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.