Yet such was the position in which I found myself nearly two weeks ago, when veteran electoral pundit Stu Rothenberg offered his (admittedly early) forecast of the district-by-district landscape of the House for the upcoming 2014 midterm elections.
His verdict: it's not looking too hot for the Democrats:
At this point in the cycle, Democrats probably need to put at least another two dozen additional districts into play — in addition to the ones I have cited above [note: previously in the article, Rothenberg identified 17 Democratic targets]— and hold most of their own vulnerable seats to have a chance of netting 17 seats in the midterm elections. It’s a very tall order.And here's the thing: I don't really have much quarrel with Rothenberg's microanalysis. He identified 17 halfway decent Democratic targets, and I agree with all of them. He pooh-poohs Democratic chances of defeating two GOP freshmen who won narrowly last year (Kentucky's Andy Barr and Pennsylvania's Keith Rothfus), and absent a huge recruiting victory for the Blue team, I tend to agree with him there, as well.
So don't get me wrong, I am hardly arguing that Rothenberg is "wrong" here. What I am arguing is that I am not sure the last few cycles haven't taught us the futility of those kinds of microanalyses. Follow me below the fold to find out why.
Let's go back to 2008. In November of 2008, for sure, the pundit class had Alabama's deep-red 2nd Congressional District as a possible pickup for the Democrats. But 19 months earlier, long before former Montgomery Mayor Bobby Bright decided to make a bid for the Democrats, even an open-seat race in the Wiregrass was probably way off the radar screens of the pundit class. That's not a knock on them, of course, it's pretty rare for a seat that the GOP carried by well over 20 points in presidential elections to be competitive on the House level, absent a longstanding and beloved Democratic incumbent.
Wave elections, of course, create their own momentum. In 2006, there is a memorable passage in Naftali Bendavid's book The Thumpin', when DCCC staffers are staring at the results after the fact, adding the prefix "Congressman" or "Congresswoman" to names like Jason Altmire and Carol Shea-Porter and then adding what only seemed appropriate at the time: "What the fuck?"
One has to imagine that their opposite numbers in the NRCC felt likewise in 2010, as they murmured to themselves "Congressman Blake Farenthold" and "Congressman Chip Cravaack."
And therein lies a big part of my disquiet with microanalyses of the 2014 landscape, as tempting as they are to both read and write as a way of filling the void before the campaign cycle shifts into a higher gear. Hell, I'm not immune to it—I think I penned my first target list for the 2012 congressional elections before we rang in the new year ... of 2011.
But the bottom line is that paths to majorities, at least as of late, have been paved with a combination of the races that are perpetually on the target lists and races that few seemed to realize were competitive until the final few miles of the marathon that is a traditional campaign cycle.
Therefore, to say that finding another dozen districts, or two dozen districts, for Democrats to win is a "tall order" seems, on the face of it, premature.
If we're forecasting the future, I'll make a prediction that I feel tremendously confident about: A seat will flip in 2014 that no one in the pundit class even has on their radar right now. That just doesn't happen in wave elections. It happens every single cycle.
Allow me to play Nostradamus and pick one race that I could see being on the radar screen come 2014, but few pundits are citing right now as a potentially competitive race. Maybe it is because I live in the general vicinity of the district, but why isn't veteran GOP Rep. Buck McKeon on anyone's potential casualty list?
The initial race ratings from the Cook Report have a dozen different California seats rated at some level of competitiveness, but not McKeon's CA-25. But someone would have to explain to me why freshman Democrat Mark Takano (CA-41), rated by the Cook Report as "likely Democratic," is seen as less safe than McKeon.
For one thing, Takano is in a safer district: Our own results by C.D. indicate that McKeon's district was Romney +2, while Takano's Inland Empire seat was Obama +25.
What's more, Takano was saddled with what was universally agreed was the best candidate the GOP could offer in the district: Riverside County Supervisor John Tavaglione. Tavaglione, perceived as a moderate, matched Takano dollar for dollar. And on election day, Takano beat Tavaglione with relative ease (59-41).
Meanwhile, McKeon had a huge funding advantage over Democrat Lee Rogers, who nevertheless raised a fairly respectable sum (just under $400K). When the votes were tallied, Rogers gave McKeon the closest race of his career (55-45).
It is entirely possible, of course, that McKeon could sail to reelection. Rogers could decide that he doesn't want a second bite of the apple, the Democrats could suffer a recruiting failure, and McKeon could cruise to a 12th term in Congress.
But is seems equally possible that either Rogers will be back for a better-funded sophomore effort (a la Ami Bera and Keith Rothfus, two members of the House who lost in 2010, and won in 2012), or the Democrats will convince another first-tier candidate that the changing landscape, and McKeon's own flagging popularity, make this race worth the effort.
A path to a Democratic majority could be paved through California's Santa Clarita Valley, where McKeon has ruled the roost since 1992. Or it could be paved through open seats that are not, at the present time, yet open. Conversely, there are also a raft of potential Republican targets that most of us haven't even considered yet.
The bottom line is that it the past several cycles have made two things abundantly clear: There are more paths to a House majority than we previously thought, and they often don't present themselves until fairly late in the cycle. Recruiting, of course, is essential. So is rapidly shifting political terrain and the vagaries of turnout.
Can the Democrats win the majority in 19 months? Of course, they can. But how they are going to do it is still largely unknown. That doesn't make the prospect any less real. It just means that candidate recruitment, and retaining incumbents, matters more than ever. At the risk of stating the obvious, we'll know a hell of a lot more about the prospects for a Democratic House majority in March, 2014 than we do in March, 2013.