Fields of Opportunity: Cook PVI, Wave Elections, and Recent Results

The elections of 2006 and 2008 bore many of the aspects of the “party system” changes that happen every 36 to 40 years in American electoral politics.  There was a change in electoral control (in the House, Senate, and White House) and two strong gains by one party in consecutive elections.

Of course the classic change election occurred in 1932.  After gaining 50 House seats in 1930, Democrats swept the White House and added 97 more in 1932.  And they kept adding to both the Senate and House numbers although at a lesser rate in the House, in both 1934 and 1936.  That, of course begs us to ask a key question: how long do waves last.  If you look at the waves around the election of 1800, 1860, and 1932 the answer is clear and surprising.  Waves seem to last for four elections.  In the case of 1860, much of the strength came with the tail after Lincoln and the war were clearly successful.

With a Senate class that is Republican heavy and untouched, the wave would seem to have a minimum of one more act and another six or eight Senate seats to go.  What about the House?

Despite a lot of talk about very Republican districts turning blue, most of the gains in both 2006 and 2008 have come from either Democratic or weak Republican districts won by Democrats.  In 2006, 17 of the 30 seats that were gained had a Cook PVi of R+3 or less aand 24 had a Cook PVI of R+7 or less.  In 2008, 15 seats won by Democrats had a Cook PVI of R+3 or less and 21 had a Cook PVI of R+7 or less.

That raises several issues.  How many of these field of opportunity remain to be plucked?  Well, 26 House seats still held by Republicans are in the prime R+3 or less category.  Why am I harping on R+3?  Above that point, Republicans hold a majority of seats.  Up to R+3, we hold the edge.

Over 95% of House seats with a Democratic PVI are held by Democrats.  The number of these seats held by Republicans has been sharply falling from (if my calculation is right) 24 to 15 to 9 in just two quick elections.  Some of those nine have been hard fought continued battlefields that Democrats keep losing (or Republicans keep winning): IL-10 (Mark Kirk vs. Dan Fields), WA-8 (Dave Reichert vs. Darcy Burner), and to a lesser extent PA-6, PA-15 and IA-4 fall under this category.  DE-At Large (D+7), NY-3 ((D+2), FL-10 (D+1), and NJ-2 (D+4) have been largely passed over.  Yes, we “expect” that Bill Young or Mike Castle might retire sometime but they need to be challenged.  As things stand, we only have one more crack at them under the present districts.  In most of these districts, the Republican has had his weakest showing in an off-year election rather than a Presidential election year: DE-At Large, 2006 (57%), IL-10 2006 (53%), IA-4 2002 (55%), NY-3 2006 (56%), PA-6 2006 and 2002 (51-49, also 2004 and only 52-48 in 2008), WA-8 2006 (51-49).FL-10 actually was weakest this year at 61-39 when Bob Hack was a credible opponent (local mayor) in a high turnout year.

R 0 to R+3 districts are represented by 25 Democrats and just 17 Democrats.  We have picked up 17 of these seats in the last 2 election cycles.  They are, in fact turning blue.  Part of this is the switch over in many traditional suburban districts from Republican to Democratic.  These districts are more ethnically and culturally diverse and educated professionals in many fields trend at least mildly Democratic (teachers, nurses, lawyers, creative types).

It may have been a once in a lifetime thing but in California, Democrats gained 5 House seats in 2000 that had been slowly trtending Democratic.  There were eight Republican House seats IIRC in California alone that were won with under 60% of the vote.

The number of Republican seats in the R+4 to R+7 range is way, way too high due to gerrymanders in many states (Florida, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Virginia in particular.  There are 63 seats with a PVI of R+4 through R+7 (25 held by Democrats) vs. only 31 seat that are D+4 through D+7 (28 held by Democrats)  These seats are also opportunities.

As for the long shots with Cook PVIs over R+7, well we hold 10 of them.  And that’s more seats than the Republicans hold in the D+0 to D+7 range (or all D ranges) at nine.

