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2014 Could Bring a Political Novelty: A More Limited House Playing Field

The 2014 playing field of competitive House races could be the smallest in a decade.

While recruiting efforts, retirements and other political and legislative developments during the next year will heavily determine the final House map, the cycle begins with a reduced number of competitive-looking seats.

There are fewer members out of step with their district’s partisan lean, it is the second election after lines were redrawn in redistricting, and the number of open seats will likely be more limited than in recent years.

Based on 2012 data, there are 16 Republican members in seats President Barack Obama won and nine Democratic members in seats Mitt Romney won — a much smaller universe than in recent memory. National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden of Oregon said last week that the field of competitive seats had fallen into the 40s from a much larger number in 2010.

Last cycle’s redistricting served as a sort of political realignment after three successive wave elections produced a higher-than-usual number of members who were political misfits with their districts.

“Between ’06, ’08 and ’10, almost all the [political] outliers were swept out,” said GOP strategist Brock McCleary, who was in charge of polling for the NRCC last cycle. “As it starts, there just are not a bevy of opportunities on either side.”

Democrats, who need a net gain of 17 seats to regain the majority, disagree and see a broad swath of targetable Republicans.

“There are a number of opportunities where Republicans are out of step with their districts and vulnerable,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Deputy Executive Director Jesse Ferguson said. “The field expands as the GOP majority continues to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.”

The DCCC believes there are as many as 52 seats held by Republicans that can reasonably be targeted and could be put into play.

That’s a stretch, but in the 22 months before the elections, a lot could change.

To expand the playing field, the DCCC has been working in overdrive to recruit candidates, getting an earlier start than redistricting allowed last cycle. DCCC Chairman Steve Israel of New York began making recruiting calls for 2014 as early as election night 2012.

And Democrats think intraparty strife in the Republican-controlled House, divided between pragmatic and principled wings, could plant the seeds of a winning narrative. If 2012 was a referendum on Obama, they expect 2014 to be a referendum on an unpopular GOP-controlled House.

“The Republicans are dealing with such internal chaos on the House side,” said Jef Pollock, an influential Democratic pollster. “When you look at … what is going on every time we have a big issue, from [Speaker John A. Boehner’s failed] plan B to the fiscal cliff to fiscal cliff II, it’s just like chaos.”

He added: “At some point the voters get sick of it.”

On the other hand, Republicans believe voters will sour on Obama and his party over the next two years. Perhaps D.C.’s sclerotic dysfunction will end up being seen as the fault of the Democratic White House and Senate.

And Republicans feel as if historical trends begin on their side.

“Off years tend to be tougher on the president and his party,” said Glen Bolger, a top GOP pollster and expert on the House landscape. “The demographics are not as harmful to Republicans in off years as they are in presidential years.”

Both House committees are getting to work focusing on what’s in their control 22 months before midterm voters hit the polls: targeting and recruiting.

The NRCC blasted out a memo to reporters last week with a list of its top seven Democratic targets — all of whom represent districts won by Romney. It included the last surviving conservative Blue Dogs, such as Georgia Rep. John Barrow, Minnesota Rep. Collin C. Peterson, Utah Rep. Jim Matheson and North Carolina Rep. Mike McIntyre.

Each survived a Republican-controlled redraw of their seats and presidential-year turnout in Republican districts.

McIntyre’s and Matheson’s wins were the two closest House races in the country according to a Bloomberg analysis (654 votes and 768 votes, respectively), so Republicans have good reason to see opportunity to do better in a second go-round with these district lines.

And the matchups could very well provide voters with a dose of déjà vu. The 2012 GOP nominees against McIntyre and Matheson are said to be weighing second bids.

Barrow, for his part, is a wily survivor. But Georgia Republicans are already gearing up to take him on again.

Out west, the NRCC is targeting two Arizona districts with swing partisan electorates that might be more favorable to the GOP in a nonpresidential year. They are the 1st and 2nd districts, held by Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick and Ron Barber.

Democrats are working out their own list of top targeted districts.

Suburban and urban seats that voted for Obama and a Republican House member in 2012 are at the top of the list for Democrats this cycle.

Republican Rep. Gary G. Miller of California begins the 113th Congress as perhaps its most vulnerable member. He represents a distinctly Democratic seat, the Golden State’s 31st, anchored in the city of San Bernardino. He’s a member, in no small part, because a Democrat didn’t make it beyond the unique nonpartisan top-two primary.

Miller beat another Republican with 55 percent of the vote on Nov. 6 — while Obama received about 57 percent of ballots cast. Democrat Pete Aguilar, a candidate in 2012 who didn’t make it past the primary, is considered likely to try again. He told CQ Roll Call he is interested in the seat but hasn’t made a decision yet.

Elsewhere in California, the suburban and rural 21st District, represented by freshman Republican Rep. David Valadao, is also on the Democratic target list. He won his first term with 59 percent of the vote as Obama beat Romney by about 9 points there. Those numbers lead Democrats to believe that with a better candidate — Democratic nominee John Hernandez was subpar — the district can flip to their column.

In Illinois’ 13th District, a suburban and exurban seat, Republican Rodney Davis beat Democrat David Gill by only 1,002 votes. It was the closest House race in November with a Republican victor. Given its almost even split on the presidential level, Democrats have put it on the highlighted target list.

Sophomore Rep. Michael G. Grimm, who represents a New York district anchored in Staten Island, is seen by Democrats as particularly vulnerable. According to preliminary calculations, Grimm’s district went for Obama in 2012 with about 52 percent of the vote. And the issues Democrats raised about the congressman last cycle — allegations of ethical impropriety, which the congressman denied — will continue to be fodder for any campaign.

Both parties believe retirements are likely to be minimal on the heels of a redistricting cycle that produced a fair amount of turnover.

That early assessment, along with many others, is subject to change. The House landscape is generally much more fluid than the Senate — and is more susceptible to national political winds.

“Right now, projecting what’s going to happen is like betting everything you’ve got after you’ve been dealt one card and that card is facedown,” Bolger, the GOP pollster, said. “There’s just so much that is unpredictable.”

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