How Democrats Lost Their Chance to Take Back the House

Nancy Pelosi is not likely to come close to regaining the speaker's gavel, thanks in part to a cavalcade of Democratic missteps.

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Recently, a Democratic candidate dropped out of his race for Congress in Arkansas. It turned out he'd been lying when he claimed he was a Green Beret. Whoops. Now the Republican representing that district, Rep. Steve Womack, will not have a Democratic opponent at all in November.

Now, realistically, that was not a seat Democrats were likely to win -- it's one of the most Republican districts in the South. But it was a reminder of the ill fortune that has befallen the Democrats' effort to take back the House of Representatives. In House races across the country, supposedly promising Democratic candidates have become embroiled in scandal (like the married South Carolina state representative who was caught driving drunk with an unlicensed pistol and a female 21-year-old college student) or failed to make it to the general election (like the strongly Democratic California district where no Democrat survived the nonpartisan primary, and the winner will be one of two Republicans in the November runoff).

Nancy Pelosi's party would need to win 25 seats currently held by Republicans to take back the House and make Pelosi speaker again. That's always been a long shot -- though you wouldn't know it to listen to Pelosi: She has recently put the odds at better than 50-50.

Despite such bravado, the experts have long been less bullish on Democrats' chances. (The University of Virginia's Crystal Ball, for example, currently projects a net gain of just six seats.) But if Democrats were ever going to have a prayer of winning the House back, they'd have to play error-free ball -- ceding no opportunity, and putting themselves in a position to take advantage of unforeseen breaks.

Instead, it's Republicans who have mostly gotten the breaks. Take California's 21st district, a slightly Republican-leaning Central Valley seat newly created by redistricting. Democrats' first-choice recruit got cold feet; their second choice, a city councilman with the felicitous name Blong Xiong, didn't make it through the primary; and now they're stuck with their third, who does not live in the district and has never held office. Democrats could still win the seat, but it's far less likely. And any House hope for the party requires a major sweep in California.

A few more examples:

* In Illinois' 13th district, the candidate recruited by national Democrats didn't make it through the primary, and the winner in his stead is a perennial candidate who's lost his last three tries for Congress. (Illinois is another big, strongly Democratic state where the party must maximize its success in order to rack up big national gains.)

* In Connecticut, the speaker of the state House, Chris Donovan, is still favored to win the 5th District Democratic primary despite a federal investigation into illegal campaign contributions. ("We really don't know where the stuff came from," his campaign manager said a couple of weeks ago.)

* Democrats are even in danger of losing a House seat in Rhode Island -- Rhode Island! -- thanks to revelations about Rep. David Cicilline's mismanagement of Providence when he served as its mayor. Obama won the district by a more than 2-to-1 margin in 2008. (Josh Kraushaar points to two more solidly Democratic seats that could go to the GOP because of Democratic candidates' vulnerabilities.)

* In Arkansas, Democrats' preferred candidate in the 4th District lost the primary to a state legislator who blamed opposition to health-care reform on racists who "don't want to pay for no more nigger babies."

To be sure, Republicans have had their screwups in House races as well. Minnesota's 1st District is competitive on paper, but neither of the Republican gadflies currently running has a shot at unseating Rep. Tim Walz; one of them is a "onetime anti-sodomy crusader who believes that humans and dinosaurs may have coexisted in Southeast Asia as late as the 11th century," as Mother Jones' Tim Murphy put it. Democrats point to other districts, such as Oregon's 5th and New Mexico's 1st, where Republicans have fumbled opportunities for pickups. It's also the case that the national political landscape plays a larger role than individual candidates in the parties' overall House chances.

But Republicans don't have to play offense to keep the House. They're sitting on a healthy majority; all they have to do is defend it. At the moment, that's not looking like much of a challenge for the GOP -- a state of affairs for which they have Democrats largely to thank.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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