WASHINGTON — House Democrats' path to power starts in Elk Grove, Calif., heads down to sunny Modesto and then rolls through the Central Valley to Riverside as the state's friendly redrawn congressional districts and a number of GOP retirements offer Democrats their best opportunity for victories in November.
Republicans acknowledge that Democrats will gain seats in a highly intense election year, especially with President Barack Obama and the economy on the upswing. But capturing 25 seats nationwide and retaking House control after two years in the minority? That's nothing but California dreamin', Republicans say.
Tea partyers and voter frustration with Obama's policies helped Republicans deliver a sound drubbing to Democrats in 2010. The GOP won a net of 63 seats, seized the majority and elected Rep. John Boehner of Ohio as speaker. The GOP currently holds 242 seats to 192 for the Democrats with one vacancy — former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' Arizona seat, which will be filled in a special election June 12.
Despite those numbers, Democrats envision gains in California, with the potential for four to eight seats. Illinois, Florida and Texas are fertile territory to increase their numbers. Even though Texas' new election map remains in limbo, Democrats saw potential gains in the Republican-drawn version and figure court-approved boundaries will only get better as they take into account the state's growing Hispanic population.
Obama's steady rise in favorability and the improving economy have contributed to Democratic optimism. So has the divisive GOP fight over extending the payroll tax cut last December that tarnished Congress' image before rank-and-file Republican lawmakers caved.
An NBC-Wall Street Journal poll in January found that 47 percent of adults favored Democrats controlling Congress, compared with 41 percent who preferred Republicans. That was the Democrats' biggest edge on that question this election cycle.
"We've gone from a gale force wind against us a year ago to a sustained breeze at our backs going into November," New York Rep. Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in an interview. "We've outraised the Republicans, we've outrecruited them in candidates and the House is very much in play."
One fresh sign that Democrats have seen an improvement in their chances is that the committee is recruiting campaign managers for more contests, according to Democrats tracking House races.
But Israel stopped short of making any predictions eight months out.
"I haven't promised anybody 25 or more," he said. "I am promising that it's going to be razor-close."
The difficulty for Democrats is that while they may gain in California or Illinois, other seats around the country may be completely lost, putting them in a considerable hole.
Moderate and conservative lawmakers, such as Oklahoma's Dan Boren and Arkansas' Mike Ross, who survived the onslaught in 2010 decided to bow out in their Republican-leaning districts. Twenty-one Democrats and 15 Republicans have announced their retirement or plan to seek another office. In North Carolina, where the GOP-led Legislature drew a new congressional map that shored up Republican incumbents and made it extremely tough for Democrats, Heath Shuler and Brad Miller decided against another run.
Not done with North Carolina, Republicans also are targeting Democratic Reps. Larry Kissell and Mike McIntyre, who suddenly have more Republican voters in their districts.
"We can take nothing for granted in the face of a relentless Democrat effort that is prepared to spend hundreds of millions of special interest dollars to hand the speaker's gavel back to Nancy Pelosi," said Texas Rep. Pete Sessions, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Consider Georgia's new 9th Congressional District, an open seat created by the census-based map. The district in the northeast corner of the state covers 20 counties; Gainesville is the largest city. The district has attracted four Republican candidates and one independent, but not a single Democrat.
Martha Zoller, host of a conservative talk radio show on WXKT and business manager for her internist husband, has set her sights on the seat.
"I believe I'm the most conservative in the race," Zoller said in an interview. "I've run a business, worked in the corporate world and done something other than just passing legislation. I was tea party before they called it tea party."
Zoller said that despite entreaties from the Obama campaign to get a Democrat to run in the district to boost turnout, no Democrat has entered the race. The GOP primary is July 31 and the winner is all but ensured a House seat in November.
Pelosi, D-Calif., has done her part to get the majority back, raising $26 million for the campaign committee alone through January and holding more than 400 events. The revenue total doesn't include fundraising for individual candidates and members.
The Democratic committee had $13.1 million cash on hand at the end of January, compared with Republicans' $17.6 million, but outside spending is well under way. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is up with ads in 11 districts around the country plus a commercial backing Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson in Utah.
"This is one dynamic that does keep me up at night," Israel said. "These super PACs." Those are political action committees that can raise and spend unlimited sums to support campaigns, though they must legally remain independent from the candidates they back.
That hasn't stopped the Democrats from trying to expand the field with an ambitious list targeting 36 races, including seven in California.
Helping Democrats was the retirement of three longtime Republican lawmakers — Elton Gallegly, Wally Herger and Jerry Lewis. The party is relying on top recruits Ami Bera, an Indian-American physician running for the second time against nine-term Republican Rep. Dan Lungren in the 7th Congressional District, which includes Elk Grove, and Mark Takano, a Japanese-American and trustee on the Riverside Community College Board seeking an open seat.Comment on this story
In the farm and ranching district that includes Modesto, the race is between former astronaut Jose Hernandez and Rep. Jeff Denham, a first-term Republican. Hernandez offers a personal story that Democrats hope will prove compelling with voters. As a child, he worked in the fields helping his Mexican immigrant parents, who were farm workers. He learned English at age 12, became and engineer and flew on the space shuttle.
Hernandez, who calls himself a local kid who made good, said he wants to "preserve the ability of folks to reach the American dream." The district is 40 percent Hispanic, with 25 percent of voting age. He's upbeat about his chances.
"As they say in Houston, failure is not an option," Hernandez said in an interview.