House Democratic strategists are aggressively looking to expand the 2014 map by competing in some districts that were not major battlegrounds in the 2012 campaign in the hopes of giving themselves a bit of a margin for error next November. A combination of recruiting, the lack of a presidential election and a GOP brand that sustained heavy damage in the wake of the government shutdown has opened the door in districts that were not in play in 2012, Democratic loyalists insist.
"We knew that we could dive deeper into the map because we took on this very intentional process of analyzing the districts and finding the ones that are winnable," said Kelly Ward, the executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the campaign arm for House Democrats.
In some cases it's been a combination of luck and skill. Take Arkansas' 4th District. Rising GOP star and freshman Rep. Tom Cotton is vacating the seat to run for the Senate, and Democrats have recruited former Federal Emergency Management Agency director James Lee Witt, a capable contender for a district where Cotton cruised to victory in 2012 but is expected to be more competitive this cycle.
In other seats, Democrats are hoping to take advantage of the lack of a presidential election. Take Michigan's 7th District, where Rep. Tim Walberg (R) won by about 10 points in 2012. Mitt Romney won Walberg's district by three points last year. But with no presidential race this time around, Democrats are more bullish about their chances. They have recruited former state representative Pam Byrnes, a contender capable of putting the party in the running there.
In New Jersey's 2nd District, moderate Republican Rep. Frank LoBiondo cruised to victory in 2012, in a district where President Obama won. But former federal prosecutor Bill Hughes Jr. is expected to make 2014 tougher for the Republican, who spoke out against the shutdown spurred by conservative Republicans' fight against Obamacare. The 2nd District isn't a place where the fight to shred the heath-care law was ever going to find many sympathizers.
In New Mexico, Carlsbad attorney Roxanne Lara is expected to make Rep. Steve Pearce's 2014 less comfortable than 2012, when he easily won reelection in a district where Mitt Romney won about 52 percent of the vote. And Democratic recruits in Nebraska's 2nd District and New York's 23rd District are expected to compete seriously against Republican incumbents who won close 2012 races.
Still, Democrats face a steep uphill climb to net the 17 seats they are expected to need to win the majority. Even as they are determined to play more offense, they still have to play plenty of defense. Ten of the 13 seats rated in the "toss-up" category by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report are controlled by Democrats. Moreover, history isn't on the party's side in the president's second midterm election.
And even as the shutdown did serious damage to the GOP brand and spurred Democratic recruits to enter the fray, the problems that have plagued the rollout of HealthCare.gov could emerge as a serious problem for Democrats in the months ahead.
"Democrats are going to have a hard enough time keeping their incumbents in office as they are forced to explain why they continue to support the train wreck that is Obamacare," said National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman Andrea Bozek. "So instead of trying to pretend they can win Republican seats, they might want to focus on fixing their biggest disaster, which is President Obama's health-care law."
All of which is to say the GOP majority does not look like it is in serious jeopardy at this point. But Democrats are wagering that the best way to make a race of it is to forge a 2014 map that looks different from 2012.