With memories of last fall’s federal government shutdown and several national debt default crises already faded from the public mind, national Democrats no longer appear to believe they have a realistic chance of retaking control of the House of Representatives from the Republicans who wrested it away from them unexpectedly almost four years ago.
But they might still gain some ground in a few places. Democrats harbor that hope primarily because every poll shows most Americans – even about half those who call themselves Republicans – assign primary blame for government gridlock to the GOP.
To take control and make San Francisco’s Nancy Pelosi speaker again, Democrats would need to win back 17 seats now held by Republicans. That’s probably not going to happen. Because of gerrymandering in many states, Democrats have no chance in the vast majority of the 235 districts now held by the GOP.
But they still could improve their numbers. Democrats have identified 24 so-called swing seats where Republicans won close elections last year, and two of their most prominent pollsters say they are ahead in 17 of those. If they won all those – not likely – and hung onto every seat they now hold, they could rid themselves of Speaker John Boehner. Not realistic.
Every Democratic scenario for making progress in the House, though, requires wins in two of the three California districts among those 24 swing seats.
In one of those three, Republican David Valadao’s 21st District, Democrats don’t have much realistic hope. Even though voter registration is about even in that Visalia-centered district, Valadao is favored by a 50-40 percent margin over just about any Democrat, say the Democrats’ own surveys.
But Democrats are in much better shape in the district now held by retiring Republican Gary Miller and on Jeff Denham’s Central Valley turf.
In Miller’s 31st District, covering much of San Bernardino County, Republican Paul Chabot won the June 3 primary but it’s still too close to call who he will face in November, Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar, a Democrat, Republican Lesli Gooch, a policy specialist, or Democrat activist Eloise Gomez Reyes. Before Miller pulled out, the Public Policy Polling firm had him trailing 51-39 percent when voters were asked to compare him with just about any Democrat.
Democrats have a 41-34 percent voter registration edge in the district, with another 20 percent giving no party preference (Democrats have lately won majorities among these undeclared voters in most places). Miller had the good fortune to face a fellow Republican in his last election, after he and state Sen. Bob Huff topped a fractured list of Democrats in the 2012 primary.
Polling numbers suggest the district is the Democrats’ to lose.
Denham, whose 10th District encompasses Modesto, Manteca and Tracy, beat Democrat Jose Hernandez, a former astronaut, by 53-47 percent in 2012, a margin of about 11,000 votes out of 209,000 cast. The Public Policy Polling survey currently shows 37 percent of district voters approve his performance in office, even with the 37 percent who disapprove. He trailed by four percentage points when the poll asked voters whether they’d vote for Denham or a Democrat, without naming any possible opponent.
He carried the day June 3 with nearly 59 percent of the vote against a pair of Democrats. Now the opposition has a name and face in Democrat Michael Eggman.
Of course, everything can change in any political race. So even though Democrats look in good shape in those districts, primary election results deciding the candidate finalists may speak loudly about the eventual outcomes. Time, as they say, will tell the tale.
Thomas Elias is a California author. Reach him at email@example.com.