Election 2014: Democrats' hidden agenda in House battle

Democrats have pulled back from races to take over Republican seats and are focused on saving seats they already have. But in battle for the House, they're also looking ahead to 2016. 

Rick Bowmer/AP
Republican Mia Love and Democrat Doug Owens shake hands following their debate in their race for Utah's 4th Congressional District Tuesday in Salt Lake City. Love is seeking to become the first black Republican woman elected to Congress.

Democrats have lowered expectations for House races this November. Long gone is the idea of retaking the majority from the Republicans, even if party leaders don’t say so. Vanishing, too, is the Democrats’ hope that they can make a net gain of a few seats.

Now the Democrats are just trying to minimize their losses and hold onto as many of their existing seats as possible, pulling back in efforts to take Republican seats. Their spending tells the story: In the dozen battleground races for seats currently held by Republicans, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has pulled back on advertising and refocused its spending on saving the party’s own embattled incumbents.

The National Republican Campaign Committee is targeting 16 House seats held by Democrats, most of which are districts that President Obama carried in 2012. The Republicans currently hold 233 seats (out of 435 total), and are hoping to get as close as possible to 246 – the number the GOP hit during the Truman administration, the most the party has ever had.

But even though the playing field this year favors Republicans, most analysts don’t see a tsunami forming by Election Day in less than three weeks. Nonpartisan handicappers’ predictions for Republican pickups in the House range from low single digits to upward of three dozen, in one case, but the best known are pointing to gains in the mid-to-high single digits.  

“We’re not talking about that great a magnitude of change one way or the other,” says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics in Charlottesville. He predicts a six- to nine-seat Republican pickup. “I think they will wind up in the low 240s.”

For Democrats, one big challenge is to keep donor money flowing to House races, when it’s control of the Senate that’s up for grabs this year. Democrats currently have a 55 to 45 seat majority in the upper chamber, and are widely seen as having a shot at keeping the majority, if barely.  

But Democrats say that minimizing their losses in the House is also crucial. Their argument: In 2016, the playing field should be more favorable for Democrats, with a larger, presidential-year electorate turning out, which means more minorities, younger voters, and women voters than show up in midterms. In addition, the Republicans will be defending many more Senate seats than the Democrats will in 2016, another factor that gives Democrats hope.

In short, it’s possible the Democrats could win the White House and a Senate majority in 2016, and if the House doesn’t go too far in the Republican direction in 2014, the party could pull off a sweep in two years. Democrats are dangling before donors the possibility of a presidential victory by Hillary Clinton – and how much she would benefit from having a Democratic-controlled House.

“So many of our donors and our activists are really, really excited about Hillary running for president,” Ali Lapp, executive director of an outside Democratic group called the House Majority PAC, tells Politico. “The thing we have to say to them is, ‘We are too, but let’s think about all the days that follow the inauguration and what she’ll be able to do with a Democratic House versus the Republican House we have now.’”

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