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House Overview: One Year Out, Parties Prep for the Big Dance

After making substantial gains in the House in the past two election cycles, Democrats are in a defensive crouch as they prepare to defend their majority in the 2010 midterm elections, the first nationwide ballot box test of the Obama administration.

The governing party almost always loses seats in midterm elections, when the voter turnout is lower and the bulk of the energy and enthusiasm is with the opposition party. With 257 House seats, Democrats are nearing the maximum number of seats they could conceivably control under the current Congressional maps. Surveys show the 2010 elections could be unfriendly to incumbents.

A silver lining for House Democrats is that their big majority — 39 seats more than a 218-seat majority — probably gives them enough of a cushion to survive even a moderately unfavorable election year. Party leaders say they are reminding their Members about the historical trends in midterm elections and counseling them to be ready for determined Republican opposition.

“We have been working with our Members from Day One to be combat-ready,— Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) said. “No one’s complacent and everyone has been preparing.—

The McCain Democrats

The prime targets for Republicans include many of the 49 districts that elected or re-elected a Democrat in 2008, even as they backed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for president. GOP officials expect these districts will be even less friendly to Democrats in 2010, and so they’ve worked on securing serious opponents in as many districts as they can.

Many of these “McCain Democrats— are enrolled in the DCCC’s “Frontline— program, launched two cycles ago to help defend vulnerable incumbents. In this cycle, the program includes 42 Members from politically competitive districts to which party leaders are steering additional financial and logistical assistance. As October began, these Members had an average of $646,000 in their campaign accounts; 32 of the 42 Frontline Democrats had banked at least half a million dollars.

A major focus of GOP campaign officials will be battleground states such as Ohio, where Democrats control 10 of 18 House seats — four more than they held just four years ago. Republicans are promising serious challenges to Democratic Reps. Steve Driehaus, Mary Jo Kilroy and John Boccieri, who were first elected in 2008, and Rep. Zack Space, who is in his second term.

Former Rep. Steve Chabot (R), who is taking on Driehaus, and former state Sen. Steve Stivers (R), who is taking on Kilroy, are seeking rematches after losing in 2008.

Kilroy’s district is one of 11 House races that Roll Call currently rates as a tossup. The Democrats are defending seats in nine of those contests.

Democrats are also defending 20 districts rated as Leans Democratic, which means the party has a slight advantage in races that seem highly competitive at the moment. Ten GOP-held districts are rated as Leans Republican.

GOP strategists are attempting to expand the playing field by targeting veteran Democrats who haven’t been seriously challenged in many years. This subset includes Reps. Vic Snyder (Ark.), Ike Skelton (Mo.), Bart Gordon (Tenn.) and John Tanner (Tenn.).

Those four districts voted decisively for McCain, but the Republicans didn’t put up a serious fight in 2008 against any of those incumbents. Roll Call rates those districts as Likely Democratic, which means the incumbents are neither in serious danger nor completely safe.

“This is a much different approach,— said Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who heads up recruitment efforts for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

McCarthy said the GOP has “60 high-tier candidates— in Democratic-held districts and is well ahead of the pace the party set in candidate recruitment in 1994, the last year the GOP won control of the House from Democrats.

“Traveling the country, you see a greater excitement or momentum on our side than we’ve seen in the last couple of elections,— McCarthy said.

It remains to be seen, though, whether the Republicans will have the campaign funds to wage top-flight campaigns in dozens of districts. The NRCC raised $27.2 million in the first nine months of 2009, or $10 million less than they raised over a comparable period in 2007. DCCC fundraising is down $8.5 million, from $52.9 million over the first nine months of 2007 to $44.4 million over the first nine months of 2009.

‘Big Government’ Vs. ‘Realists’

Republican strategists say Democrats are vulnerable because voters are frustrated with the direction of the nation, including an expansion of the federal government and huge budget deficits. They point to the economic stimulus bill they say hasn’t created jobs and a cap-and-trade climate change bill they say is a job-killer.

Republicans have signaled that they will not hesitate to tie even the most moderate of Democrats to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), a pariah in conservative circles and someone Republicans say is both widely recognized and disliked. The NRCC already is putting out press releases on an almost-daily basis calling out vulnerable Democrats for siding with Pelosi and her “big-government agenda.—

“A lot of these Democrats portray themselves one way because the districts are more conservative than they are, but vote totally different in Washington, and people are waking up to that,— McCarthy said.

Van Hollen said everyone wants the economy to recover more quickly, but the stimulus bill was needed to get it back on track. He said voters will realize the Democrats are trying to remedy problems the Republicans caused.

“The American people are realists, and they know what a big hole we dug ourselves into and what a mess President Obama and the Congress inherited from the Bush administration,— he said.

Van Hollen said that “the big question on voters’ minds— next year will be, ‘Was my Member of Congress on my side and fighting for me during this difficult economic time?’ And I think it’s very clear that the Democrats have been very focused on trying to get us out of this economic mess and digging out from the last eight years and trying to get the economy moving again.—

Democratic officials also point to public opinion polls that continue to show poor approval ratings for the Republican Party, as well as a fissure between party moderates and conservatives ahead of the Nov. 3 special election in New York’s 23rd district.

A Smaller Field to Expand

After two watershed elections that saw Democrats make a net gain of 54 seats — the same number of seats that the GOP gained in the 1994 election cycle — the universe of Republican-held seats for Democrats to seriously contest is small.

Yet Democratic party strategists have embraced the mantra that the best offense is a good defense and say they are doing that by putting at least 20 GOP seats in play in 2010.

Their biggest target is Louisiana’s 2nd, a majority black, staunchly Democratic district in and around New Orleans where Rep. Anh “Joseph— Cao (R) last year unseated scandal-plagued Rep. William Jefferson (D). The district is widely viewed as the most likely to flip parties next year.

Democrats also are looking at a few districts where they’re fielding stronger candidates than they did in 2008. They include in Pennsylvania’s 15th, where Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan (D) is challenging Rep. Charlie Dent (R); and Ohio’s 12th, where Paula Brooks (D), a county commissioner in Columbus, is taking on Rep. Patrick Tiberi (R).

They also see several California districts, where the Republican incumbents haven’t faced serious opposition, as prime targets.

Though Democrats control 59 percent of the 435 House seats, Republicans are defending 12 of the 18 open seats that Members are giving up to run for other offices.

In most of these open-seat races, the political leanings of the district are so favorable to the defending party that no shift in partisan control is expected.

The Democrats have an early advantage in Delaware’s at-large district, which Rep. Mike Castle (R) is giving up to run for the Senate. And the party is at least an even-money bet to wrest away the suburban Chicago district of Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), another candidate for the Senate, and the suburban Philadelphia district of Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.),who is running for governor.

But the Democrats will be hard-pressed to hold three districts that incumbents are leaving to run for the Senate: the southern Louisiana district of Rep. Charlie Melancon, the western New Hampshire district of Paul Hodes; and the suburban Philadelphia district of Rep. Joe Sestak.

Emily Cadei contributed to this report.