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Stalemate expected to persist in Congress

| Saturday, Oct. 13, 2012, 11:34 p.m.

The Republican Party is not likely to lose its U.S. House majority with a president whose coattails won't carry many Democrats into office and no sign of an electorate pushing for change, analysts say.

That could mean little change in the dynamic of Capitol Hill politics after the Nov. 6 election, even if voters elect some new members to Congress. The House for two years has not been able to get its legislation through the Democratic Senate, though it has slowed the Obama administration's domestic agenda of pushing through government bailouts, such as the 2009 stimulus bill and “Cash for Clunkers,” and the controversial health care law.

Polling indicates many close House races, and although Democrats appear poised to do well in places where President Obama enjoys strong support, such as California and Illinois, Republicans could gain in more conservative areas or where new redistricting maps favor the party, such as North Carolina and elsewhere in the South, experts said.

“It would be a pretty big surprise if the Democrats come back and won the majority,” said Kyle Kondik, a House political analyst at the University of Virginia. He predicts the party's gain won't go beyond seven seats: “I have had it lower than that this summer, but right now that seems to be their threshold.”

Kondik and other experts find no evidence of a coming Democratic “wave election” in the House, even if Obama wins re-election. Between them, former Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush “all carried very few seats with them in their personal victories,” netting a total of 10 House seats in their re-elections, Kondik said.

No one expects House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, or caucus leaders with either party to lose leadership posts, Kondik said, and “if ever there were a time for Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to leave, it was in 2010, so I don't expect her to be going anywhere soon.”

Republicans regained the lower chamber in 2010, picking up 63 seats to erase gains Democrats made in 2006 and 2008. The latest RealClearPolitics analysis of this year's races found 226 strongly Republican congressional districts and 183 districts strongly Democratic or leaning that way. Twenty-six appear to be toss-ups.

To win the majority of 218 seats, Democrats would need a net gain of 25 seats, said Dave Wasserman, the House analyst at Cook Political Report.

“Right now, I have them winning anything from zero to 10 seats,” he said.

Another problem, Wasserman said, is that seats Democrats hold “are all bunched together in urban areas with big underutilized majorities.”

Because of that, when Republicans won seats just before 2010 census redistricting, “it gave them an opportunity to lock in their majority,” Wasserman said.

He offered as an example Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, whose seat stretches through Pittsburgh's roughly 5-to-1 Democratic registration edge.

“Even though Western Pennsylvania has more Democrats, most of the seats are drawn more Republican,” Wasserman said.

One of the largest flips in state delegations — five seats — happened in Pennsylvania in 2010. Republicans Lou Barletta of Hazleton, Mike Kelly of Erie, Mike Fitzpatrick of Bucks County and Tom Marino of Lycoming County beat incumbents; Pat Meehan of Drexel Hill won a seat vacated by Democrat Joe Sestak.

That year, Democratic Rep. Jason Altmire of McCandless narrowly retained his seat against Republican challenger Keith Rothfus of Sewickley, but Altmire lost an April primary race to Democratic Rep. Mark Critz of Johnstown for the newly drawn 12th Congressional District.

Critz and Rothfus, again the GOP nominee, are locked in an ugly battle for the seat. Their race is a near statistical tie, recent polls show.

“This is a very competitive race in a district that (Republican presidential nominee) Mitt Romney should win comfortably, and both sides are pouring in outside advertising money,” said Kondik.

Many political strategists think Johnstown Democrats could decide the race if voters there turn out for Critz.

“That is probably one of the most important House races in the country,” said Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas, who chairs the campaign arm for House Republicans.

Sessions said he intends to devote time and resources to help Rothfus win.

Jesse Ferguson, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Democrats will do the same for Critz.

“This is a very important seat for us to hold,” said Ferguson, who feels good about Critz's chances.

Ferguson said the Democrats never guaranteed they'd win back the House, “but we do see a clear path to gain control.”

He noted that Obama won in 66 congressional districts with Republican incumbents.

“That gives us ample opposition to pick up the seats we need to win for the majority,” Ferguson said.

But Ferguson's assumption that Obama can transfer his popularity to down-ticket candidates might be off-base, said Mark Rozell, a political scientist with George Mason University. That's hard to do, he said, “and this president isn't popular enough to help carry party members this year. His campaign is focused on keeping the White House.”

Rozell said Obama has not made much effort to visit congressional districts to help Democratic candidates.

“Perhaps he would be doing that if he had a 10-point lead in the polls and had 60 percent (voter) approval, but he has neither,” Rozell said.

Salena Zito is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She canbe reached at szito@tribweb.com.

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