Democrats push problem solvers in House contests

Win McNamee/GETTY IMAGES - Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) speaks during a press conferencefollowing a meeting of House Democrats with President Obama at the U.S. Capitol on March 14.

Democratic Party officials believe that Kevin Strouse is exactly the kind of candidate who can help them retake the House next year.

He’s a smart, young former Army Ranger — good qualities for any aspiring politician. But what party leaders really like is that Strouse doesn’t have particularly strong views on the country’s hottest issues.

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Hoping to change Congressional seats
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Hoping to change Congressional seats

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Immigration? Tax policy? “Certainly I have a lot of research to do,” Strouse acknowledged in an interview Thursday as he announced his candidacy in a suburban Philadelphia House district.

Strouse’s candidacy reflects an emerging Democratic strategy for taking back the House from Republicans after the tea party takeover of 2010.

The best way to defeat the conservative, ideologically driven GOP, Democrats say, is to field non-ideological “problem solvers” who can profit from the fed-up-with-partisanship mood of some suburban areas. These districts will offer some of the few competitive House campaigns in the country.

“You pick your strategic high ground and force them to fight on it,” said Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), who as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has begun a particularly early effort at traveling the country and working the phones to lure Strouse and others like him into races.

Israel’s approach is a variation on the model used by then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), the campaign committee chairman in 2006 when Democrats took over the House in George W. Bush’s “six-year itch” midterm. Emanuel sought out centrists and conservatives to run in rural districts, particularly in the South.

But after the GOP 2010 wave and the redrawing of district lines, most of those seats have been locked away for Republicans. What remains are a clutch of suburban seats — not unlike Israel’s own on Long Island — full of nonpartisan professionals who are more concerned about day-to-day issues than ideological battles.

Democrats have identified 52 possible districts where they could flip a seat, many in suburban areas where party officials hope to attract candidates who can break free from traditional partisan labels.

Strouse, 33, fits the bill. He enlisted in the Army in spring 2001. A suburban Philadelphia native, he served three combat stints in Afghanistan and one in Iraq as an Army Ranger, and was among the ground troops who recovered Jessica Lynch in the earliest days of Iraq combat. He then joined the CIA, where he spent six years in counterterrorism operations. Strouse is running to unseat Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R) from a district directly north of Philadelphia, a swing area that since 1979 has sent Republicans to Congress for 18 years and Democrats for 16 years.

Across the country, Israel and Democrats are fighting history. Democrats did well last year, but fell 17 seats short of the majority in the House. And only once in the past 60 years has the president’s party gained seats at the halfway point of his second term.

The independent Rothenberg Political Report rates only 50 total seats as competitive, split evenly between the two sides. Republicans begin the 18-month stretch to Election Day with 209 seats safely in their corner, meaning they need to win just nine of the 50 battleground seats to secure the majority for the entire four-year stretch of Obama’s second term, according to Rothenberg.

Republicans intend to play political offense, too. On Wednesday, the National Republican Congressional Committee rolled out ads against seven Democrats for opposing a GOP-drafted balanced budget plan. Five of those come from deep red districts that have supported the past three Republican presidential nominees.

“The map leans to the right. Their only path to the majority has got to be winning Republican districts,” said Daniel Scarpinato, spokesman for the NRCC.

This landscape was created, in part, by GOP-dominated state legislatures drawing up most of the House districts after the 2010 census. Their precision was borne out by last year’s election results: While Obama beat GOP nominee Mitt Romney by nearly 5 million votes, the president won a majority of votes in just 208 House districts to Romney’s 227.

The Democrats think their strategy can neutralize some of the map’s built-in disadvantages.

Strouse introduced himself last week as a candidate who knows how to “solve problems” and who “got the job done” protecting the nation.

“I’ve thrived in situations where there’s a fair amount of chaos,” Strouse, a graduate of Columbia University and Georgetown’s master’s program in security studies, said in a telephone interview.

