Politics & Government

Clyburn makes lonely bet: Democrats will keep House

U.S. Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC)
U.S. Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC) Chuck Kennedy/MCT

WASHINGTON — As the time before Election Day ticks down, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn is increasingly a lone wolf.

The Columbia Democrat's stubborn prediction that his party will maintain control of the House of Representatives contradicts projections by most respected political analysts, all of whom say Republicans will regain the majority they lost four years ago with 219 to 228 of the chamber's 435 seats.

Clyburn, though, backed away from his Sept. 30 prediction that Democrats will lose only 21 seats in the Nov. 2 elections, emerging with a reduced 234-201 majority.

"I've become a little wiser since then," Clyburn told McClatchy on Thursday. "I don't know what the number will be, but I do believe strongly that we will maintain control of the House and the Senate."

Clyburn, who's campaigned in recent weeks with vulnerable Democratic incumbents in a dozen states, said that the Republicans peaked too early and that his party's core activists are becoming more engaged.

"Republicans were measuring drapes rather than connecting with the American people," Clyburn said. "We had an enthusiasm gap. We are now seeing Democrats going home to the base. People are beginning to see that (Republicans) just saying no is not a good economic strategy for putting this country back together again."

Clyburn said he'll spend the closing days of the campaign season in South Carolina, working to help S.C. Sen. Vincent Sheheen defeat state Rep. Nikki Haley in the gubernatorial race — but remaining "on call" to fly to the congressional districts of especially imperiled Democratic lawmakers.

Clyburn is paying little attention to his own race, in which he's virtually assured of defeating billboard salesman Jim Pratt.

Clyburn has run some radio ads and done some light campaigning against Pratt, the Republican challenger who had raised only $22,067 in contributions through Sept. 30.

The first provisions of the health care bill that Congress passed last year along party lines kicked in Sept. 23, Clyburn said, helping Democrats as voters begin to feel concrete benefits from the landmark law.

Voters are also seeing positive changes from other measures that rein in credit card issuers, regulate financial firms more tightly and eliminate middlemen fees from federal college loans, Clyburn said.

"I think we're going to do well," he said. "We will be rewarded handsomely on November 2nd."

Stuart Rothenberg, a widely read political analyst, agreed that a number of races have tightened as Election Day nears, but he said the narrowing could hurt as well as help some Democratic lawmakers.

"Some incumbents who seemed to have no chance to survive a couple of months ago are still hanging in there, even giving themselves a real chance to win," Rothenberg said. "On the other hand, some presumably safe incumbents suddenly look to be in serious trouble."

Rothenberg sees 165 safe Democratic seats and 170 surefire Republican wins, leaving 100 House races in play.

If Democrats in those contests outperform their peers elsewhere in the country and hold half the seats, Republicans would gain 42 House posts and emerge with a 220-215 majority.

Charlie Cook, another analyst with a broad following on Capitol Hill and beyond, sees a bigger sweep for Republicans.

"My hunch is that GOP gains will be comparable to 1994, when the party picked up 52 House seats and eight Senate seats," Cook said.

Cook cautioned, though, that the overall campaign landscape has become more volatile in recent weeks, leaving more outcomes up in the air.

"Over the past two weeks, Democratic performance has improved in some places and deteriorated in others, making any sweeping generalizations difficult," he said.

If Democrats and Republicans split the 132 House seats that Cook sees as still in play, the GOP would take a 228-207 majority from the elections.

"The races do seem to be tightening," Cook said. "The likelihood of runaway victories for Republicans is diminishing. Even so, Republicans stand poised to make sizable gains that will flip the House and bring them close to winning the Senate."

Republicans would have to win 10 Senate seats to gain control of the upper chamber.

Rothenberg, Cook and at least three other prominent forecasters all rate as a tossup the hotly contested race between House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt and S.C. Sen. Mick Mulvaney in the 5th Congressional District.

Clyburn branded Mulvaney "a classic carpetbagger" because he builds homes and owns other businesses in Charlotte across the North Carolina border from the district.

Clyburn predicted that Spratt will hold his seat, leaving the two of them as the only Democrats in the state's six-member House delegation.

Even with the Spratt-Mulvaney outcome in doubt, the South Carolina delegation will undergo more change than in any congressional elections since the post-Watergate 1974 vote.

S.C. Rep. Tim Scott, a North Charleston Republican, is heavily favored to replace the retiring Rep. Henry Brown — and become the only black GOP member of Congress — in the 1st Congressional District.

Rep. Gresham Barrett, who gave up his seat for a failed gubernatorial run, is likely to be succeeded in the heavily Republican 3rd Congressional District by S.C. Rep. Jeff Duncan of Laurens.

In the Upstate, 7th Circuit Solicitor Trey Gowdy, who bested incumbent Rep. Bob Inglis in the June 22 Republican primary runoff, is all but certain to become the delegation's third newcomer.

A Mulvaney win over Spratt would provide four new House members, while an upset by Democratic challenger Rob Miller over Republican Rep. Joe Wilson in the 2nd Congressional District would produce five rookies.

Looking over the whole country, Clyburn thinks the House majority will be decided in New York and Pennsylvania — where analysts see as many as two dozen seats in play — and in Ohio and Michigan.

Clyburn refuted reports that House Democrats, in the post-election leadership votes, will chose Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer to replace Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California as the chamber's top Democrat.

When the dust settles, Clyburn believes that Democrats will remain in control of the House, enabling him to retain his leadership post.

"The minority has always got a lighter workload than the majority, and I don't plan to have a lighter load," he said. "In fact, I plan on having a heavier load. I plan on remaining as majority whip."

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