Nancy Pelosi calls it the "drive for 25" – the number of seats House Democrats need to reclaim in November for Ms. Pelosi to retake the speaker's gavel.
Getting to 25 seats is no easy feat – and it's not one Democrats will reach this year, most analysts predict. Since 1994, when a Republican wave led by Newt Gingrich gave the GOP its first House majority since the 1950s, Democrats have only twice notched better than single-digit improvements: a gain of 24 seats in 2008 and 31 seats in 2006.
But Democrats are optimistic after widening their lead in "generic ballot" polls, which ask Americans which party they prefer. Democrats moved that barometer from a statistical deadlock in early August to a lead of five or six percentage points now.
"The reason for the momentum is very simple," says Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, at a September gathering with reporters, "and that is because Paul Ryan has become a down-ballot disaster for Republicans across the country."
All along, Democrats had planned to hammer congressional Republicans over a plan by Mr. Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, to recast Medicare with greater private-sector participation. When Ryan joined the presidential ticket, Democratic strategists could barely contain their joy. It gave Democrats a "blow horn," as Congressman Israel calls it, to blast their message of "Medicare versus millionaires" (that Democrats will protect the former, Republicans the latter).
"We have work to do. We're not there yet, but we like where it's going," Israel says. "And we have the breeze at our backs."
But the drive for 25 is more likely to be the dash for a dozen. That's about how many seats analysts expect Republicans to lose, at most.
An election prediction model used by Jim Campbell, a University at Buffalo – SUNY political science professor, forecasts between three and 14 seats shifting to Democrats. The number is based upon the relatively close balance of "seats in trouble" – Democrats have 15; Republicans, 21 – and the tightness of the presidential race.
Republicans believe they have a winning formulation for countering Democrats' Medicare arguments: President Obama's health-care law reduces future government spending on Medicare, the health-insurance program for seniors.
"There's only one party that has cut Medicare for current beneficiaries – that's the Democrats," Guy Harrison, executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, told re-porters at the party's national convention in August.
One other GOP advantage in the House races: money. Democrats worry about an influx of advertisements and other aid to candidates from GOP-aligned "super political-action committees," or super PACs, which are allowed to take unlimited donations.
Where $1 million is a pittance in a presidential campaign (Mitt Romney and Mr. Obama each raised well over $100 million in August alone), it can be an enormous boost in those congressional races where candidates might spend a few million dollars combined.
That wave of spending is just now beginning. The granddaddy of all conservative super PACs, Crossroads GPS, hit its first House campaign target (Democratic Rep. Tim Bishop of New York) with a share of a $2.3 million ad buy in mid-September.
Ultimately, the group will spend into the "tens of millions of dollars" on House races, says Crossroads spokesman Nate Hodson. He declines to specify how many House races Crossroads GPS will target, but says its support will come via TV ads, research polling, direct mail, and phone calls.
And that's just Crossroads. Other conservative groups such as the Young Guns Action Fund, founded by former staffers of House majority leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, and the Congressional Leadership Fund, led by former Sen. Norm Coleman (R), will also be in the mix.