House Democrats are itching for a tea party referendum. Will it work?

March 14, 2013

Rep. Steve Israel of New York, the leader of House Democrats' campaign arm, sketched out his approach to the 2014 cycle on Wednesday, boiling it down to a simple guiding philosophy.

"2014 will be a referendum about one thing: tea party extremism. That's the deal. That's the campaign. That's the cycle," Israel declared.

Will it work? Answering that question requires first looking more closely at the tea party movement, which has faded in some ways but persisted in others.


(Julie Jacobson/Associated Press)

On the one hand, the tea party is a shell of its former self, which would suggest Democrats are chasing after a flailing movement that isn't broadly popular and doesn't present a huge threat.

In a February NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 20 percent of registered voters called themselves supporters of the tea party movement -- a tick down from 23 percent in January,  and a two-year low. And in a January Associated Press-GfK poll, 22 percent of Americans identified themselves as supporters of tea party movement, tying a record low in that survey.

On the other hand, there is a palpable anti-establishment strain in the House GOP Conference that continues to buck the leadership on tough votes. What's more, there's an argument to be made that the new freshman GOP class might end up being even more tea party than the historic 2010 class that swept House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) into power.

Democrats are banking on the idea that the same tea party bent that swept Republicans into the majority in 2010 will sweep them out in 2014. The gridlock that House conservatives have contributed to and the policies they have latched onto make them targets. At least, so goes the Democratic thinking.

That's the 20,000-foot view. Zooming in a bit lays bare the fact that even if the national conversation is focused on the tea party, the challenge of winning back the majority is a hard one.

It's going to be very difficult for Democrats, plain and simple. Redistricting has led to a polarized House map with more Republican-leaning districts and fewer swing districts that  typically are  the ripest candidates for flipping party control. Democrats also have some vulnerable incumbents of their own to shield from the GOP.

And history isn't on their side, either. In the past century, only one president has gained seats in his second midterm: Bill Clinton in 1998. But even then, the shift was modest. Democrats netted five House seats that year -- less than a third of what Democrats need this time around -- and Republicans retained their majority.

Nonetheless, Israel was upbeat Wednesday. He drilled down into the nuts and bolts of his plan, vowing to recruit "problem solvers as the antidote to tea party extremism." He said that 52 districts -- he didn't identify all of them -- are currently in play, most of which feature a Republican incumbent who won by fewer than ten percentage points in 2012. The others are districts that he said have historically performed better for Democrats in midterms and those with special circumstances that have inspired Democratic confidence.

He also promised to focus attention on Florida and Texas, where ongoing legal disputes over redistricting mean the map might look different in 2014. And he praised the input of President Obama, who has signaled a strong desire to turn the House majority blue next year.

National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman Andrea Bozek wasn't buying Israel's anti-tea party rhetoric or his optimism.

“This sounds like the same lame campaign rhetoric Democrats ran on in 2012 -- the same year Republicans won our second-largest House majority since World War II," said Bozek.

Israel didn't predict a Democratic takeover Wednesday. "I'll let you know in a year whether we'll be north or south of 17 seats," he said.

It's a line worth remembering. As the cycle progresses, the evolution of his rhetoric will be a useful measure of how realistic a chance Democrats stand of seriously competing for majority status.

Scott Clement, a polling analyst with Capital Insight, the independent polling group of Washington Post Media, contributed to this report.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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Sean Sullivan · March 14, 2013