For the first time since taking over as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, New York Rep. Steve Israel says Democrats have a chance to re-take the House in 2012.

“For the first time and much earlier than I expected, I can say it’s possible that Democrats will gain a majority in the House of Representatives,” Israel said at a briefing for reporters Thursday.

While winning back the 24 seats they need to reclaim the majority has always been the goal for House Democrats, Israel said that after Tuesday’s special election win in New York, he is for the first time convinced that such a goal is genuinely attainable.

Israel said his aim was to make a Democratic House majority in 2012 a possibility by the fall — a year before the next general election — but that his committee’s fundraising, recruiting, the GOP’s Medicare reform push and the special election win have convinced him of that fact much earlier than expected.

(Of course, Israel proclaiming publicly that the House majority is in play is also a not-so-subtle attempt to goose fundraising and recruiting in the wake of the party’s victory in New York’s 26th district.)

Israel noted that there are nearly 100 Republican-held seats that are easier for Democrats to win than New York’s 26th district, which Democrats won Tuesday despite its conservative lean. He cautioned Thursday that he’s not saying all those seats are in play, but that there are enough to get Democrats to their goal of retaking the majority just two years after losing it.

“Where there is a Democratic candidate who will support Medicare, we will take the fight to those districts no matter how high the odds, no matter how steep the climb,” Israel said. “East Coast, West Coast, Lake Erie.”

Republicans have acknowledged that the environment isn’t as favorable to them right now as it was six months ago, but they also note that another such wave election — which would be the fourth straight going back to 2006 — would be a major historical anomaly.

They note that Democrats similarly suggested that a Pennsylvania special election last year showed that the party’s fortunes weren’t so dire, only to watch Republicans win 63 seats in November.

“Steve Israel is free to spike the football 18 months before Election Day basing his 2012 strategy on one race that centered around misleading Mediscare tactics, but Republicans, in contrast, will continue talking to voters about what they care about most, and that’s our plans for job creation and reversing the economic disaster that President Obama and his party created over the last three years,” said Joanna Burgos, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

The GOP does have structural advantage of its own — most notably that the party controls much of the redistricting process in swing states and will be able to draw friendlier districts for many of their most vulnerable incumbents.

Despite this, Democrats have been able to land top recruits in several districts that could look significantly different once their states finish the redistricting process. Israel said one of the committee’s first orders of business following Tuesday’s win was to call its top 50 recruits.

Control of the House has shifted twice since 2006, and a 25-seat gain (now a 24-seat gain after the win Tuesday) is hardly out of the question given the American voter’s recent track record. In fact, it would be on-par with the smallest wave of the last three cycles, in 2008, when Democrats took 24 seats (including special elections).

Much of this will depend, of course, on how Obama does in his reelection campaign. Depending on him for a repeat of his 2008 effort is asking a lot, but Democrats enter the 2012 election with many more targets than they did in 2008 — given that they hold 40 fewer seats.

If the House is indeed in play, we could very well be looking at a situation where Democrats have a real opportunity to win the House, and Republicans have a real opportunity to win back the Senate. The Senate map features many more GOP pickup opportunities than Democratic ones, and Republicans need to win just three seats to retake that chamber.