Election 2012: Can the Democrats retake control of the House?

Congressman Steve Israel says a net gain of 25 seats – what Democrats need to win back control of the House in Election 2012 – is 'in range.' The key, he says, is independents.

Steve Israel isn’t ready to predict that the Democrats will retake control of the House in 2012. But the New York congressman in charge of his party’s House reelection effort promises it’s going to be “razor-close.”

Start with the proposition that it’s been only 16 months since the Democrats suffered the shellacking of 2010, when the Republicans netted 63 seats, and that Congress’s popularity is at record low levels. To win back control, the Democrats need a net gain of 25 seats. After three straight “wave” elections – in which one party suffers a net loss of at least 20 seats – a fourth would be highly unusual. It hasn’t happened in 60 years.

But in Congressman Israel’s view, that goal is “in range.” Speaking at a press breakfast sponsored by the moderate Democratic think tank Third Way, Israel laid out his rationale: Some polls show Democrats leading Republicans in the “generic” ballot for Congress. Redistricting has given the Democrats opportunities to pick up seats. The party is recruiting some strong candidates. And the House Democrats beat the House Republicans in election committee fundraising last year.

The key, says Israel, is independent voters.

“You want to know why we lost the House in 2010? We lost 9 million independent voters,” says Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). “They were with us in 2006. They were with us in 2008. They were frothing-at-the-mouth angry in 2010.”

Focus groups show that in 2010, Americans were voting against the Democrats, not for the Republicans, Israel says. The Democrats’ job now is to fill in the blanks in defining these newly elected Republicans, many of whom embraced the tea party.

Nonpartisan analysts maintain that the Democrats still face a steep climb in their effort to retake the House after just one term out of power. True, the DCCC outraised its Republican counterpart, the National Republican Campaign Committee, by $7 million in 2011. But outside spending by Republican super PACs is expected to wipe out that advantage.

On the congressional redistricting front, Israel sees pickups in several states, including two to four seats in California, three or four seats in Illinois, and seats in Texas, regardless of how the final map looks there.

Still, redistricting will cost the Democrats elsewhere, as Republican-controlled state legislatures redraw maps to favor GOP House members. In addition, the Democrats are losing some of their more conservative members to retirement. According to the Cook Political Report, five seats being vacated by Democrats are favored to go Republican. None of the open Republican seats are expected to go to Democrats.

On his claim of strong recruiting, Israel mentions two names, Jose Hernandez of California and Val Demings of Florida. Mr. Hernandez, who is taking on freshman Rep. Jeff Denham (R), is a former NASA astronaut and the son of Mexican immigrant migrant workers who didn’t learn English until age 12. Ms. Demings, who is challenging freshman Rep. Daniel Webster (R), is Orlando’s first female chief of police and also African American. Expect to hear a lot about these two as the campaign progresses.

Israel says that in recruiting, he looks for problem-solvers. And once recruited, he’s telling his candidates to “run like a mayor.” In other words, ideologues need not apply.

“If you knock on a door, and somebody says there’s a pothole outside, and you say, that’s not my job, my job is to figure out what to do about the European debt crisis, you will lose,” Israel says. “Get a shovel, get some asphalt, fill the pothole.”

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