Rep. Tim Scott of South Carolina (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
By Susan Davis, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) - The overwhelming majority of the 87 Republican lawmakers who swept into Congress in 2010 and took control of the U.S. House are likely to be re-elected this year, according to strategists and an analysis of redistricting changes.
That wave - fueled in large part by Tea Party momentum and campaign pledges of fiscal conservatism - is unlikely to recede in 2012 far enough to give Democrats the opportunity to regain control of the chamber.
"A lot of the freshmen are in good shape," said David Wasserman, an election analyst for the non-partisan Cook Political Report.
Republicans control the House 242-191. Democrats would need a minimum net gain of 25 seats to win a majority. The Cook Political Report's June House forecast expects no more than an eight-seat gain for Democrats.
Leading Democratic strategists say the freshman class and its Tea Party association is an electoral weakness for Republicans. "The same Tea Party wave that swept several House Republicans into office in 2010 will sweep them out in 2012, after voters learned what their Tea Party agenda really was," said Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., who chairs the Democrats' campaign effort.
Democrats are seriously targeting about two dozen GOP freshmen as part of their broader effort to put 75 seats into play this November.
Those efforts were hindered by the 2012 redistricting process, the once-a-decade requirement to redraw congressional districts based on population shifts, which resulted in the GOP shoring up many freshmen who could otherwise be vulnerable to Democratic challenges.
Ten freshman lawmakers are running in districts that are significantly more Republican by 5 or more points because of redistricting. The clearest winner is Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, who defeated Democratic incumbent Solomon Ortiz in 2010 by fewer than 800 votes but is running in a district that election forecasters view as out of reach for Democrats.
Just three freshman GOP lawmakers, Illinois Reps. Joe Walsh and Robert Dold and New York's Ann Marie Buerkle, are running for re-election in districts where Democrats are clear favorites.
Walsh said he is "as confident as I can be" in his race against Democrat Tammy Duckworth, in which he continues to embrace the Tea Party ethos. "I would never run from that. I still firmly believe the Tea Party movement in this country is the silent majority," he said.
Nine freshmen are running in districts rated competitive with no clear advantage for either party, and a dozen are running in districts in which they have the edge but that could become more competitive as the election year unfolds.
In total, about two dozen of the freshman class's 87 members face uncertain paths to re-election, while the remaining lawmakers are favored to win.
A small group of the freshman class self-identifies with the Tea Party, but the House Democratic campaign operation counts on other freshmen being vulnerable by association.
Democrats criticized Rep. Chris Gibson, R-N.Y., a top target in a competitive seat, for having an "extreme Tea Party agenda" after his GOP primary victory. However, Gibson is not one of the 16 freshmen who joined the Tea Party Caucus in the House, and he has focused on issues not closely aligned with the Tea Party movement, such as Lyme disease awareness.
"There's this concession out there that these freshmen were all Tea Partiers, and that's actually very far from the truth," Wasserman said. "The best kept secret of the freshman class is that many freshmen in vulnerable districts want nothing to do with the Tea Party and never did."
The public's view of the Tea Party hasn't shifted much.
The latest Pew Research Center poll, out June 21, gave the Tea Party a 21% approval rating, while 25% disapproved and the majority, 52%, had no opinion. It is almost identical to the same Pew survey a year earlier in which 20% approved, 26% disapproved, and 50% had no opinion.