House Democrats plot strategy against long odds to win back chamber

February 12

Despite the turmoil that has hamstrung the House Republican majority for much of the past three years, Democrats acknowledge that their chances of retaking control of the chamber this year are slim to nonexistent.

In fact, their most viable plan at this point may be to root for continued unrest in the GOP.

“Democrats can’t really hope to win the House, but Republicans could conceivably do something to lose it,” said David Wasserman, who tracks House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “In order for Democrats to have an opening this November, Republicans would need to pursue a self-destructive strategy similar to the one we saw last October.”

That hope-and-pray strategy will be center stage this week as House Democrats gather for their annual retreat at a resort on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. For the next two days, members will hold panel discussions, Q&A sessions and strategy meetings with President Obama, Vice President Biden, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, the head of the World Bank, media consultants and the leaders of key Democratic interest groups. But Republicans seem top of mind.

“House Republicans spent their retreat falling apart over the debt limit and immigration reform; we will spend our retreat uniting around ideas on building an economy that works for everyone and not just special interests,” said Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).

But their challenges are clear: Obama’s approval rating is mired below 50 percent, and the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act continues to ripple across the political landscape. And although Democrats have been outpacing Republicans in fundraising, well-financed conservative groups are spending millions of dollars to attack vulnerable Democratic incumbents for supporting the new health-care law.

Democrats need to pick up 17 seats this year to win back the majority, but political forecasting and historical trends suggest that they will lose ground. In the post-World War II era, the party of a president in his sixth year averages a loss of 29 House seats, Wasserman said.

In 1986, Democrats gained a handful of House seats and retook the Senate, forcing President Ronald Reagan to work with the opposition for his final two years in office. And in 2006, Democrats gained more than 30 seats and regained control as the nation faulted President George W. Bush for missteps in Iraq and after Hurricane Katrina. Obama’s approval ratings currently hover close to where Bush was in 2006.

During the talks, Democrats are likely to crow about how House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) relied overwhelmingly on Democrats to approve an extension of federal borrowing authority. Just 28 Republicans voted for the measure, joined by all but two voting Democrats.

“This feels like ‘Alice in Wonderland’ — totally upside down,” said Rep Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. “The majority is supposed to be the party that moves us forward because they run the ship.

“If Republicans shirk their responsibility as the majority party in the House of Representatives, we’re ready to be responsible, we’re ready to lead,” he added.

Rep. Jim Larson (D-Conn.), who preceded Becerra as caucus chairman, said that Democratic unity will give voters a clear choice this year. “More years of obstruction or at least two more years of a presidency where there’s a shot to get something done,” he said.

But even Larson conceded that such a message might not be enough to win back control. “Everybody feels we’re going to close the margin,” he said. But retaking the House “might be a bridge too far.”

That didn’t stop House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) from boldly predicting to reporters this week that GOP divisions and his party’s impressive fundraising totals “give me great optimism that we’re going to win back the House.”

The DCCC outraised the National Republican Congressional Committee, $5.6 million to $4.2 million, in the fourth quarter of last year and had a $15 million advantage for all of 2013. As the year began, the DCCC held an $8 million advantage in cash on hand — a strong showing for the minority party.

But GOP candidates this year will be helped considerably by outside money, especially from Americans for Prosperity, an advocacy group backed by the billionaire industrialist brothers Charles and David Koch. Their group has unleashed new TV ads attacking vulnerable Democratic incumbents in Florida and West Virginia, just some of the more than $27 million spent since August on spots challenging Democrats.

In response, Democratic House Majority PAC, an outside group helping House Democrats, is airing ads in several districts that tout how the incumbent fought to “keep your existing health plan” but also “took the White House to task for the disastrous health-care Web site.

Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), a 13-term lawmaker, said that although his colleagues are convinced that they can overcome concerns about the Affordable Care Act, “what we do know is there’s going to be a flood of money” from Republicans. “But I think the money may not have the impact that they think it will because Republicans have nothing to sell.”

Still unresolved is how House Democrats might ultimately use Obama and Biden on the campaign trail. The declining popularity of congressional Democrats appears to be partly the result of recent missteps by the White House — most notably the problem-filled introduction of the health-care law.

After the partial government shutdown in October, congressional Democrats held an eight-point advantage over Republicans among voters about who should control Congress, according to Washington Post-ABC News polling. But after several weeks of embarrassing headlines about the rollout of the health-care law, Republicans reversed the trend and now hold a one-point advantage.

Obama will first focus on raising money and has several fundraising stops scheduled in the coming weeks, as does first lady Michelle Obama.

Some House Democrats in tough reelection races said they would be comfortable campaigning with Obama.

Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-N.H.), who is facing considerable pressure for her support of the health-care law, said Obama “is always welcome to come and explain” it to her constituents.

And Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who may face a tough challenge in her suburban Chicago district, said that “I don’t know that the president would come campaign in Illinois for a freshman member, but I think the president should be welcomed anywhere in the country.”

Duckworth plans to attend this week’s meetings, but Shea-Porter will go home to meet with constituents, an aide said. She’s one of about 80 of the 201 House Democrats expected to skip this year’s meetings, said lawmakers and aides familiar with the attendance list.

Said Rep. Matthew Cartwright (D-Pa.): “There’s an enormous span of time between now and the November elections. Having seen public sentiment turn on a dime between September and October, I know better than to make predictions at this early date.”

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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