WASHINGTON Since 2006, members of the House have faced electoral waves that swept away scores of incumbents.
But the 2012 struggle for control of the House is shaping up less as a partisan surge than as a series of squalls, in which the outcome will largely depend on individual survival skills rather than a national movement.
In New York, Dan Maffei, a Democrat, hopes to snag back a seat he lost two years ago, while Rep. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat who won in a special election last year, is trying desperately to hang on.
In California, a nonpartisan primary and an expensive member-against-member contest between two Democrats, Brad Sherman and Howard Berman, have muddled the outlook in a state where Democrats had high hopes. In Illinois, Democrats are trying to unseat several Republicans, from the freshman Bobby Schilling to the long-serving Judy Biggert, thanks to a redistricting advantage.
Republicans are countering with the same strategy in North Carolina, where moderate Democrats like Larry Kissell of Biscoe and Mike McIntyre of Robeson County face challenges.
The overall dynamic favors Republicans, who look poised to maintain their hold on the House. More Democrats than Republicans have retired in districts where they were endangered, and more Republicans benefited from the decennial redistricting, leaving the Democrats with too small a cushion of Teflon incumbents as they try to regain a majority in the House.
Of the 80 races viewed as most competitive by The New York Times, 32 are leaning Republican, 23 are leaning Democratic and 25 are tossups.
Although lawmakers approval ratings have hit historic lows, it appears that many voters want their representatives to continue to take the fight to the opposing party.
There is no doubt that voters believe Washington is broken, said David Wasserman, the House editor of the Cook Political Report. But most believe it is broken because the other side broke it.
Referring to Speaker John Boehner, the top Republican, and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader, he added: Voters in Boehners district believe they are sending Boehner there to fight Obama, and Pelosis district believes she is there to fight the Tea Party. It is a retrenchment, not a referendum.
Unlike in 2006, when Democrats ran in unison against the Bush administration and dethroned the Republican majority, the Democrats now have no cohesive plan. Some will link themselves to President Barack Obama; others will treat him and his policies like bedbugs.
At the same time, Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, does not appear to be creating the sort of political movement that Obama stirred in 2008, allowing Democrats to harness his momentum.
In each of the past three election cycles, Wasserman said, things were all going right for one party. What we are seeing now is there is kind of a hybrid effect, with no real momentum for either party.
The atmosphere is similar surrounding policy issues. Unlike the health care debate, which dominated the 2010 congressional elections, with huge benefits for Republicans, no policy discussion appears to be dominating the House elections this year, beyond the universal desire for more jobs.
The upshot may well be a House with a few more Democrats or a few more Republicans but no radical reconstruction. More gridlock would be likely to follow.
A lot had to go right for Nancy Pelosi to be speaker again, and a lot has gone wrong for her to retrieve the gavel, said Paul Lindsay, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
The Democrats, of course, will not retreat. With a message that focuses on House Republican votes, combined with the targeting of open seats and seats held by the most conservative members, Democratic officials believe it is possible to eke out the net gain of 25 seats needed to take back the House. The party has a gentle breeze behind our backs, said Rep. Steve Israel of New York, who leads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Whether it is strong enough to take us to the majority remains to be seen, but election night will be a good night for Democrats.
The Democratic Partys first step is to go after Tea Party-tinted incumbents in districts where they seem out of step with most voters. The Democrats have very good shots at defeating, for instance, Rep. Joe Walsh of Illinois, who has derided his opponent, Tammy Duckworth, a disabled Iraq war veteran, over how often she talks about her military service, and Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle of New York, who was blessed by Sarah Palin.
But Republicans have also outfoxed Democrats through redistricting and moving candidates around. For instance, the district of Rep. Blake Farenthold was redrawn into a deeply Republican swath, two years after he slid into victory in South Texas by the flannel of the duck pajamas he was infamously photographed wearing with a scantily clad woman. Rep. Allen West, the Republican flamethrower, moved from one Florida district to a slightly more favorable one to try to avoid defeat.
Democrats have also turned their attention to the long list of open seats around the country. There are 60 seats without an incumbent on the ballot, including 38 open seats, three vacant seats and 19 newly created seats, the highest number since 1992.
The Democrats have high hopes about many of them.
The Democrats are also counting on picking off the few remaining Republican moderates. For instance, the 2nd District of New Hampshire is turning out to be hotter than expected for Rep. Charlie Bass, who is being challenged by Ann McLane Kuster. But there are more moderate Democrats in the same position, like Rep. Jim Matheson of Utah, who is facing Mia Love, a popular mayor. In North Carolina, two moderate Democrats Heath Shuler and Brad Miller retired.
The best weapon for Democrats, especially in moderate districts, may be votes by Republican lawmakers on bills that would greatly rein in spending on entitlement programs. The Democrats are also taking a page from the Obama campaign and hitting hard against companies that have sent jobs overseas. They are trying to tie Republican votes to those companies, criticizing lawmakers, for instance, over their votes for a budget measure that exempted offshore earnings from tax liabilities.