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Democrats Eye Gains in House

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel is optimistic his party can win 25 seats.

For Democrats, the top of the ticket is weighing down the rest of the ballot.

Just more than a year before voters go to the polls, winning 25 GOP-held House seats is within the realm of possibility for the party. But given the mood of the country and the substantial number of deeply vulnerable Democratic incumbents, netting the 25 seats necessary to take back the House pushes the edge of plausibility.

House Democrats are doing all the right things raising more money than their Republican counterparts, recruiting some strong candidates, building infrastructure and pushing a consistent message.

But even a flawless execution on the part of Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) will probably not be enough if President Barack Obama, dragged down by a sour economy and persistent unemployment numbers, remains a political burden on almost every Democrat running in a competitive race.

"Look, the president's numbers right now need to improve," Israel said in an interview. "But far below the president's numbers are House Republican numbers, and that's what counts."

Top House Republicans, of course, don't believe that 2012 will be a statement on their leadership. They say it will be a referendum on Obama's policies.

"This election is about jobs. And the president's plans have failed the people who are looking for work in America," National Republican Congressional Committee Deputy Chairman Greg Walden (Ore.) said. "I think the president's just got a real problem. And the more he has a problem, the deeper the problem the Democrats have, especially in the House."

Obama has a lower approval rating at this point in his presidency, 42 percent, than any other president since Gallup started polling that metric in 1945, with one exception. President Jimmy Carter stood at 32 percent approval at this point in his presidency.

Of course, everything could change. House Democrats emphasize the worn, but accurate, adage that "a year is a lifetime in politics." But right now, the path to a Democratic House in January 2013 is very narrow.

"Presidents who get re-elected don't have long coattails," Republican pollster Glen Bolger said. "That's if he wins. If he loses, that's much more problematic for the Democrats" seeking to take back the House.

Bolger noted that Americans, by and large, still liked Obama in 2010 even if they had doubts about his policies.

"Now they're not as supportive personally for him. It's a tough proposition to see how Democrats take back the House," he said.

Israel said he wasn't promising anyone that his party would win the House back, but he told Roll Call, "By every standard, we have placed it in play."

Despite the economy, and the country's displeasure with the president, Democrats see some bright spots one year out. After a huge victory in 2010, Republicans have many seats to defend.

Under what he said was his most pessimistic take on the race for the House, Israel did the math to get to 25 Democratic victories in districts across the country. He saw 10 pickups in GOP-held seats won by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004 and by Obama in 2008, along with 15 pickups in GOP-held Obama districts that President George W. Bush won in 2004. But, in what he called his pessimistic scenario, he said most Democratic Members would have to hold on to their seats. "It means we don't have a margin of error with our incumbents," Israel said.

The DCCC outraised the NRCC by almost a 2-to-1 margin in September; it also outraised the NRCC in the third quarter and overall year-to-date. House Democrats pulled in a huge number of small-donor donations over the past few months, part of the reason they posted such stellar fundraising numbers.

The DCCC has repeatedly underscored the fact that it has 60 "strong" candidates in GOP-held and open-seat districts. National Democrats highlight candidates such as Arkansas state Rep. Clark Hall, a farmer who is taking on freshman Rep. Rick Crawford (R) in the rural 1st district. They say candidates such as Hall who fit the district and expand the map may begin to put enough seats in play to take back the House.

The DCCC has also recruited heavily among previous candidates, who they see as "battle-tested." One top recruit is former Rep. Dan Maffei, who is taking on vulnerable freshman Rep. Ann-Marie Buerkle (R-N.Y.).

In similar districts across the country, Democrats have begun to hack out a path to win 25 seats.

The problem for them is the NRCC has strong challenger candidates as well. And some of them are also battle-tested, such as Matt Doheny, who is taking a second shot at vulnerable Rep. Bill Owens in New York. Members like Owens are part of the biggest hurdle Democrats face in retaking the House: It will be impossible to hold every seat.

Democrats feel they have the right messaging for the cycle.

They expect to continue hammering the fact that many GOP House candidates support a plan "to end Medicare" while "preserving tax breaks for millionaires, billionaires and Big Oil," or some variation thereof. They will also work to paint vulnerable GOP Members as extreme.

Democratic pollster Dave Beattie said voters are turned off by extremism.

"Democrats and Republicans are going to be fighting for voters that hate both parties right now, [that] think both parties in Washington are out of touch, aren't getting things done and aren't listening to their concerns," he explained. "I think that extremism on both sides will be punished."

But the GOP has a strategy of its own: Obama. For House Republicans, the president has the added advantage of being on every ballot next November.

The decennial redistricting process is not expected to fundamentally change the balance of the election, with both Democrats and Republican picking up and losing seats because of map redraws.

Yet many GOP-controlled state Legislatures have managed to shore up previously marginal Republican-held seats, which will be a boon to some of the party's incumbents, especially some vulnerable freshmen. Three big redistricting question marks are Florida, Pennsylvania and New York, states that have yet to complete drawing new maps. How those turn out will have a significant effect on the potential for Democratic takeover.

Still, the current political climate has left Walden feeling good.

"We're very optimistic and actually think there are opportunities to pick up seats," he said.

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