- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 21, 2014

Miracles can happen — or so say House Democrats longing to win majority control of the chamber in November.

They need a net gain of 17 seats to seize the speaker’s gavel, which would require winning the lion’s share of roughly two dozen Republican-held seats targeted by Democrats this year — most of them in GOP-leaning districts.

Pundits and pollsters give Democrats virtually no chance of pulling it off, but the party faithful nevertheless hang on to hope.

“I am a believer,” said Rep. James P. McGovern of Massachusetts, one of the most liberal Democrats in Congress.

“I read regularly all the political pundits and the polls showing who’s up and who’s down on all the news shows. But I think people are not happy with the way this place is being run and, on the issues, I think people agree with us. If we get our message out and get the vote out, we win,” he said.

Indeed, Americans overwhelmingly dislike what is happening on Capitol Hill. A Fox News poll last week found that 79 percent of those surveyed disapproved of Congress. Another recent poll showed that for the first time, a majority of voters — 51 percent — want to oust their own representatives.

House Republicans dismiss any suggestion that their majority is in danger and expect to expand their edge by as many as 10 seats.

Republicans also have high hopes of capturing the Senate as well. The party has an excellent shot of winning the net six seats needed for complete control of Congress.

Much of the difficulty facing House Democrats is that the path to midterm success runs predominantly through Republican-leaning districts. Republicans now have a 233-199 edge in the House, with three seats vacant.

Of the 24 Republican seats identified as “in play” by the Rothenberg Political Report, just nine are in districts that backed President Obama in the 2012 election. Winning in those districts could put Democrats more than halfway toward their goal.

But Democrats then would have to cobble together eight more wins in conservative districts, beating expectations in states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Democrats also would have to successfully defend about 25 seats in tough contests. Almost all of the closest races this year, pollsters say, are for seats held by Democrats.

The eight House races that Rothenberg labeled “pure toss-up” include two Republican seats, those of Rep. Mike Coffman in Colorado and the open seat of retiring Rep. Tom Latham in Iowa.

The remaining 15 closest races identified as having a Democratic “tilt” or “lean” also included only two Republican seats, those of Rep. Michael G. Grimm in New York and the open seat of retiring Rep. Gary G. Miller in Colorado.

House Democrats also would have to beat historical trends and overcome an electorate bitterly dissatisfied with the leader of their party: Mr. Obama.

‘Six-year itch’

Democrats are vying against curse of the “six-year itch” that almost always inflicts election losses on the party in power during a president’s second term. The party that occupies the White House has lost seats in all but four midterm elections since the Civil War.

The most recent exceptions involved unique circumstances. House Republicans gained eight seats in 2002 under George W. Bush, as the nation rallied behind the president after the 9/11 attacks a year earlier. In 1998, House Democrats picked up five seats under President Clinton, which coincided with backlash against Republicans for pushing to impeach the president over the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal.

Democratic leaders can’t count on outside forces to shape the election. Instead, they are bound to an president whose popularity is sinking.

Mr. Obama’s approval rating stood at 42 percent Friday in the Gallup daily tracking poll.

“So how can [Democrats] overcome all that?” asked Nathan L. Gonzales, deputy editor of The Rothenberg Political Report. “They have to win so many. So many have to break in their favor.”

Can the tide be turned?

He said the only thing he could think of that would reverse the political currents would be another government shutdown that voters blame on Republicans. Lawmakers avoided that scenario last week by passing a stopgap spending bill to keep the government running until after the elections.

Mr. Gonzales said that even a dramatic increase in Mr. Obama’s favorability or job approval rating likely wouldn’t give Democrats a big enough boost to take back the House.

“Both historically and under the current circumstances, it is virtually impossible for Democrats to get the House majority,” he said.

The dire outlook didn’t faze Rep. Steve Israel of New York, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He wouldn’t rule out an Election Day surprise.

The country is still in the grip of political turmoil that has produced “wave” elections in three of the past four cycles, he said.

“This is the most volatile environment I’ve ever seen,” said Mr. Israel. “In 2006, we knew that we were going to kick in the doors. In 2008, we knew that we were going to kick the doors wider open. In 2010, they knew that they were going to kick in the doors. What we are seeing now in every single poll is a volatility across the board.”

He refused to make a prediction about the outcome this year.

“My job isn’t to predict; it is to prepare. We are prepared for a really tough environment. We are prepared for a more favorable environment,” Mr. Israel said.

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