Salena Zito

Democrats were remarkably unprepared for the discontent that dislodged them from running the U.S. House last year, a sentiment that began in the summer of 2009.

Pete Sessions, the Texas congressman charged with retaining today’s Republican majority, says he will not repeat that mistake.

“I am listening to people,” he said, bursting into an empty boardroom as if he’d rather be walking onto a football field to go over plays with his team.

He’d better be ready, because he’s looking at the same numbers the Democrats’ leader, Nancy Pelosi, saw in early 2010; Gallup’s latest poll shows only 24 percent believe their congressman deserves to keep his or her job.

Those numbers could indicate a country heading into the same volatile election pattern that swung the House 100-plus seats in either direction and seated, unseated, then re-seated one U.S. president in the late 19th century, all in a little over five years.

Most experts today are not convinced that Democrats can retake the House, at least not yet.

Not that voters are enamored with Republicans; they just have total distaste for one party dominating Washington.

“It is a tall order for the Democrats to take back the House, especially considering the bad economy and a president with under 50 percent approval,” said Mark Rozell, a political science professor at George Mason University.

If those factors remain in place, look for Democrats to run away from President Obama's policies next year, much as Republicans did in 1992 after President George H.W. Bush broke his “no new taxes” pledge.

A lot can change in a year, according to Rozell, but “if economic circumstances don't start to point in a positive direction, the math doesn't show a way for the Democrats to take back the gavel for Pelosi.”

As chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Sessions plans to hold the seats that Republicans won in 2010 and to add 16 more.

“Sessions’ goal is optimistic,” said Rozell. “Without a lot of competitive districts, turning 16 or more seats for the GOP will be extremely difficult.”

Sessions is paid well to aim high but, realistically, a lot of variables will all have to break his way to hit 16.

Yet he also knows about beating expectations: When he took the stage a couple of weeks after Obama’s inauguration, in front of a deflated GOP House membership, he boldly pledged to take back the House.

“It was my job,” he beams, remembering the collective eye-rolls.

He may have mood in his favor: Just as in 2009 and 2010, Gallup’s latest numbers show conservative ideology predominating in the American electorate – with 41 percent self-identifying as conservative, 36 percent as moderate and 21 percent as liberal.

So while one poll shows voters unhappy with Congress, another shows their personal values leaning strongly conservative, favoring Republicans.

Democrats also will face a more difficult time from a unity-and-enthusiasm perspective, given progressives’ dissatisfaction with the federal debt deal and with Obama’s lack of leadership following the nation’s credit downgrade.

And if last week’s recall elections for six Wisconsin state senate seats were a harbinger of 2012’s U.S. House races, consider this: Wisconsin’s vote was "presidential,” meaning that Democrats brought out people who usually don't vote – the poor, blacks, students – yet independent voters went conservative and voted for Republican incumbents, demonstrating that they are just as passionate about budgets, taxes and entitlements as are unions.

The next election could produce a Democrat House, a Republican Senate and, possibly, a second Obama term, according to Purdue University political science professor Bert Rockman, not so much “because people think Obama’s doing so well than because of the weakness of the Republican presidential field.”

Huge “wave” elections, such as those in 1994, 2006 or 2010, hinge on trust and blame. What’s unclear today is whether voters blame one party or the other for what’s wrong.

“Which is why I will spend my time out there on Main Street listening to voters’ concerns,” replies the GOP’s Sessions. “I may not like everything they say but that is how you understand how the country feels about your decisions.”

He has 15 months to see if Republicans can earn those voters’ trust.


Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.