By Jessica Taylor - 02/13/14 06:00 AM EST
Democratic leaders are saying they can win back the House in November. Again.
This week, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). told reporters he is “optimistic” his party would take back the Speaker’s gavel.
But unfortunately for them, wishing doesn’t make it so.
While it’s still early in the fight for the House, many Democratic strategists privately concede that a good Election Night for House Democrats would be to pick up even a handful of seats — a far cry from the 17 they need to retake the majority.
The coordinated pushback from party heavyweights is expected in the wake of stories that winning back the House is out of the question or that Democratic donors are more focused on protecting a fragile Senate majority and are not worrying about the lower chamber.
For Democratic leaders to say anything else would be political malpractice. They can’t publicly concede that they will fall short of their goal nine months before the midterms.
Just weeks before the 2012 elections, Pelosi and others were saying the 25 seats to win control were within reach. On election night, Democrats picked up eight seats.
Leaders were even waxing optimistic ahead of 2010, maintaining they would keep their Democratic majority even though they knew it was lost. Republicans took over the House that year, gaining 63 seats in a landslide.
Both sides make bad predictions. For example, now-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said in 2008 that Republicans would pick up seats in the House. They ended up losing two dozen.
One Democratic strategist acknowledged that pickups in the low single digits this year would be good, though many privately admit an expanded GOP majority isn’t out of the question.
Another consultant engaged in House races said the party is focused on “continuing to make the incremental progress that we started in 2012.” If they chip away at another eight seats in 2014, the consultant said, the majority could be won in 2016 with Hillary Clinton at the top of the ticket.
Democrats received good news on Wednesday as Rep. Gary Miller (R-Calif.) announced he won’t run for reelection in his Democratic-leaning district.
Republicans had already privately counted Miller, who was reelected in 2012 thanks to a primary fluke, as a lost cause. It’s safe to put that seat in the “D” column.
But the Democratic retirements of Reps. Jim Matheson (Utah) and Mike McIntyre (N.C.) in GOP-heavy seats are similarly gone for Democrats.
So the Democrats’ magic number is really 18 seats.
Democratic strategists know that the odds are long to reach that mark. But it’s part of leaders’ jobs to keep morale high, encourage donors to keep giving and never surrender until the last vote has been cast.
The reasons both Pelosi and Hoyer have cited for their hope make sense. Yes, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has dwarfed its GOP counterpart in fundraising. The GOP brand problem is nothing new, but with the party’s built-in advantage after redistricting last cycle, it might not matter much.
The biggest problem that Democrats still haven’t found a solution to is how to contend with an unpopular president in a midterm year where they historically lose seats. Right now, there’s nothing to suggest they will buck that trend, let alone swing double-digit gains.
A recent spate of retirements even before Miller’s announcement has put Republicans on notice more than usual. The unexpected exits of GOP Reps. Jim Gerlach (Pa.), Tom Latham (Iowa), Jon Runyan (N.J.) and Frank Wolf (Va.) have given Democrats hope, especially with Tea Party candidates looming for Republicans in GOP-leaning districts. But while these are opportunities that weren’t there before, the onus is on Democrats to make them competitive.
Of course, not all retirements are created equal. The exits of Blue Dogs Matheson and McIntyre are particularly brutal, and both had decent chances of winning in the fall, unlike Miller for the Republicans.
If another centrist, Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), departs, that seat is gone for Democrats, too. Peterson will announce his plans next month.
On paper, Republicans have the edge in the overall calculus. The Rothenberg Political Report projects 2014 could be anywhere from a four-seat gain for the GOP or a four-seat net for Democrats, in line with other independent political handicappers.
If they want to have a chance at a majority, Democrats ultimately have to be able to win GOP-leaning and, at minimum, toss-up seats to even come close to their goal.
Their best chance to prove their mettle is in next month’s Florida special election to succeed the late Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.). The longtime congressman represents one of the last true swing districts in the U.S.
The pressure is much more on Democrats to win the special election with their nominee, former state CFO Alex Sink. But she’s running neck-and-neck in both public and private polling with lobbyist and former Young aide David Jolly. That’s even as Republicans privately bemoan Jolly’s campaign and admit his background has made him a less-than-ideal candidate who wasn’t their top choice.
If Jolly pulls the upset, it will be much harder for Democrats to argue they have a shot at the House. Still, Democrats will take the good news wherever they can get it.
“The most vulnerable Republican in Congress just became the 11th Republican to jump ship rather than defend this reckless Republican Congress. It’s too early for predictions on the outcome in November, but we’ve outraised and outrecruited Republicans and their toxic brand continues to improve Democratic prospects,” said DCCC Deputy Executive Director Jesse Ferguson.
The GOP argues though the numbers are still on their side.
“Democrats are in a downward spiral since they can’t overcome the ObamaCare undertow that has led to numerous recruitment fails and retirements,” said National Republican Congressional Committee communications director Andrea Bozek.