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DCCC chief: Momentum favors Dems trying to retake House

The lawmakers in charge of Democrats' campaign to retake control of the House in 2012 said Friday that headwinds have shifted, and are in Democrats' favor going into next fall's election.

Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), briefed reporters on his party's efforts to achieve a net gain of 25 seats in the House, which would help them retake the majority they lost just a year ago.

“We have gone from a gale-force wind against us to a sustained breeze at our backs,” Israel told reporters Friday, comparing his party’s chances in House races today to where it stood in the wake of its 2010 election disaster when the Republicans scored a net gain of 63 House seats.

He cited generic polling that shows more voters would prefer Democrats in control of the House than Republicans. The average Democratic advantage in recent generic House polling is three percentage points, he said.

Israel said his advice to Democratic House challengers is that “the key to this election is run like a mayor” –- and avoid ideological debates.

But despite Israel's optimism, the New York congressman acknowledged three big unknowns that could affect the outcome of the contests:

  • President Obama’s unpopularity in some districts,
  • the prospect that the deficit reduction “super committee” might recommend significant cuts in entitlement spending,
  • and perhaps most importantly, the size and effectiveness of advertising efforts by outside Democratic-allied groups who –under the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision – will be free to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to boost Democratic candidates

Israel said Democrats "did not lose the 2010 election to Republicans, we lost it to Karl Rove and the Koch brothers,” referring to GOP strategist Rove and Charles and David Koch who help fund outside advocacy group such as Americans for Prosperity.

Democratic allies didn’t launch comparable outside advocacy efforts to counter the Rove/Koch/GOP effort in 2010 but will do so in 2012, Israel indicated.

Alluding to efforts by Democratic outside groups in next year’s elections, Israel said, “We’re going to address that (disparity); others are going to address that, our allies will address that.” 

He added, “We are very hopeful that our allies… will have a countervailing message in 2012. There’s already the House Majority PAC that has been stood up; I’m told there are some environmental groups that are standing up their own committee; I’m told there are some groups in labor that are standing up their own committees.”

He concluded, “We’re already far ahead of where we were, but we have -– but they have, they have -– a lot of work to do.”

His caution in distinguishing party efforts from those of outside groups is a nod to the legal requirement that the outside advocacy not be coordinated with candidates or parties.

He cited star Democratic recruits such as former NASA astronaut Jose Hernandez who is running against freshman Republican Rep. Jeff Denham, and emergency room physician Dr. Raul Ruiz, who is seeking to unseat Rep. Mary Bono Mack in California. “There’s no ideology when you’re trying to help someone who comes into the emergency room,” Israel said.

In the 2010 House races, Republicans and their allies were able to attack Democrats for planning to cut future Medicare spending. According to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, the health care law which Obama signed last year will reduce Medicare outlays by $455 billion over ten years.  On top of that, Democrats on the deficit reduction “super committee” have proposed cuts, or savings, of as much as $500 billion in Medicare and Medicaid, if the Republicans would agree to some increases in tax revenue.

Given Democrats agreeing to such cuts in entitlement spending, how effectively can Israel’s stable of candidates make the case that it’s the Republicans who are out to harm or destroy Medicare?

Israel's answer: “We wouldn’t be having this conversation if the Republicans had agreed to put (even) a dollar on the table in revenues,… We’re saying we can minimize impact on important protections to the American people just by asking big oil companies to pay a little more, just by bringing revenues to the table.”

He said additional tax revenues would “alleviate any impact on other programs (such as Medicare). We don’t know what’s going to happen at the end of the day. Call me on Nov. 24 (the deadline for the super committee to report recommendations) and I may have a better sense of what the future holds.”

As for Obama’s unpopularity in some parts of the country, Israel said, “If I were the Republicans, I’d be more worried about the House Republican (polling) numbers than the president’s numbers. Look, the president’s numbers need to improve, but the House Republican numbers are toxic, radioactive. I think this could be one of the most challenging environments that incumbents have ever run in.”

If that observation were taken to its logical conclusion, it could mean a Republican president and a Democratic-controlled House in 2013.

Israel’s estimate is that the GOP will need to protect 50 to 60 incumbents while Democrats must protect only a dozen or so. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report currently says that 13 Republican-held seats are toss-up races, while eight Democratic-held seats are toss ups.