Strouse only recently became a registered Democrat. “I took with pride that I was working in these nonpartisan organizations,” he said of the Army and CIA. Eventually, he became shocked by “the degree to which the Republican Party moved to the right” on social and fiscal issues.

He does not yet have deeply ingrained policy prescriptions. On gun control, he favors instituting a universal background check, but on taxes he said he is still studying what levels of higher revenue taxation he would support for a broad budget deal.

In his discussions with Democratic leaders, Strouse said they focused on his background. “They’ve just liked the bio,” he said.

Fitzpatrick, who lost the seat in 2006 and won it back in 2010, is an experienced campaigner who has raised $8 million for his last three races. He spent the past week explaining to local officials why he supported the austere budget proposal offered by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), but he also attended events that appeal to the suburban professionals critical to winning the district, such as supporting a local effort to curb child abuse.

He declined to comment on Strouse, but Pennsylvania Republicans have privately signaled that they intend to question whether Strouse, who grew up in nearby Delaware County, has any real connection to Bucks County.

In his pitch to the candidate, Israel gave Strouse encouragement but also delivered some tough-minded warnings: how he would need to raise millions of dollars, how his opponents would come after him, how the father of two children under 3 would lose his privacy.

Israel has been busy finding other candidates with similar problem-solving appeal.

In a district stretching from the New York suburbs up past Albany, Democrats are backing Sean Eldridge, 26, an investor married to Chris Hughes, the co-founder of Facebook. Eldridge runs an investment fund in the Hudson Valley and his political background is limited to advocacy work on issues such as same-sex marriage.

In Tallahassee, Gwen Graham announced her bid this week for a northwest Florida district. The daughter of former senator and governor Bob Graham (D), Gwen Graham’s campaign presents her as a “consensus builder” with the “skills to solve complicated problems.” Her work as legal adviser for the local school board and school superintendent is her best credential in public service.

No matter who runs, the success or failure of Israel’s strategy will depend on money.

Israel has been traveling the country to win over skeptics, delivering detailed, 90-minute presentations laying out what he sees as a path to victory. A Washington Post reporter was granted access to a presentation delivered recently to donors in Manhattan.

Israel’s pitch is built around the idea that Republicans won as many as 30 seats by single-digit margins, giving Democrats immediate opportunities. Another 22 were unique targets with districts more favorable to Democrats in non-presidential years or where the party ran poor campaigns in 2012. Texas and Florida still have to resolve legal battles over their congressional maps, and Democrats believe the final configurations will produce several more seats for them.

Without a presidential contest to compete with, Democrats also believe liberal mega-donors will open their wallets more generously to House Majority PAC, a super PAC supporting House Democrats. Its director, Ali Lapp, a former DCCC adviser, can attend events with Israel at this early stage of the campaign season without violating laws prohibiting the two committees from coordinating their activities.

“The House Majority PAC is the super PAC dedicated to retaking the House,” Israel told New York donors, introducing them to Lapp.

All 10 of House Majority’s initial targets are suburban Republicans. In 2012, the super PAC spent $40 million for House Democrats, and the budget for 2014 will be much larger.

So too will Republican super PAC budgets, many orchestrated by Karl Rove, which is why Israel is happy to have Obama actively working on his behalf.

The president admitted to Pelosi and Israel in an election night phone call that he had ignored their past requests for help.

“What I couldn’t do in 2012, I’m in big time in 2014. I am in, and I mean it,” Obama told the lawmakers, according to Israel’s recounting. Obama began his first-ever concerted campaign for House Democrats on Wednesday in San Francisco, a more than $3.2 million night that served as the first of eight DCCC fundraisers he plans to participate in this year.

In his remarks, Obama credited Israel with “doing an often thankless, extraordinarily difficult job” with “boundless energy.”

Pelosi said that energy, along with a New Yorker’s hardened sense of reality, is why she forced Israel into another term trying to win back the majority.

“He doesn’t sugarcoat any prospect that we’re on,” she said, “but he’s confident that we have a path to victory.”

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