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Democrats Breathing Easier Now

House Democratic leaders had a clear message for their nervous rank and file as they assessed the Pennsylvania special election results Wednesday morning: It might not be that bad.

The Democratic victory in the late Rep. John Murtha’s district punctured the Republican narrative that a GOP machine turbocharged by tea party energy would run roughshod over the Democratic majority this fall by running against health care, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and President Barack Obama, Democrats said.

“The way I’d sum it up is, ‘Not so fast,'” freshman Rep. Gerry Connolly said. The Virginia Democrat noted that Republicans had touted the election pitting Murtha staffer Mark Critz against Republican businessman Tim Burns as the kind they needed to win in a socially conservative district that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) carried in the 2008 presidential election. “They are the ones who hyped it as tailor-made for them.”

House Republicans acknowledged that they were disappointed with the result and conceded that the loss will require them to tweak their strategy. But even though the overall political environment would appear to favor the GOP, some House Democrats were exultant Wednesday.

“Where’s the wave?” freshman Rep. Betsy Markey (D-Colo.) quipped.

“They started replacing the nameplates a little too early in this election cycle,” said Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a vice chairwoman at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Democrats said they feel that things have been trending in their direction in the past two months, pointing to upticks in their poll numbers, improvement in the jobs picture, a debate on financial reform that has the GOP playing defense and an early rollout of benefits under the health care law.

“Things right now are clicking,” a Democratic leadership aide said.

Pelosi and DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) received a standing ovation Wednesday from the Democratic Caucus celebrating the victory.

“The Republicans did a test drive of their November strategy in Pennsylvania 12, and it crashed,” Van Hollen said. “What Mark Critz did was focus on the choices that people have on issues that they care about, especially on jobs and the economy, and demonstrated that the efforts to scare voters by talking about President Obama or Speaker Pelosi didn’t work.”

House Democratic leaders continue to tell vulnerable Members that they have a plan for victory. “The message to them is if you are doing what you need to do back home and you are defining your plan on the economy and jobs then you are going to be OK,” the leadership aide said.

Democrats are pointing not just to Critz but to the string of six straight contested special election victories they have won, including three in the past year.

That’s not to say that there isn’t still plenty of angst in the Democratic ranks.

Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) cautioned that leaders should not overread the Critz victory as a sign they can keep forcing moderates into tough votes, such as passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act or repealing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law before the Pentagon is onboard — two gay rights priorities backed by Pelosi.

“I really have an issue with discrimination, but we have to look at the politics of it,” he said. “You are not going to be able to go forward with your agenda if you’re not in the majority.”

Ruppersberger said voters back home are concerned about jobs, the economy and the debt, and the Congress should remain focused on those issues.

“Nobody can take anything for granted on either side,” he said.

Connolly said many House Democrats are hoping that they’ve seen the last of the tough votes this Congress.

“The Speaker promised that the heavy lifting was over,” he said, although he’s not sure “don’t ask, don’t tell” qualifies as a heavy lift.

“As a country, by and large, we’re over that,” he said. “You can’t ignore all the tough issues — that’s why we’re here.”

House Republicans did their best to put a positive spin on the special election Wednesday, playing up the high Democratic turnout for the Pennsylvania Senate primary between Rep. Joe Sestak (D) and Sen. Arlen Specter as a reason for the defeat.

“We lost there because of the structure of the electorate that particular day,” said Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. “If the enemy gets to choose the day to battle, it makes a difference in the outcome.”

But behind the smiles and assurances that the majority was still within their reach, Republican leaders acknowledged that the loss in Pennsylvania revealed just how steep their climb will be over the next few months.

“I do think we will reclaim the majority,” Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) told reporters on Wednesday. “But last night is evidence of the fact that we have a lot of work to do and we just can’t get ahead of ourselves.”

Minority Leader John Boehner said Republicans need to continue to organize and fundraise in order to present a strong front in November.

“I think it’s pretty clear we’ve got to continue to organize, we have to continue to work on our agenda project that you’ll be hearing more about this week and next in terms of listening to the American people,” the Ohio Republican said. “We’ve got to continue to raise resources. We can’t be at a financial disadvantage like we are now.”

Rep. Darrell Issa said that faulty NRCC polling raised Republicans’ expectations in the Pennsylvania race.

“The polling is going to have to be retooled,” the California Republican said. “This was a district we thought we would lose until the polling told us we might not, and that changed expectations.”

But one Republican, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Republicans should have done more to clear the field for Burns, who had a challenge from the right for the party’s nomination in Tuesday’s primary, which coincided with the special election.

The Member said the NRCC ran a “cookie-cutter” campaign that focused on Pelosi and anti-Washington rhetoric instead of tailoring the message to the district.

“It’s all inside-the-Beltway bureaucracy over there,” the Member said. “You have to get people on the ground, build a constituency, know what the issues are, know the ins and outs of the district.”

Rep. Jeff Flake didn’t sugarcoat the results, either.

“It sure dampens our enthusiasm, there’s no other way to say it,” the Arizona Republican said. “We’ve got work to do.”

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