House Democrats have one goal, and only one goal, when it comes to Nov. 2: Hold on to a bare majority.
Democrats have long acknowledged the challenges they face this fall. But with the economy still teetering and voters unhappy with Democratic leadership, many are privately conceding that the best Democrats can hope for may be razor-thin hold on the chamber.
"At the end of the day, all that matters is whether we control the majority ... that's the only thing that matters, and we have to set up an environment where our ultimate objective — maintaining the majority — is met," said a Democratic leadership aide, who acknowledged that the party faces a "very, very tough — in many cases brutal — election."
So even as Democrats try to take broad swipes at the GOP and argue that Republican control would equal a return to failed policies of the past, they are also doubling down on a strategy of trying to localize and prioritize competitive races. They are hopeful that their cash advantage and a superior ground game will help them win enough contests to keep the majority.
"The overwhelming amount of resources will be spent between Labor Day and Nov. 2, and that will provide an opportunity to clearly frame the choices in each of these races," Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen said. "The celebration on the Republican side is premature."
The Maryland Democrat, in his second tour as DCCC chairman, said the party's candidates are drawing contrasts with their Republican opponents, adding, "There will be a lot of variations on that theme, and they will be individualized in the different races."
In the coming weeks, Van Hollen said the DCCC would concentrate money and resources in races the tightest races, although he downplayed the notion that the strategy was a response to the grim outlook for Democrats this cycle.
"We'll be making decisions based on hard data and polling information it only makes sense to invest where you can win. And it does not make sense to put in extra money to win in a landslide, nor does it make sense to invest in something that clearly isn't going to happen," Van Hollen said.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) ramped up the pressure last week on Members of her own Caucus who have been delinquent in paying dues to the DCCC. In a letter sent to House Democrats, Pelosi acknowledged that the party is facing its toughest election since 1994. "With ten weeks until Election Day, we need to know your commitment to maintaining a strong Democratic Majority," Pelosi wrote.
The missive, co-signed by other members of the House Democratic leadership, noted that the National Republican Congressional Committee outpaced the DCCC in fundraising last month largely because GOP lawmakers contributed nearly twice as much in dues as their Democratic counterparts.
Pelosi also urged Members to encourage donors who have contributed the maximum allowable amount to an individual campaign to now give to the DCCC.
Meanwhile, the national environment has grown increasingly toxic for the majority party. Earlier this year, it seemed improbable that the Republican wave could be strong enough to overcome Democrats' 39-seat advantage, but now that appears possible and, in some pundits' eyes, likely.
Republicans pounced on Friday's August jobs report, which showed a slight uptick in an unemployment rate that has stubbornly hovered near 10 percent for months. The NRCC sent an e-mail blast Friday morning to more than 100 districts, tying Democrats to the unemployment numbers and quoting recent columns by political analysts Larry Sabato and Charlie Cook, who forecast that Democrats may lose both chambers on Nov. 2.
Democrats have been trying to shift the national focus back onto Republicans, painting a bleak picture of what GOP control of the House would mean for middle-class Americans, while talking up their efforts to aid small businesses — a theme they plan to emphasize when the House returns on Sept. 14. Democratic leaders circulated a memo last week showing that the Caucus held more than 1,800 events in August touting what they have done for the middle class.
Going forward, the Democratic leadership aide said House leaders needed to minimize any potential for negative "distractions" or "unforced errors" at the national level, so that incumbents in competitive races can distance themselves from Washington.
"You just give the keys to these incumbents who've demonstrated they can win in these districts and just let them drive," the leadership aide said, adding that Democrats had never counted on winning in November based on the strength of the president or the party's image.
On the campaign trail this summer, many Democrats have been running away from party leaders. Independence has become a popular campaign theme for many Members in competitive districts, and they have not been bashful about criticizing President Barack Obama and other Democratic leaders.
"The president has not done enough in terms of jobs: It's clear," Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick said late last week. "Clearly, the president and the administration have not been doing enough. I don't hesitate to point that out."
The freshman Arizona Democrat, who is in a tough battle against Republican Paul Gosar, said she has been touting her opposition to her party's spending policies. She said has been encountering real anger from voters who say Congress has not done enough to help turn the economy around.
"It's time for them to start listening to how angry people are with Congress," Kirkpatrick said, referring to Members of her leadership. "Everywhere I go, people tell me they don't trust Congress to do the right thing People are still really hurting. They're making decisions about whether they're going to buy food or buy their medications."
Still, some Democratic candidates have been happy to accept help from party leaders this summer. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has been particularly active, campaigning on behalf of Democratic incumbents or candidates in more than two dozen districts.
And some Democratic strategists in Washington insist recent national polls do not necessarily suggest that individual Democratic candidates are in trouble. Voters can have a negative view of the national party, but also favor their Democratic Senator or House Member, those strategists said.
They point out that Democrats won special elections this cycle in conservative-leaning districts, such as Mark Critz's victory to replace the late Democratic Rep. John Murtha in Pennsylvania's 12th district.
"While from 40,000 feet you can argue that things don't perhaps look as bright as we'd like ... let me be very clear about it: We are going to hold the House of Representatives, and we're going to hold the U.S. Senate, and we're going to do it one district at a time, just like we did with the special elections," House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.) said.