Many obstacles for House Democrats

| Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Despite President Barack Obama's passionate pledge to help House Democrats win back a majority, wildly varying obstacles stand in the way: history, redistricting, midterm drop-off, a Washington-based campaign apparatus in disarray, and the president's new agenda.

Democrats hold 200 seats to Republicans' 232. Democrats need to pick up 18 seats in 2014 to win back the House marginally, 25 to 30 to attain a bit of hubris.

Historically, midterm elections are a curse for presidents. In the past 100 years, only three have gained House seats during a midterm.

George W. Bush was one of them, in 2002; four years later, in his second term, his party was crushed and lost its majority. Bill Clinton fumbled the Democrats' four-decade hold on a House majority in 1994; he recovered and won back five seats in 1998, but not a majority.

Obama, in his own words, was “shellacked” in his first midterm cycle.

Don't let anyone tell you differently: Redistricting matters. Republicans had the upper hand when it came time to redraw congressional and state legislative maps, thanks to their historic gains in state chambers and governors' offices in 2010 — and they used reapportionment like skilled cartographers.

To regain a House majority, Democrats must win at least a few more seats in states such as Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan, according to Kyle Kondik, a University of Virginia political analyst.

“All of these states voted for the president twice but redistricting has made that task harder,” he said.

Midterm drop-off also is a very real problem for Democrats: Voter turnout falls dramatically for them in midterm elections, no matter who the president is — and especially among young people, blacks and Hispanics, the very voters who put Obama in office.

In 2014, House Democrats plan to work with the president's team on an aggressive campaign to push out all of those voting blocs with presidential gadgets, technology and Obama himself.

Which leads to the next challenge — a scattered congressional campaign apparatus that many longtime Washington-based Democrat strategists point to as the reason they will never regain a majority.

Working for a congressional campaign committee is not for the faint of heart; staffers tend to be cutthroat workaholics with high expectations for everyone around them, making for a high burnout level. The worst part of that staff exodus is the loss of institutional knowledge, cycle after cycle, which apparently has hit the Democrats' congressional committee harder than normal.

It is compounded by a campaign committee chairman — New York Democrat Steve Israel — who is as nice as can be but not as hands-on as he should be; he seems willing to let other House Democrats meddle in the operation.

Complaints from strategists range from lack of response to simple things (such as opening field offices or hooking up phones) to larger things (such as national messaging in cookie-cutter ads that may play well in Chicago but not in Peoria).

A larger concern is the lack of political instinct: targeting races with a large amount of resources that Democrats should have known they would lose. A perfect example is Charlie Wilson's quixotic 2012 quest to regain his eastern Ohio seat from Republican Rep. Bill Johnson; Wilson lost by more than 6.5 percentage points.

Which leads to the final obstacle: the president's agenda.

In last week's State of the Union address, he set goals that included raising the minimum wage, increasing spending on infrastructure with stimulus-type projects, blasting climate change with threats of executive orders, and an aggressive push to pass gun-control legislation.

Many of those agenda items are wildly unpopular in the kind of right-leaning districts that Democrats must win to regain the majority, according to Brock McCleary, a Pennsylvania-based pollster.

“For Democrats, the path to the majority goes through rural Midwestern and Southern districts that quite like their guns,” he explained.

Nevertheless, analyst Kondik believes the economy, although unpredictable 18 months out from the next midterm election, may prove to be a saving grace for House Democrats.

“The outlook is sunnier now than it was at this time four years ago, and the Republican brand is weaker,” he said, adding that Democrats could have a decent midterm if both factors continue.

Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media. (412-320-7879 or

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