BOSTON (State House News Service) – Democrats are poised in November to wrest control of the U.S. Senate from Republicans, but are unlikely to win enough seats to take the House, in part because of political advantages stemming from district boundary lines Republicans drew in 2010, according to the dean of the Massachusetts and New England U.S. House delegation.
“Six months ago I thought the Senate would surely flip. Then a month ago I thought it was questionable. Now I’m back to thinking it flips,” Congressman Richard Neal, 67, of Springfield told the News Service during an interview last Thursday following his remarks at a Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation tax policy forum at the University of Massachusetts Club.
Republicans hold 54 seats in the 100-member Senate. “I think there are three or four races across the country that can make the difference,” said Neal, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee.
With less than three weeks until election day, Democrat Hillary Clinton is favored to hold the presidency for the Democrats. Republicans are fighting to hold on to Congressional seats while keeping an eye on down-ballot impacts – positive and negative – of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s unorthodox bid to win the White House while running as a party outsider by bashing Clinton’s credibility and periodically battling with elected Republicans.
According to media reports and analysis, Democrats are locked in tight U.S. Senate races against Republican incumbents in Illinois, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. There is also a tight race in Nevada, where Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid is retiring.
The challenge is greater for Democrats in the House, where Neal has served since his initial election in 1988 following his service as mayor of Springfield. Democrats hold all nine of Massachusetts’ seats in the House.
Republicans hold 246 seats in the 435-seat House, with Democrats occupying 186 seats, and three vacancies. In November, Democrats could pick up 12 to 15 seats, short of the 30 they would need to take control, Neal said.
When Neal was first elected, Democrats held 269 House seats and there were Democrat-majority delegations in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, Texas and Florida. Republicans gradually seized control of those delegations and Neal says the current Congressional district lines, drafted by state-level Republicans after the 2010 Census, favor the GOP.
“They drew the lines. That’s one of the reasons it’s so difficult now to win back these seats because the lines were drawn along the urban-rural divide,” Neal said. “The Democrats were all concentrated in urban areas and Republicans did their work in rural and suburban areas.”
Since 2010, Neal said, Republicans have gained 69 U.S. House seats, 15 U.S. Senate seats, 15 governor’s offices, and more than 830 seats in state Legislatures. “This is stunning,” he said.
For those who don’t follow politics closely, Neal explained why control of the House is important.
“You elect the speaker of the House and the speaker of the House appoints the Rules Committee. And the Rules Committee decides how legislation comes to the floor, what legislation comes to the floor and how many amendments are offered. In the Senate, because of the 60-vote rule, everybody counts. In the House there is very little effort by the majority to placate the minority,” Neal said.
Since it features only Democrats, the Massachusetts House delegation would undergo a transformation if Democrats can retake the House. Some lawmakers think it’s possible. “More and more, I believe there is a chance we can win back the House,” Rep. Jim McGovern of Worcester told the Boston Globe, according to a report on Wednesday. “Those members of Congress who supported Trump, who enabled Trump, who explained away his craziness and who are now walking away from him based only on political expediency – I don’t think voters are going to reward that.”
Neal said the biggest change during his tenure is partisan polarization fueled by “more incendiary” rhetoric. “We used to be friendly,” he said. “Facts count less than they used to. Now it’s opinions.”