House Dems brace for losses
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House Democrats are heading into Tuesday’s midterms hoping that a swelling of Republican support does not crest into a tidal wave.

Democratic leaders had spent much of 2013 playing offense, with thoughts of defying historic trends and retaking the lower chamber this year. Their optimism reached its apex after last year’s government shutdown left the Republicans badly bruised.

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But Democrats have run into a perfect storm since then. Incumbents are retiring; the public is anxious about a fragile economy and foreign unrest; the perennial problem of low turnout among left-leaning groups in midterm elections persists; and President Obama’s approval rating is near historic lows.

Put it all together and it is perhaps no surprise that Democrats have been forced into a defensive crouch, where their best hope is to stanch the bleeding and prevent a Republican rout.

Party strategists are now focused merely on preventing the GOP gains from exceeding the eight seats Democrats netted in 2012.

“Democrats should be happy if they keep [the number of] losses under double digits,” one Democratic strategist said Monday.

Tuesday’s outcome will have obvious practical implications. Significant Republican gains would likely help Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerBlue wave poses governing risks for Dems Nancy Pelosi: Will she remain the ‘Face of the Franchise’? Jordan hits campaign trail amid bid for Speaker MORE (Ohio) advance his policy agenda in the face of frequent resistance from a Tea Party wing that criticizes GOP leaders as overly centrist and timorous. As indicated by their “Drive for 245” slogan, the Republicans are hoping to net 11 seats.

But the consequences could also carry far beyond the 114th Congress. Many Democrats think they’ll have a shot at winning back the House in 2016 on the wings of a strong presidential candidate — say, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonFive takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's fiery first debate Heller embraces Trump in risky attempt to survive in November Live coverage: Cruz, O'Rourke clash in Texas debate MORE — if they can keep losses this year to a minimum.

“They want to keep this in the realm of a strong Democratic presidential candidate being able to have enough coattails to shift control in 2016,” Julian E. Zelizer, congressional historian at Princeton University, said Monday. “If the expansion of the GOP majority is significant, even with a poor Republican candidate in 2016, it will be much harder for Democrats to regain control.”

Rep. Jim MoranJames (Jim) Patrick MoranStates are stepping up to end animal testing in cosmetics while federal legislation stalls Lawmakers, media serve up laughs at annual 'Will on the Hill' Dems face close polls in must-win Virginia MORE, a veteran Virginia Democrat retiring at the end of the year, suggested that a large Republican majority could pose its own perils for the GOP.

“If the Republicans get the Senate, and pick up even another half dozen seats in the House, they’ll overreach; and they’re going to get so far out of the mainstream that there will be a big, critical backlash in 2016,” Moran told The Hill. “[That] would enable a presidential candidate as strong as Hillary … to usher in a wave election with her.”

First though, the Democrats have to survive 2014, no easy task in an election year that seems increasingly to be “a referendum on President Obama,” in the words of Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), the third-ranking House Democrat who blamed the party for not doing “a better job messaging exactly what the president has done.”

Democratic leaders long ago wrote off several seats currently under their control, including those of outgoing Reps. Mike McIntyre (N.C.), Jim MathesonJames (Jim) David MathesonTrump EPA eases standards for coal ash disposal Utah redistricting reform measure likely to qualify for ballot Trump's budget targets affordable, reliable power MORE (Utah) and Bill Owens (N.Y.), three centrists who essentially ceded their conservative-leaning districts to Republicans the day they announced their retirements.

Democrats are also facing extremely tough odds of keeping seats held by Reps. Nick RahallNick Joe RahallWe shouldn't allow politics to impede disaster relief Break the cycle of partisanship with infant, child health care programs Clinton mulls role in 2018 midterms MORE (W.Va.), Collin Peterson (Minn.), John BarrowJohn Jenkins BarrowOur democracy can’t afford to cut legal aid services from the budget Dem files Ethics complaint on Benghazi panel Barrow thanks staff in farewell speech MORE (Ga.) and Rick Nolan (Minn.).

They’ve been frustrated by an inability to put more pressure on Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.), despite a long list of federal charges pending against him.

And last month they were forced to pull money from several close contests for open seats in order to protect incumbents whose races tightened late in the cycle. Reps. Lois Capps (Calif.) and Steven Horsford (Nev.) were among the Democrats who received first-time cash infusions from the party at the eleventh hour.

There are some bright spots for Democrats, however. They’re expected to win the seat being vacated by retiring Rep. Gary Miller (R-Calif.); they have a very good shot at picking off Republican Reps. Lee Terry in Nebraska and Steve Southerland in Florida; they see another pickup opportunity in the West Virginia seat of Rep. Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoThis week: Democrats pledge ‘sparks’ in Kavanaugh hearing Congress faces September scramble on spending California passes bill to ban controversial drift net fishing MORE (R), who’s expected to win her bid for the Senate on Tuesday; and despite last-minute attacks by outside conservative groups, both Capps and Horsford are expected to win reelection.

Indeed, party leaders insist that every non-retiring incumbent has a fighting chance to return next year. That’s a stark contrast to 2010, when they’d written off a number of seats long before Election Day.

Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y.), head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) said Monday that there are 20 races still too close to call. 

“So anybody who tells you that they know what’s going to happen [Tuesday] night is literally the last person that you should be listening to,” he told MSNBC. “You still have 20 very close races.”

Still, party strategists are also bracing for likely losses — and eying the next cycle with relish.

“No matter what happens Tuesday night, the field in 2016 flips dramatically from 2014,” DCCC spokesman Josh Schwerin said Monday in an email. “[W]e’ll be able to play offense in more seats and Republicans are going to spend the next two years reminding voters that they are completely unable to govern responsibly.”

Not everyone agrees the Democrats have a shot at the House in 2016, regardless of the outcome of Tuesday’s elections, however. 

Michael Mezey, political scientist at DePaul University, said Republicans’ redistricting efforts in 2010 mean there’s “no chance for the Democrats to regain control of the House until 2022,” after the next census.

“Pennsylvania, for example — a reliably blue state — has a congressional delegation composed of 5 Dems and 13 Republicans,” Mezey said Mondayin an email. “Hillary’s coattails, if they exist, are not going to overcome that.”