Election milestone: Both parties foresee GOP retaking House in Nov election

The midterm election moved into a new stage Monday, with both parties acknowledging Republicans could win back the House majority this November.

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) on Monday predicted his party would return to power this fall. “I think we retake the House, as Mr. Gibbs suggested yesterday from the White House,” Cantor said Monday during an appearance on CNBC.

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Cantor was reacting to comments made Sunday by White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, who told NBC’s “Meet the Press” there is “no doubt” Republicans are within striking distance of taking over either the House or Senate, if not both.

 The remarks appeared to embolden Republicans, who would need to win 39 seats to retake the House majority they lost in the 2006 elections. Cantor on Monday was talking about “when” the GOP takes the House back, not “if.”

  “When we regain the House — because I do think that we will retake the majority — the president will have to deal with us,” Cantor said.

Democrats on Monday said Gibbs’s comments were nothing new, and that the idea that Republicans could win back the House has been implicit in the party’s election-year messaging for weeks.

“What he said was there are a lot of seats out there and it’s a dogfight out there,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, in an interview on MSNBC.

Outside experts said Gibbs was saying what Democrats have already been saying behind closed doors.

“I think Democrats are beginning to say publicly what they’ve said privately, which is that the House is in play,” said David Wasserman, a House analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, which lists 64 House seats now held by Democrats as either toss-ups or as competitive races.

Van Hollen said Gibbs was only laying out the landscape of races in play, not saying that Democrats were in danger of losing their majority.

“Democrats are not going to lose the House; the answer's no,” said Van Hollen.

Democrats for the last couple of weeks have intensified their narrative about the negative consequences of a GOP-controlled Congress, including Republican oversight of the Gulf oil spill and attempts to repeal a healthcare law Democrats insist is becoming more popular.

“Republicans have been measuring the drapes for months, and we've been warning about the serious consequences of what Republican rule would mean,” said a Democratic strategist familiar with the party’s election efforts.

Van Hollen on Monday focused on Rep. Joe Barton’s (R-Texas) apology to BP CEO Tony Hayward and comments that the $20 billion fund the oil company is setting up to pay damages was the result of a shakedown by the Obama administration. He also criticized House Minority Leader John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) statement comparing the financial crisis to an ant.

Democrats have been trying to use these incidents to portray Republicans as aligned with big oil companies and Wall Street banks.

“What the Republicans want to do is go back to the same economic agenda that got us into this mess in the first place,” Van Hollen said.

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Wasserman cast Gibbs’s comments as an attempt by the White House to manage how success would be measured this fall: If the public expects the GOP to win back the House, it will not be a surprise when it happens. Conversely, if Democrats hold on to the House —even if they lose many seats — it might be seen as a victory.

“Democrats aren’t succeeding in turning out votes by simply acting more desperate,” he explained. “I think this has more to do with the expectations game than scaring Democratic troops into action.”

But Republicans said Gibbs’s admission would help their party by bolstering candidates who are looking to unseat incumbent Democrats this fall.

“One thing I’d point out is that, expectations-wise, who this really helps is our candidates. In our view, that is more important,” said one Republican strategist. “This is something they can use to go to donors with, to use with local press to talk about why that race is in play.”

Cantor and other Republican leaders have previously expressed optimism about November, but they have been wary of predicting they’ll win back a number of seats. Boehner this spring said as many as 100 seats were in play.

This story was posted at 4:47 p.m. and updated at 8:34 p.m.