Nancy Pelosi decided to take one more crack at winning back the House, but a big obstacle stands between the Democratic leader and the speaker's gavel in 2014: the six-year itch.
Pelosi's party will be swimming against the riptide of history. The party controlling the White House during a president's sixth year in office has lost seats in every midterm election but one since 1918, when Woodrow Wilson occupied the Oval Office. And the setbacks typically aren't small: The average loss in these elections was 30 seats. The exception was 1998, when a soaring economy and Republicans' focus on President Bill Clinton's affair helped Democrats buck the trend and pick up a handful of seats.
Anger, exhaustion and frustration tend to set in among voters as presidents approach the last leg of their final term. It happened to Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1938 when voters recoiled at his New Deal reforms. Twenty years later, consternation over the economy cost Dwight Eisenhower 48 House seats. And in 2006, George W. Bush, presiding over two drawn-out wars in the Middle East, watched Republicans lose 30 seats and control of the House.
On the surface, the brass ring looks well within reach for Pelosi and her party: Democrats will need to flip only around 17 or 18 GOP seats to win the House. But that relatively modest gap probably masks the degree of difficulty.
"Voters get frustrated and there's burnout," said Andrew Myers, a Democratic pollster who counts many congressional candidates as clients. "It's overexposure. People are just ready for something different."
For Republicans still licking their wounds after painful losses on Election Day and confronting questions about how to reposition themselves for the future, the pattern offers a ray of hope.
"History certainly says that the party in power is going to lose seats, and I expect that will be the case," said Wes Anderson, a Republican pollster and veteran of congressional politics. "I think the handwringing about the future of the party is fair but a little overwrought. Coming up you have the six-year itch and the midterms."
With the congressional agenda bound to be defined, at least in the near term, by a debate about spending and taxes, Republicans say they will seize on any opportunity to hammer Obama for overreaching or pursuing unpopular policies -- an approach they used with success in the 2010 midterms.
"We'll see how bipartisan the agenda is, but I have a feeling he will be as liberal as he wants to be moving forward," said Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, the incoming National Republican Congressional Committee chairman.
Some Republicans argue that the dynamic of the coming midterm favors them. Obama, whose reelection bid drove many voters to the polls on Nov. 6, won't be on the ballot in 2014, leaving congressional Democrats to fend for themselves. And there's a good chance, the Republicans say, that their voters will be more motivated than the other side the next time around.
There are other factors, too, that Republicans say tilt the playing field in their direction. Redistricting, over which the party wielded vast control after the party's sweeping statehouse gains in 2010, shored up many of their members in 2012 and is likely to help them again. Just three Republican incumbents represent districts in which Democrats have a registration advantage, while there are 16 Democrats occupying seats in which Republicans have an edge.
Still, there are no guarantees for the party. If the economy is on the mend, as many expect, it will allow Democrats to claim that the party's policies deserve credit. And some Republicans remember getting burned in the 1998 midterm, when the party lost five seats. They had been expecting gains, with a scandal-scarred Clinton presiding over the Democratic Party.
David Winston, a Republican pollster who was a top aide to then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich at the time, attributed the 1998 disappointment to the perception that the GOP wasn't sufficiently focused on issues truly important to voters. The party had spent years chasing investigations into Clinton's personal life.
"Just because there is a six-year itch doesn't mean it will happen," said Winston, who now advises House Speaker John Boehner. "You go back to 1998, there were some Republicans who thought they were going to gain 20 to 30 seats, and they ended up losing five or six."
Democrats say they're poised for more gains in 2014 after netting seven or eight seats this year. They argue that the 2012 election showed that a majority of voters like the party's direction and say GOP efforts to draw sharp contrasts from the get-go could backfire.
"I think the 2012 election showed that there is a majority of voters who support the way Barack Obama has governed," said Ali Lapp, executive director of House Majority PAC, a Democratic outside group that's poised to invest in 2014 House races.
Democrats say the fact that Republicans control the House will make it harder for the GOP to turn the midterms into a pure referendum on the party holding the White House. And, some Democrats argue, after voters took out their aggression on the party in the 2010 red wave, there's less of an appetite to do it again in 2014.
"If voters had a six-year itch, they scratched it in 2010," said Jesse Ferguson, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee deputy executive director.
Still, some Democrats are looking ahead to 2014 warily. They remember the run-up to the 2010 election, when Obama didn't communicate well with congressional leaders -- a dynamic that party officials said hurt Democrats as they pursued ambitious legislation like health care reform and the stimulus package.
Some privately worry that the same thing could happen again.
To avoid becoming a casualty of voter frustrations that come along with the six-year-itch, Myers, the Democratic pollster, said Democrats should do what they've become used to doing over the past several elections: run as outsiders.
"If I'm a member of Congress and I want to beat back the trend, I turn my focus to constituent services and forge a relationship with voters," he said. "That way, I'm with the constituents and not Washington."
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