When a win isn’t a win: House Democratic gains may not equal victory

(CNN) — Two weeks after President Barack Obama’s re-election, Democrats are still basking in victory as a group of “too close to call” House races have gone their way.

They have won six of the seven seats in the U.S. House of Representatives that were undecided on Election Night with a recount pending in Rep. Mike McIntyre’s North Carolina race. A win there would push Democrats to 201 seats in the chamber compared with 234 for majority Republicans.

Although they captured more seats in the House and grew their majority in the Senate, the overall picture for Democrats coming out of the election may be far from overall victory, according to congressional watchers.

“Relieved and not celebrating,” political analyst Stuart Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Political Report told CNN. “I think that is the right emotional response that [Democrats] should have, which is not terrible.”

But “not terrible” is also not great for Democrats.

Failing to regain control of the House could mean more legislative gridlock, which in recent years has led to some of the lowest ever congressional approval ratings.

The effort by Democrats this year did arrest their free-fall from 2010 when the GOP opened a 63-seat gain in the House. But Democrats fell short of their goal to win back control of the House this year in their so-called “Drive for 25” — a push for a net gain of 25 seats.

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“Unless you think avoiding a worst-case scenario constitutes victory, there is no way to see (the) results as anything close to a House Democratic success,” Rothenberg wrote.

What was the “worst-case scenario?”

First, Democrats didn’t come close to the goal of gaining 25 seats, set early in 2011 by House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Second, Rothenberg said if Democrats had lost even half of the closest House races, it would have been disastrous for the party.

And third, House Democrats didn’t see nearly the same success that either the president or the Senate Democrats saw on Election Day.

Senate Democrats extended their majority over Republicans by two seats, while defending 23 of the 33 seats up for grabs. That leaves the Senate party line balance of power in the new Congress at 53-45. Claiming the chamber’s two independents in their caucus, Democrats would still fall short of a filibuster-proof 60-seat voting edge.

So where did House Democrats fall short? The main reason is how districts are drawn.

“The difference with these House races is that they are rock solid Republican or Democrat,” Rothenberg said. “They are more homogenous. … The House districts have been drawn to make it easier for either Republicans or Democrats to win.”

With the 2010 U.S. Census forcing states to rework congressional district lines, many of those doing the “drawing,” or redistricting, at the state level were Republicans. After 2010, 29 out of 50 states had either Republican governors or Republican-controlled legislatures, or both.

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However, in several districts in California, where incumbent Republicans lost — Rep. Mary Bono Mack, Rep. Dan Lungren and Rep. Brian Bilbray — a bipartisan commission redrew those boundaries, adding more Democrats to once-reliable Republican districts.

Illinois Democrats can thank redistricting for helping to secure five of six competitive races. Redistricting also led to a Democratic win in Arizona, according to David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report.

“The House is rigged and anyone who blames House Democrats for failing to live up to what President Obama and Senate Democrats were able to achieve is overlooking the basic structure of elections in this day and age,” said Wasserman.

“Non-white voters are sufficient to help Democrats to win state-wide races,” Wasserman explained. “But they’re too clustered in too few congressional districts to help Democrats.”

But, Wasserman said, “on balance, redistricting has helped Republicans.”

Also, where Senate races can be fought on a more national level — just look at the Elizabeth Warren/Scott Brown race in Massachusetts — House races still receive less attention and voters often draw less of a contrast.

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In the House, with fewer swing districts, races are also more partisan and less national. Voters tend to stick with their party loyalties instead of deeply examining candidates’ qualities or qualifications, Rothenberg said.

Still, the quality of the candidates did make a difference for voters, Rothenberg said.

“[Rep. Jim] Matheson is a good candidate, [Rep. Mike] McIntyre ran a good campaign,” Rothenberg said, citing two of the more highly contested races for Democratic incumbents.

Matheson won the race for seat in Utah’s 2nd Congressional district against Republican challenger Mia Love. The race received national attention not only because it was close, but also because Love was the first Haitian-American Mormon woman to run for Congress.

McIntyre claimed victory in the race against GOP challenger David Rouzer on Saturday, but since the margin of difference in the votes is less than 1%, Rouzer has requested a recount under North Carolina election law.

“[Rep. Mary] Bono Mack didn’t go back to the district a lot; [Rep. Allen] West is a controversial character,” Rothenberg continued pointing to two key Democratic upsets.

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Bono Mack conceded defeat to her Democratic challenger in the race for the seat in California’s 45th Congressional district. West, a tea party favorite, conceded defeat to his Republican-turned-Democrat challenger Patrick Murphy Tuesday morning after weeks of accusations, recounts and legal wrangling.

What does this mean for the 113th Congress? More polarization, some say.

“There’s no doubt that this is the most polarized house in American history,” Wasserman said. “Republicans have redrawn themselves into more security but they’ve also redrawn themselves into an alternate universe than the rest of the country,” he said.

Wasserman points to the 88% white male make up of the House Republican party, creating a different incentive system for them.

“Republicans don’t have to worry about the next election but Republicans have to worry about the next primary,” Wasserman said. Since early 2000’s, conservative Republican challengers have been running to the right of GOP incumbents, he said.

If the midterm electorate resembles, as Rothenberg anticipates, the 2010 electorate that came out strong for tea party Republicans, Democrats could find themselves playing mostly defense on the GOP’s home field.

“The midterm electorate will be whiter than the last election,” Rothenberg said, noting that the first constituencies to drop off in the midterm election are youth and Hispanic voters — two voting blocs that helped Democrats win in 2012.

The midterm electorate will be whiter than the last election,” Rothenberg said, noting that the first constituencies to drop off in the midterm election are youth and Hispanic voters — two voting blocs that helped Democrats win in 2012. Exit polls showed that 60% of voters 18-29 and 71% of Latinos voted to re-elect Obama.

CNN Political Director Robert Yoon contributed to this report





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