are merely cheerleading, trying to make their supporters more energetic about next year’s elections.

But cheerleading to keep enthusiasm high has a downside. It creates unreasonable expectations. Managing expectations, not creating impossible ones, is also part of the game.

Given their unbridled early cheerleading, Marsh, Cantor and Gingrich better have the legs for short skirts.