We can win back House, Democrats say after NY special election victory

Democrats claimed Thursday that momentum from their special-election victory in New York had invigorated their chances of retaking the House. 

“I fundamentally believe that the House of Representatives is in play and that the Democrats can win a majority in November 2012,” Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told reporters at a briefing Thursday. 

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“I hoped to be able to say that in the fall of 2011. I’m now able to say it in May 2011. We are six months ahead of schedule in our own assessments.” 

Israel’s more confident tone follows Democrat Kathy Hochul’s upset victory in New York’s 26th district, where she captured a seat that was considered safe Republican territory. Hochul’s swearing-in means Democrats need only 24 more seats to retake the gavel from Speaker John Boehner (Ohio). 

Democrats turned the special election into a referendum on Medicare, arguing the House GOP proposal would turn the entitlement into a type of voucher program in a decade. 

Most signs point to the party continuing that theme in the months ahead. 

Israel said he wasn’t guaranteeing a victory — “yet.” 

“I’m not saying we’re going to have 100 seats in play,” he said. “The victory in New York-26 is not going to make us cocky. We’re going to continue to be clear-eyed and strategic and tactical. We’re going to do this in real time.”

Twenty-four House seats is a lot to pick up, and with 18 months to go before Election Day, circumstances could easily shift in the political climate. The redistricting process still playing out could complicate Democrats efforts to win dozens of seats. 

But Democrats have new hope this spring, given the New York victory and rising approval ratings for President Obama since the killing of Osama bin Laden by Navy SEALs in Pakistan. 

While Republicans have said Democrats shouldn’t put too much stock in a single special election, Democrats believe they have more to feel good about than just the result in New York. 

The domestic auto industry, which observers believed was heading for extinction in 2008, appears to be rebounding after Obama’s decision to offer it loans. Chrysler this week paid back $7.6 billion in loans to the American and Canadian governments, and General Motors has pledged to hire 4,000 new workers as it invests $2 billion in its U.S. operation over the next few years.

Optimism about the New York race crossed into the upper chamber, where Democratic senators face a tough task next year in defending 23 seats, including some in states President Obama lost in the 2008 election. Republicans need to win only four seats to take over the Senate.

“This has woken voters up to what the agenda is of the Republican Party,” said Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairwoman. “The election of 2012 will be dramatically different than the election of 2010.”

The economy is the big unknown for the White House and Democrats, and the unemployment rate remains at 9 percent. Still, 39 states recorded unemployment rate decreases in April, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And the national unemployment rate is almost a point lower than the previous year. If that downward trend continues, the Democrats could use an improvement in the economy to their political benefit in November 2012.

For now, the Democrats’ optimism is flowing from their victory in New York. Israel noted Hochul won “one of the most conservative, Republican districts, not only in New York, but in the United States.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) carried the district by six percentage points in the 2008 presidential race, and former Rep. Chris Lee (R-N.Y.) was elected in 2010 by a 14-point margin. 

“There are 97 other districts in America represented by a Republican that have a higher Democratic performance than New York-26, that are more moderate,” Israel said. “Those 97 districts give us a good field to look at in terms of fundamental strategic and tactical decisions of where we drill down.”

Israel said the New York race offered a preview of the 2012 campaign. 

“It was Medicare, Medicare and Medicare. Oil companies, oil companies, oil companies,” he noted. “That message in New York-26 was a sneak preview of what you will see in other districts, whether they have a formidable Republican incumbent in them or whether they are new districts as a result of redistricting, or open seats. I think you’re going to see the same framework of choices and priorities.” 

Republicans say voters want Medicare to be reformed, and that Democrats will be punished on the issue.

“If Democrats want to talk about Medicare from now until Election Day, we’re happy to remind the American people that Democrats are the only ones who want it to go bankrupt and the only ones who already cut the program by $500 billion to pay for their government takeover of healthcare,” Joanna Burgos, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in a statement.

But Democrats, who were on the losing side of the Medicare fight in the 2008 elections, said Thursday they believed their arguments had staying power. 

Though House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Thursday that every race is different and the winning formula won’t be just about Medicare, Murray described a potent weapon. 

“We see candidates who are really tying themselves in knots or putting themselves on the wrong side of the American public on this, and that’s why this has potency from now until [the] election,” Murray said.