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Could Ryan's Choice Put the House in Play?

Posted: 08/15/2012 8:29 pm

Mitt Romney's selection of Paul Ryan for his running mate is already worrying some in Republican circles. These unnamed sources (most of them refused to publicly put their name to such worries) aren't just concerned that Mitt Romney may lose the election to Barack Obama, they are also raising the possibility that Ryan's choice may put at risk many "down-ballot" seats in the House of Representatives. Which leads to the obvious question: If their fears are true, could it mean Democrats have a much better chance at taking the House back in the upcoming elections? To put it another way, will we see "Speaker Nancy Pelosi" again next year?

Admittedly, it'll be tough to accurately say, even after the election returns are in. It's impossible to tease from the exit polling data such nuances, even when you know the results of the election. So the entire matter is one for nothing but speculation, and will be even after the dust settles in November.

But that doesn't mean some Republicans are getting worried. One of the few who spoke on the record (to Politico) was Mark McKinnon, a former senior adviser to President George W. Bush, who had this to say about the selection of Ryan:

I think it's a very bold choice. And an exciting and interesting pick. It's going to elevate the campaign into a debate over big ideas. It means Romney-Ryan can run on principles and provide some real direction and vision for the Republican Party. And probably lose. Maybe big.

That's not exactly a vote of confidence. Those who weren't bold enough to go on record had similar things to say: Ryan may hurt down-ballot Republican chances, mostly due to his Medicare plan. Republicans, amusingly enough, have spent roughly the last two years whining about how Democrats run "Mediscare" ads to frighten seniors away from voting Republican, but this time around it was the Romney/Ryan camp who rolled out the first "Mediscare" ad of the 2012 campaign season. Meaning the campaign itself is worried about how the subject is going to play in the election.

The Obama campaign seems to have been caught a little flat-footed on the subject. Ryan was (unofficially) announced as Romney's pick last Friday night, and here it is Wednesday and they still haven't managed to get a Medicare ad of their own out yet -- even after Romney's "across the bow" first shot. This is the biggest weakness for Ryan, so you'd think by now the Obama folks would be hitting it with a sledgehammer.

When the ads start flying from both directions, they are going to have a rather large "coattails" effect on a lot of Democratic candidates for the House, though. Kathy Hochul proved it can be a winning issue for Democrats running for the House, and there should be plenty of Democratic candidates out there willing to put this theory to the test.

What will it all mean in the end is anybody's guess. Taking back control of the House is not going to be any sort of walk in the park for Democrats this year. Currently (at least, according to Wikipedia), the House has 190 Democrats and 241 Republicans, with four vacancies. Although this is a gap of 51 members, it's not quite so big when you consider how many seats would need to flip. Democrats would need to increase their numbers by 28 seats, in some combination of winning Republican-held seats and picking up vacant seats, to get to the magic number of 218.

Nancy Pelosi, last year, seemed optimistic that Democrats would have a good chance to regain control of the chamber. Since then, Democrats have gotten noticeably more pessimistic. In historic terms, picking up that many seats in the House qualifies as a "landslide" or "sweep" election. A flip of 28 seats is easier to achieve than 51 seats, but it's still a whopping number of victories in a single election cycle in modern times.

But it's hard to deny that the selection of Paul Ryan certainly will make this task a lot easier. House races can be pretty picayune in their focus, and this gives Democratic challengers a clear issue to make the centerpiece of their fight. If Democrats jump on this issue with both feet, it would certainly widen the field of possible seats to pick up in the House. Granted, they'd still have to pretty much run the table this November to put Pelosi back in command, but achieving this might have just gotten a lot easier.

So far, Democrats haven't been wildly optimistic about their chances to retake the House, but the Republicans sure seem to be worried about it. One unnamed GOP strategist quoted in the Politico article summed the opportunity Democrats have now been handed nicely (speaking of the Romney campaign):

This could be the defining moment of the campaign. If they win the battle to define Medicare, then I believe Romney wins the presidency. If they lose it, then they lose big in the fall.

This could indeed be the key. Romney is already fighting hard to define the issue on his terms -- which mostly consists of hoping to "muddy the waters" with the voters so much that they don't believe what either side says on the issue. The Obama team needs to counter this strategy, and they need to do so as fast as possible. Stump speaking is fine and good, but the Obama team has to release a national ad on the subject, and soon.

Whoever wins this messaging battle could win the election -- and could also influence a whole lot of down-ballot races. Whether it will be enough to win the House back for the Democrats remains to be seen, but it's certainly the best chance that has come down the pike so far this year.

 

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