When Republicans picked up 63 House seats in the 2010 midterm elections, they didn't just wipe out the previous Democratic majority. They pulled off the largest congressional sweep since 1948.
"It was a message from voters, that they were rejecting the big-government agenda pursued by Democrats in Washington during the first two years of Obama's presidency," said Paul Lindsay, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee, citing the $831 billion stimulus bill and health care reform as failed polices spurned by the nation. "Americans were fed up with how Democrats were running Washington and how they were spending their money."
Meanwhile, the campaign arm of House Democrats was left battered and bruised. "It's always hard to have a tough election night, and it took a little time for folks to get back up off the mat," said Jesse Ferguson, national press secretary for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He said that they have since dusted themselves off and are armed with a viable strategy for winning a majority of House seats come November.
"Fifteen months ago, no one thought that we'd even be within striking distance of that," Ferguson acknowledged. "But the combination of Republicans' increasingly toxic agenda, and strong efforts that we've made on behalf of Democrats, has really turned the tide."
Not that Republicans are shaken by this newfound confidence. In fact, they are equally assured by their own strategy for not only maintaining the Republican House majority but also widening it. In interviews with The Root, campaign leaders from both parties explained why they think their team will be in charge after the next election.
The Pulse of America
To understand why the Democrats are positioned to take back the House, Ferguson suggested looking to history. "Since 1900, Republicans have had a majority of 241 seats or more five times," he said. "Each time they've had that, they've lost an average of 48 seats the next election. We need to win 25."
Ferguson explained this historical trend as the result of Republicans who, emboldened by a sizable majority, embrace an agenda that's more radical than what most voters actually want. This Congress, he said, has squeezed itself into that same ineffective mold.
"The American people voted in 2010 for a Congress that they thought would focus on job creation and protecting the middle class. What they got was a Congress that looks out for the ultra-wealthy, looks out for big oil companies and is willing to turn Medicare into a coupon," said Ferguson, referring to the House's recent passage of the Paul Ryan budget, which would permanently extend the Bush tax cuts, reduce the corporate tax rate and restructure Medicare as a block grant to states. "We see, in poll after poll, this deep sense of buyer's remorse that's set in with voters."
The polling is actually mixed. In the latest Reuters generic ballot poll (pdf), respondents prefer Democrats in Congress by 4 percentage points. The most recent Bloomberg poll (pdf) shows House Republicans leading among voters by 2 percent. All surveys show, however, that Congress in general has a painfully low approval rating — according to a recent Gallup poll, just 12 percent.
"I think voters are upset with Washington," explained Lindsay on behalf of the GOP. "And Democrats control Washington."
He argued that this disenchantment isn't with the Republican agenda; it's an extension of what voters have been feeling since 2010. "A lot of the issues that voters went to the polls for in 2010 are still prevalent today," he said, adding that Republicans stand to gain more seats on the strength of those concerns.
"Here in Washington we're still talking about spending, we're talking about Obamacare and we're talking about an energy policy being pursued by this president and Democrats in Congress that is leading to higher prices at the pump and less energy production here at home," Lindsay continued. "And we're going to hold Democrats accountable for everything they've been doing since November of 2010."
Strategy by the Numbers
Regardless of what voters may or may not "feel" come November, both sides say that winning the House is a matter of hard metrics and strategy.
"From our perspective, we're picking up where we left off in 2010. There are a number of Democrats that were left on the playing field, so to speak, who skated by in 2010 by hundreds of votes," said Lindsay. Among those vulnerable Democratic candidates being targeted by the NRCC are Kentucky Rep. Ben Chandler, who faces a rematch this year with Republican challenger Andy Barr, and New York Rep. Tim Bishop, also facing his same challenger from 2010, Randy Altschuler.
"We're also on offense in a number of districts that are more competitive now because of the redistricting cycle," said Lindsay. "And in North Carolina, two Democrats have retired, leaving us open seats there."
In January the DCCC unveiled its "Red to Blue" program, which deploys financial and other assistance to 33 of the most competitive races in battleground states and districts. It's no coincidence that their list of premier recruits includes Latino candidates, such as retired NASA astronaut José Hernández and emergency room physician Raul Ruiz (both of California), and African Americans, including former Orlando police chief Val Demings (Florida) and Nevada State Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford.
Ferguson also noted that a huge segment of Democratic voters just didn't show up for the 2010 midterm elections, but he expects them to turn out this year to vote out Republicans and to support President Obama's re-election. "There are 64 Republicans in Congress today who are in districts that President Obama won in 2008," he said. "Eighteen of those districts John Kerry even won in 2004, so these are districts with a strong Democratic DNA. If Democratic voters get out on Election Day, and we think they will, those Republican incumbents are in trouble."
War on Women?
The Democratic effort that has gained the widest notice is the party's branding of a Republican "war on women" by highlighting this year's efforts to restrict contraception coverage, or any health care service, in the name of religious freedom.
"What's interesting is that the Obama campaign and Democrats are trying their hardest to use women as a wedge in this election," said Lindsay. "The reason they are doing that is because they know that they're in danger of losing support among women in 2012 because of their agenda, whether it's Obamacare or the excessive spending they continue to support."
To that end, Lindsay said that Republican candidates have a compelling counter-message for women, many of whom he views as fearful about how health care reform will affect the decisions they make for their families. "Women, just like many Americans, do not want government telling them what is best," he said. "Unfortunately, that has been the mantra and goal of this administration and Democrats in Congress."
The Republican take on women's health, however, has already made a dent in the party's appeal to women, with a spate of recent polling suggesting that the GOP is losing support at a dramatic pace. A new USA Today-Gallup poll, for example, shows President Obama leading Mitt Romney among female voters in 12 swing states by 18 points.
But ultimately, Lindsay said, voters of all stripes will determine the outcome in November. "I think that you're going to see a grassroots movement among many groups throughout the country that are going to reject this president, Democrats in Congress and, most importantly, their policies."
For all of his assurances, Ferguson stopped short of saying that he knows for certain seven months in advance which party will get the House. "We're a bunch of realists and make our evaluation on the playing field," he said. "But control of the House is absolutely in play."
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.