Rs in D Land: 15 GOP Held Seats with A Dem PVI

The Cook PVI rates every House district according to how its vote compared to the national Presidential vote in 2000 and 2004.  Overall, a majority of the House seats, 234 have at least some Republican lean at the Presidential level.  A strong minority, 201, have a Democratic lean.  Democrats currently hold 50 seats that tend Republican at the Presidential level while Republicans hold a dwindling number, 15, with a Democratic lean.

Republican held seats with a D PVI were major targets in 21006 and they continue to be major targets this year.  The status of these 15 seats in four prediction systems (SSP, Open Left/Chris Bowers, Charlie Cook, and Larry Sabato) are discussed below.  These predictions were, for the most part similar and would tend to point to Democrats winning somewhere between 5 and 8 of these seats in the upcoming election.  The number would be higher but for feeble efforts in at least three of these districts.

The two most likely seats to flip both on this list and in the entire country are both located in NY state.  The troubles and travails of the Republicans in Staten Island based NY-13 sound like the “plot” of an old Mel Brooks film.  Chris Bowers over at Open Left gives this D+1 district its most pessimistic rating, “Lean D.”  SSP, Cook and Sabato rate it as Likely D. In NY-25, there is a lot less drama but a safer district (D+3) with Dan Maffei leading the last poll by 18 points.

Five of the 15 seats were labeled Tossups by SSP (CT-4, IL-10, NV-3, NJ-3, and NM-1).  Chris Bowers also had 5 tossups but he had NM-1 as Lean Dem and added PA-15 as a Tossup.  Charlie Cook had 5 Tossups including WA-8 but having IL-10 as Lean Republican.  Larry Sabato agreed with Cook on both WA-8 (Toss up) and IL-10 (Lean R).  I’d agree with SSP although in my heart of hearts Democrats lead in both NJ-3 and CT-4.

Three or four of ther other seats are labeled competitive and three or four become “safe.”  SSP sees one seat as Lean R, WA-8.  That makes sense as it is Lean R with Bowers and Tossup elsewhere.  Matt Stoller’s pieces from the district are interesting but negative.  Darcy Burner has lost the mojo, in fact he sees Obama as sucking all the oxygen and all the juice out of the Washington Governor’s and the WA-8 House race.  The incumbent (Reichert) is pushing blue collar like you wouldn’t believe with repeated public appearances in T shirt (usually white) and jeans.  Seems to be working.  

SSP places IA-4 (the least D of these disericts at D+0) and PA-15 as Likely R.  I’ve lived in PA-15 as recently as 1999.  He can be winnable if everybody is on the same page.  It’s a de-industriaslizing district.   Charlie Dent get a pretty stiff challenge from a candidate who barely made the ballot.  He’s 30 years out of touch with this district.

PA-6 is a solid D+2 that was barely lost in 2006.  Racws to Watch or Likely R.  I’d pkace it as Likely R but … SSP is the pessimist.  Bowers, Cook, and Sabatp give it Likely R status.

FL-10 was long a favorite at SSP but it has dropped off the list.  It’s D+1 and Bowers places it as Likrly R.  Otherwise no bites.  We have a Mayor rrom a mid-sized town running (Duneddin).  Young is the senior GOPer in the House, first elected in 1970.  Ralph Regula (retiring) and Alaska’s Don Young follow in the GOP pecking order.

Nobody puts any of the other three on the boards and it is a shame.  DE-At Large has a gaudy D+7 PVI with the added allure of Joe Biden running for VP (and the Senate).  Yes Castle has a lot of money but this was the year to a) drain the treasury and b) maybe surprise him.  If the DCCC is really flush they ought to run a few ads just to see.

NJ-2 is the third most D heavy district on the list.  Frank Lo Biondo is getting a little challenge but not the major push Jersey Democrats thought they’d muster.  

Peter King represents a sliver of Long Island covering the edges of Nassau and Suffolk counties,  Rumor has it he’ll run for Governor in 2010.  Then rumor had it he’d be more solidly opposed.  King and McHugh could conceivably be all that’s left of the NY GOP at the federal level in under a month.

So what’s your take.  Are we more likely to pull a major upset in one of those R+16 type districts we fight in or somehow wind up with the Christmas present from DE-At Large?