Former House Speaker Tip O'Neill famously remarked that all politics is local. But this year, it's the rhetoric of John Edwards that rings truer--in assessing the House race landscape, there are indeed two Americas. President Obama believes the way to win a second term is by rallying elements of the party base, but House Democrats trying to take back the majority face the added burden of winning the votes of increasingly disillusioned white working-class voters.
When looking at why Republicans are likely to retain their 25-seat majority--The Cook Political Report now says the possibility that Republicans will gain seats is greater than the possibility Democrats will retake the majority--it's worth keeping the demographic divide in mind. Democrats are likely to run very competitively in suburban swing districts and regain a number of seats that they lost in 2010. But House Republicans are still putting Democrats on the defensive in rural and working-class confines, threatening to pick up additional seats they didn't win in the midterm wave.
Of The Cook Report's 19 Republican-held seats ranked as toss-ups or leaning the Democrats' way, at least 11 are in urban or suburban congressional districts. Of the 11 Democratic-held seats in play, most are working-class districts or contain significant rural populations.
Democrats are well positioned to pick up seats in the Chicago suburbs (Reps. Joe Walsh/Robert Dold), Denver (Rep. Mike Coffman), and around Las Vegas (Rep. Joe Heck), but could give nearly as many seats back in areas spanning from working-class southwest Pennsylvania (Rep. Mark Critz), coal-producing southern Illinois (retiring Rep. Jerry Costello), rural Little Dixie (retiring Rep. Dan Boren of Oklahoma) and the expansive countryside of upstate and western New York (Reps. Bill Owens/Kathy Hochul).
This isn't a trivial matter. If Democrats struggle to broaden their brand, they will need to thoroughly dominate in the Democratic-trending suburbs to win back control. In 2010, the National Republican Congressional Committee focused on largely white, conservative districts held by veteran Democrats as the gateway to a majority, and succeeded beyond their expectations. A GOP-dominated redistricting process and untimely retirements from Blue Dog members, such as Boren and Rep. Heath Shuler, have offered up fresh opportunities to go on the offensive.
For a telltale sign of how far Democratic fortunes have fallen with working-class voters, just listen to Critz, who sounded like a Republican in rebuking President Obama after his Ohio jobs speech last week. "President Obama and others in Washington need to realize that we cannot spend our way to prosperity," he said.
As Thomas Edsall noted in The New York Times on Sunday, "The correlation between support from working-class whites and Democratic victory suggests the party takes a great risk when it downplays the importance of this segment with the electorate." While the white working-class share of the vote is declining, it makes up a disproportionate share of voters in battleground House districts. When Bill Clinton headed his party's ticket in 1992, Democrats carried 52.7 percent of the white noncollege House vote; in 2010, that number plummeted to 34.7 percent.
On the national level, Obama can get reelected even if he loses badly with working-class whites, thanks to the rapidly diversifying electorate. But at the House level, Democrats will have trouble forging a majority without them. Consider this: After redistricting, there are now an outright majority of 221 congressional districts with a Cook PVI rating of R+3 or greater. The next Democratic House majority (if it occurs this decade) will have to be built on the backs of Democrats who hold an appeal well beyond the base. That will be all the more difficult, thanks to an increasingly polarized Congress.
That reality is making things difficult for Democrats to gain a net of 25 seats to regain the majority. On the top of Democratic target lists are vulnerable Republicans representing white working-class districts, such as Rust Belt freshmen Reps. Bill Johnson and Jim Renacci (Ohio), Sean Duffy (Wisconsin), andDan Benishek (Michigan). Democrats believe the members' votes for Rep. Paul Ryan's budget give their opponents a potent line of attack on entitlements. But complicating their prospects are Obama's weak approval numbers, which in those districts are considerably worse than his middling national approval ratings.
Meanwhile, in the redistricting process, Republicans paid careful attention to shoring up the districts of vulnerable suburban Republicans, who regularly faced tough reelection campaigns. Members such as Reps.Steve Stivers (Columbus, Ohio), Steve Chabot (Cincinnati), Jim Gerlach (Philadelphia), Pat Meehan(Philadelphia), Daniel Webster (Orlando), and Kevin Yoder (Kansas City, Kan.) are now favored to win another term. The gains have largely offset the new opportunities Democrats have in California and Illinois.
The Democrats' challenge is amplified by Obama's campaign strategy to design policies appealing to elements of his base, but which offer diminishing returns to down-ballot Democrats. By ordering his administration to stop deporting illegal immigrants who came to the country as children, Obama illustrated the importance of mobilizing the Hispanic vote. But many Hispanic voters are gerrymandered into safe Democratic House seats, making the congressional payoff less fruitful. The president's push to help college students pay off their loans was designed to help him get them to the polls, but most large college campuses are in noncompetitive seats. And his support for gay marriage helped him with fundraising, but it did little to move the Democratic needle in swing districts.
As the election draws closer, expect to see many Democratic candidates in working-class districts balance their loyalty to the president against the necessity of doing whatever it takes to win. Because what's good for the goose isn't necessarily good for the gander.