Could the GOP lose the House in 2012?

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While the GOP has both eyes on changing the occupant at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and capturing control of the U.S. Senate, House Republicans still need to be looking in their rear-view mirror for a rump Democratic caucus itching to bump them off the track.

If the idea of seeing Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi swing the speaker’s gavel again makes you want to cry, then don’t consider us paranoid. Earlier this year, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee unveiled its “Drive for 25” campaign with the hope of retaking control of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2012. James Carville’s and Stan Greenberg’s Democracy Corps has upped the ante even further, conveniently providing a list of the 50 battleground U.S. House districts that Democrats want to put in their column.

What has Carville and Greenberg salivating are the low name ID and low favorable/unfavorable ratios of many of the freshman GOP congressmen they identify (numbers that are reflected in other aggregate polling data as well). Some not-so-implausible missteps on the right would further bolster the Democrats’ optimism for gaining 25 or more House seats and swinging control of the lower chamber.

First, House Republicans could whiff on the 2011 budget. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin has delivered a strong leadoff on the 2012 budget process and given the GOP the upper hand in the big-league discussion of crafting a long-term solution to the country’s fiscal mess. But Speaker Boehner still hasn’t resolved his “political dilemma” with the 2011 budget. Like a constipated goose, this year’s debate threatens to make a mess regardless of what passes. If House Republicans don’t hold the line on cutting this year’s spending, the fiscally principled tea party could retaliate by upending establishment GOP incumbents in primaries just to make a point (think Christine O’Donnell vs. Mike Castle). On the other hand, a prolonged government shutdown will sour citizens on incumbents of both parties, to the disadvantage of the GOP with its outsized number of freshmen facing their first re-election running on actual legislative records. Either outcome could give Speaker Boehner a legitimate reason to cry for days on end.

Second, while Congress is fiddling with the budget, Republicans in the state capitals can’t rest easy as redistricting is still being played out. As political landscape maestro Charlie Cook notes, “Republicans will be able to protect a number of their freshmen in redistricting, but Democrats could reap a bonanza of new seats in Illinois and possibly in Florida and California, if new processes in those two jackpots play out as Democrats believe they will.”

Finally, the GOP presidential nominating process could end up producing a candidate at the top of the ticket who does little to help (or even drags down) the congressional candidates in key districts. The GOP nomination process is set up so that if a particular candidate is able to capture lightening in a bottle on the primary trail, he or she can skate to a victory before you can even blink. The wide-open field for 2012 makes this a wildcard in every congressional election. Should a candidate such as Bachmann, Palin or Santorum capture the nomination, independents and some establishment Republicans in the 14 Kerry-Obama U.S. House districts could become so repulsed that these districts easily fall back into Democrats’ hands without any great lifting on the left’s part. Likewise, candidates such as Daniels or Romney could leave significant portions of the conservative faithful at home on Election Day, repeating the McCain playbook from 2008.

We are not trying to drum up a case of “blue paranoia” at the National Republican Congressional Committee, but before the GOP presses forward into 2012, it should be prepared for some pretty strong assaults from the left flank.

Ford O’Connell and Steve Pearson are co-founders of CivicForumPAC and advisors to conservative candidates on Internet outreach, communications and campaign strategy.