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DCCC’s Israel Cautious About Whether House Is in Play

Rep. Steve Israel of New York leads House Democrats' campaign arm. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Rep. Steve Israel of New York leads House Democrats' campaign arm. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

New York Rep. Steve Israel hesitated Thursday when asked if Democrats could win back the House in 2014.

“I’m not willing to say that. It’s way too early. We’ll pick up seats in 2014,” the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said in an extended interview with CQ Roll Call. “If we do win the House back in 2014 — and I’m not saying we will — it will be because of the infrastructure that we put in place before the end of 2012.”

The typically bullish Israel repeatedly declared that his party could win the speaker’s gavel in the months leading up to the November elections. They fell woefully short of doing so, although the DCCC netted a respectable eight seats.

But 2012 proved to be a damaging cycle for House Democrats in another way.

After massive losses in 2010, Republicans controlled redistricting. The GOP crafted congressional district boundaries that solidified gains in competitive battlegrounds such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and North Carolina. Democrats did benefit from redraws in Illinois, Arizona and California, although to a lesser degree.

This cycle, the DCCC must pick up 17 seats to win the House majority. To accomplish this, Israel said his committee has identified a field of 48 competitive seats, including 18 seats that perform better for Democrats in a midterm election cycle in states such as Arkansas, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

“We have 20 top-tier districts that we’re recruiting in, and it’s only December,” Israel said.

To maximize their chances, House Democrats started to recruit candidates early. In some cases, that meant on election night.

Israel mixed condolence calls with recruitment pitches to failed candidates such as Val Demings in Florida, Brendan Mullen in Indiana and Nate Shinagawa in New York. The committee had its third recruitment meeting this morning, during which recently elected House members from California phoned in at 5 a.m. PST.

But recruitment can be a challenge this cycle. The conventional wisdom is that the party controlling the White House loses seats in Congress during the president’s second term.

“Yes, it’s true that there is thing called the ‘itch,'” Israel said. “That itch got scratched pretty good in 2010. It is true that the president in a midterm, his party can expect to do poorly. But that only happens once in two presidential terms. The worst is over.”

On his second tour of duty at the DCCC, Israel has settled into his second floor office at the Democratic National Committee. Unmatched photo frames line the widow ledge, including a vertical shot of Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s arm around the New York congressman. Another photo of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel — the DCCC chairman in 2006 — graces the wall by the door.

As he begins a new cycle, Israel has only a couple of regrets from 2012.

Democrats failed to neutralize the coal issue in two districts, he said, as two members described seeing “stop the war on coal” signs all over their districts. Reps. Ben Chandler, D-Ky., and Mark Critz, D-Pa., lost re-election.

There was also an upset by Rep. Gary G. Miller, R-Calif., in a district the president won with 57 percent. Miller and another Republican won the district’s “top two” primary last June, shutting out all the Democratic candidates in the November elections. This cycle, Miller has become Israel’s most often-mentioned target.

Next on his Israel’s list? The 14th District in northeastern Ohio. Rep. Steven C. LaTourette’s last-minute retirement allowed local GOP officials to pick a replacement nominee, Rep.-elect David Joyce. He defeated a perennial candidate last month by about 15 points, but he won’t have it so easy in 2014 in this competitive district.

Israel is also hopeful that maps will be redrawn in two states, yielding additional seats for Democrats. Courts are considering whether maps in Texas and Florida must be redrawn to adhere to legal standards.

“It’s out of my control,” Israel said. “What’s in my control is if districts change, we will have recruits ready to go and ready to run.”

Abby Livingston contributed to this report.

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