After a wave election gave Republicans the majority in the House of Representatives in 2010, no one thought that Democrats, a year later, would be in a position to take it back.
But, that’s exactly where Democrats claim to be. At a press briefing Wednesday, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Steve Israel (D-NY) said that Republicans have had such a “catastrophic” year that he now believes Democrats can take back the House. The chairman was cautious not to sound too optimistic, but he had a long list of statistics in Democrats’ favor; an advantage that comes almost entirely from Republicans’ blunders over the past year.
The DCCC rolled out its first wave of Red to Blue Races, a list of 18 races where Democrats are confident they can oust a Republican incumbent. The DCCC also has three races they feel are in the bag and 18 more districts where the Democratic candidate is showing increasing strength. Overall, that’s more than the 25 seats needed to reach a majority. As a sign of their understated optimism, Israel points out this is two months earlier than they normally roll out these races.
A key reason Democrats are feeling good about November is the particular crop of Republicans they are looking to replace: the freshmen tea partiers elected in 2010. “[Democrat] candidates are going to be aggressively holding Republicans accountable for consistently choosing Millionaires over Medicare, oil companies subsides over middle class tax cuts and ideology over solutions,” Israel said. The Dem spin is that much of the work that needs to be done to take back the House, Republicans have done for them over the past year.
The trickiest aspect of honing their message in House races is to clarify the distinction between general disapproval of Congress, and specifically Republican policies and tactics that have caused gridlock in Washington. The President, for example, is running for re-election against Congress, a campaign that will center partly on arguing that it is Congress that has failed to work with him, not the other way around. Democrats will have to argue that not only did the Republican majority hew to the far right on policy, but also that the gridlock is their fault.
“The more Obama campaigns against bad votes in Congress, the better,” Israel said. And in a way, it makes sense that the President’s message will mirror those of Democrats running for the House. If Obama faces Mitt Romney, he will certainly campaign on Romney’s support of Paul Ryan’s plan to end Medicare while Democrats will do the same to oust Republican incumbents. But when it comes to taking the blame, Israel did say he has spoken to President Obama, who “has been more assertive in using the word Republican” when referring to Congress.
Israel talked about being pro-active about strategy and recruitment, but it’s clear that Democrats feel that circumstances are just on their side. For example, in an election that they want to define as being about “how to rebuild the middle class,” Republicans handed them a golden opportunity when they baulked over the payroll tax cut extension in December in order to protect low tax rates for millionaires.
The key, says Israel, is targeting Independent voters and driving home just what Republicans have done over the last year. In 2006 and 2008, Democrats won the majority with the help of Independent voters, but in 2010, they lost 9 million Independent votes to Republicans. In August, in the moderate districts where winning Independent is crucial, Republicans were up 17 points. By November, they had more than halved their advantage, leading by 7. This month, Democrats were up by 6. Democrats are now in up 4 points in the latest genera Reuters/Ipsos poll - that’s where they were this time of year before they took control of the House in 2006.
“I’m not saying that we’ve got the 25 seats that we need in the bank, I’m not saying that the majority is a guarantee,” Israel began the meeting, but it’s clear he’s optimistic. “Last cycle was just, it was a perfect storm…gale force winds against us. This cycle it looks like it may be generating a perfect storm against the Republicans. At the very least, I think it’s fair to say, a wind at our backs.”
Pema Levy is a News Writer at TPM covering the 2012 election. Before coming to TPM, Pema was an assistant editor at The American Prospect where she wrote about politics and the economy.