What Amounts to Victory in November for House Democrats Still Unclear

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

New York Rep. Steve Israel pushed back Wednesday on House Republicans' newly revealed ambitious goals for the midterms, but what amounts to victory for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman remains unclear.  

On Tuesday, Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, underscored the GOP's offensive position this cycle by announcing it aims to expand the party's House majority by 12 seats in November. A day later, Israel fired back, making public a massive DCCC polling project that promised to address the party’s turnout concerns.  

The reality facing Democrats in this challenging midterm cycle is that any loss of seats will make it that much taller of a climb for the majority in a potentially favorable 2016 and beyond — while possibly even putting the party back where it started in the wake of the 2010 Republican wave.  

"Let's talk as we get deeper into the cycle," Israel said Wednesday at a briefing with reporters. "I still believe it’s too early to say what a victory is."  

“Greg Walden can spend all his time looking into a crystal ball," he added. "I’m spending all my time looking at polling data." Although Israel declined to announce a baseline for success, most Capitol Hill Democratic operatives interviewed for this report say they would be relieved if the party breaks even in its November head count. Democrats reconciled months ago that this was an unfavorable climate for the party, which received more bad news in early March.  

First, Democrats lost the Florida special to replace the late Republican Rep. C.W. Bill Young — a seat the party had long coveted. Then NBC/Wall Street Journal released a poll showing President Barack Obama slumped to the lowest approval ratings of his presidency. The next NBC/Wall Street Journal poll in April showed a slight, within-the-margin-of-error improvement for the president.  

"We’d much rather be us than them at this point in the cycle," NRCC Executive Director Liesl Hickey said in a recent interview. "The environment’s much better for us. Their candidates are on defense on Obamacare."  

Some Democrats agree with Hickey, if only on the atmospherics, and they spent the spring making the 2010 comparisons. Other party operatives eye-roll and refer to their anxious allies as "bed-wetters.” One of the more sanguine operatives referred to the tremors as "2010 PTSD."  

"That’s why I can see it as a muddle-through year, where we lose a few, pick up a few, and it’ll come out in the wash as three, four, five seats," that senior House Democratic operative said.  

Republicans are intent on reinforcing their majority in the House ahead of 2016, a year expected to be more favorable to Democrats than 2014. As for the Democrats, their basic House race organizing principle is how to best position the party over the next decade to deal with maps drawn last cycle fortifying Republican control.  

After the 2010 GOP midterm sweep, Democrats faced a 25-seat deficit. They cut into that by eight seats in 2012. If they lose the same number or more in 2014, the party will be back to its smallest caucus since 1949.  

Nearly every time Democrats had good news this cycle, bad news soon followed.  

The most consequential instance was October, when the shutdown postured Democrats for an offensive push. That advantage evaporated in mere days, thanks to the flawed roll-out of the president’s health care law.  

More recently, Democrats were elated by legal problems that put GOP Rep. Michael G. Grimm’s New York seat firmly in play. Just two weeks later, the party's flawed candidate in a top pickup opportunity, Florida’s 13th District, withdrew from the race — wiping it off the field.  

Still, Democrats say that the NRCC’s hands-off approach to primaries means problematic GOP candidates could emerge (or already have emerged) as party nominees for both Democrat- and GOP-held seats in Arizona , California, Iowa, New Jersey and West Virginia .  

Democrats say they are confident their challengers are better fundraisers and benefit from cleared primaries. But can they withstand an unfavorable climate and GOP-aligned outside group spending?  

The DCCC does have a financial advantage over its GOP counterpart, as it outpaced the NRCC in fundraising month after month. Bolstered by Obama’s fundraising and a robust online operation, the DCCC outraised the NRCC by $3 million in April and ended the month with an $11 million cash-on-hand advantage.  

“We’ll be very competitive,” Hickey insisted of her committee’s financial standing.  

Some Democrats shrug off their advantage, gloomily pointing out that such a sum is a drop in the bucket for conservative groups such as Americans for Prosperity.  

At the same time, House Republicans admit they feel the squeeze. AFP has concentrated much of its early money on Senate races, and GOP operatives in the outside-group world admit donors are more attracted to the Senate races because power hangs in the balance of that chamber.  

House Republicans are expected to be further stretched, thanks to retirements. A handful of retiring GOP incumbents represent marginally competitive districts. Democrats are competing in only some of these places, but Republicans will still likely deploy resources to boost their candidates’ name recognition.  

As for the temperament divide within his party, Israel urged patience on Wednesday.  

"We haven’t stormed the hill yet in a lot of these races,” the chairman said. "When we storm the hill, that will be a better time to engage in the over-under."  

Emily Cahn contributed to this report.