Experts attribute the GOP's comfortable victory to the timing of the 2010 tea party wave, which gave Republicans huge redistricting advantages that let them alter the congressional map to their benefit.
"Much of this was pre-baked through the redistricting process," Larry Sabato, a leading election expert, told TPM. "The GOP won the House at just the right moment, in a wave election that gave them many governorships and state legislatures in a Census year. Bingo. Many weaker House members elected in 2010 who would have lost in their old districts in 2012 have been given better districts that will reelect them."
Even the election forecasters most optimistic about Democrats' hopes eventually conceded the majority was a stretch. Princeton professor Sam Wang, who in late September gave Democrats 3-to-1 odds of taking back the House, drastically lowered the odds two weeks ago -- to 18-33 percent. Initially citing Democrats' advantage in the generic congressional ballot, which he labeled the "leading indicator," he later said that would be offset by the GOP's advantage in redistricting and incumbency.
"The big factors are redistricting and incumbency," Wang told TPM. "In the last few years, Republican-controlled legislatures were very effective at redrawing districts to favor their side. Gerrymandering gave them a built-in advantage of 1.25% of vote margin even before a single vote is cast. Incumbency also has its advantages, which is good for another 1.25%. ... Polls indicate that Democrats may well win the national popular House vote, but probably not by enough to take control."
Democrats chalk up the lost opportunity partly to the tightened national environment and retirements of high profile members, but they mainly blame Republican gerrymandering.
"One of the biggest challenges," said a Democratic operative closely involved with House races, "is that Republican-controlled states like Pennsylvania intentionally finalized their map as late as possible making it less likely that a top tier Democratic candidate could get into the race and raise the money needed to compete in an expensive media market like Philadelphia. That won't happen in 2014."
Tuesday morning on MSNBC, top Obama adviser David Plouffe downplayed the broader national implications of voters reelecting a Republican majority in the House. "My sense is voters aren't necessarily sending a macro message," he said. "They're going to be making individual decisions in their own districts."
Sabato, a professor at the University of Virginia who runs the Crystal Ball election forecast, said surveys show voters have a strong desire for bipartisanship and balanced government.
"So the House results," he said, "are best explained by incumbency, redistricting, a status-quo election, and a vague desire for bipartisanship and balance of power."