J. Scott Applewhite, File, Associated Press
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.
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