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Sowing and Reaping

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For most of last year, House Democrats were viewing this November's election like a trip to the dentist. House Republicans seemed to be cruising toward winning their sixth consecutive election, and Democrats were less than enthusiastic about embarking on yet another losing campaign.

Soon after taking over as minority leader early last year, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and her close advisers devised a plan to capture House control that might have required four years to accomplish. Some senior Democratic strategists, as well as most Republican insiders and nonpartisan experts, concluded that the 2001-2002 redistricting left so few competitive House districts nationwide that it might take even longer -- until after the next round of redistricting in 2012 -- before Democrats could find the key to unlock the House.

Now, however, many once-dispirited House Democrats believe that the conditions are ripe for lightning to strike. Democrats think their electoral prospects have markedly improved over the past three months, thanks to President Bush's continuing struggles with the economy and Iraq, and to the enthusiasm generated within their own party by their presumptive presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.

A newfound optimism appears to have swept across the House Democrats' often-feisty factions. "It's palpable," House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters recently. "There is a real sense of pragmatism among Democrats to win this election."

And Rep. Robert Matsui of California, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, claimed in an interview: "We only need to keep the status quo in order to take back the House. Unless Bush pulls the kind of national security issue into the campaign as he did in 2002," with the partisan debate over the Homeland Security Department legislation, "Democrats will be in very good shape."

Like Boston Red Sox fans during spring training, hardy Democrats know from their painful experiences over the past decade that the World Series title remains far away. But they cite numerous reasons to justify their confidence that a House takeover is within reach, including the jolt of anti-Bush energy that has invigorated their party's base, the development of campaign talking points that have unified rank-and-file House Democrats, and the recruitment of a roster of credible candidates that -- while hardly deep -- has put enough contests in play to give the party visions of winning the 218 seats needed for a majority. The Democrats do not even feel disheartened by the Texas "re-redistricting" coup orchestrated last year by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, which could eliminate seven Democratic seats. Republicans currently hold an 11-seat House majority.

Politically astute lawmakers, like freshman Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., a former top aide to President Clinton, cite the results of opinion polls that "give us national wind" because of public unhappiness over what Emanuel describes as the "jobless economy" and the "endless occupation" in Iraq.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who has lengthy experience in crafting the House Democrats' message, agreed. "What generates momentum is the mood of the country that we are moving in the wrong direction," DeLauro said. "When administration officials say that things are hunky-dory, the public is not that dumb. The budget deficit, for example, is important to people, because they no longer feel that their kids will have a better life."

Democrats are ecstatic over their party's win in the February 17 special election to fill the seat of former Rep. Ernie Fletcher, R-Ky., who was elected governor last November. In the special election, Democrat Ben Chandler, a former Kentucky attorney general who had lost the gubernatorial contest, defeated Republican state Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr, 55 percent to 43 percent, in a district that had been trending comfortably Republican in recent years. "There has been a shift in the political mood in the district since November," Chandler said in interview. "There is a feeling against the administration's lack of credibility."

Chandler's victory marked the first time since 1991 that a Democrat won a Republican-held House seat in a special election. And Democrats were quick to note that back in early 1994, the Republicans unexpectedly captured a neighboring Kentucky district long held by Democrats in a special election; that result was a precursor to the GOP's 52-seat gain -- and capture of the House -- the following November.

Democrats hope to accelerate their momentum by winning another special election in June for the seat vacated by Rep. Bill Janklow, R-S.D., who resigned in January following his conviction for manslaughter in the death of a motorcyclist. Democrat Stephanie Herseth, who gave Janklow a competitive contest in 2002, is the early favorite.

But in making their case for taking House control in November, Democrats concede that they will need to win more than open seats. Their prospect of perhaps picking up three or four additional seats because of Republican retirements will likely be balanced by Democratic losses in Texas. Consequently, Democrats face the challenge of unseating at least a dozen GOP incumbents to regain the majority, assuming that all sitting Democrats win re-election.

Democrats are focusing their efforts on three groups of GOP incumbents: first-termers, such as Reps. Bob Beauprez of Colorado, Max Burns of Georgia, and Rick Renzi of Arizona, who won narrowly or against flawed opponents in 2002; perennial targets in swing districts, such as Reps. John Hostettler of Indiana, Anne Northup of Kentucky, and Heather Wilson of New Mexico; and emerging targets, such as Reps. Michael Ferguson of New Jersey and Sam Graves of Missouri.

Several Democratic sources said that Pelosi, Matsui, and their key advisers may seek to place a larger number of seats in play, but they won't make their final targeting decisions until September, after they discern the national political climate. "It will be more difficult for us in states that are not presidential battlegrounds, because we will have to do get-out-the-vote ourselves," a House Democratic leadership aide said.

House Republican campaign operatives, for their part, remain largely dismissive of the Democrats' prospects, noting that several Democratic hopefuls are poorly funded, inexperienced, or both. Still, some Republicans are wary of the political burden their party shoulders for wielding complete control in Washington.

"The fact that we lost the Kentucky seat was a wake-up call to redouble our efforts...We can't take for granted that we are in the majority," said House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif. "The president understands the interdependence of a Republican majority. We need to keep producing." Dreier has been a confidant of Bush's, and he co-chaired Arnold Schwarzenegger's successful California gubernatorial bid last fall.

Democrats, bolstered by Chandler's success, hope to use the same model to prevail elsewhere in November. The DCCC spent $1.4 million to identify and contact 30,000 likely Democratic voters in the Kentucky district. With an estimated 300 local volunteers, and 350 workers bused in from Washington during the campaign's final days, Democrats mobilized a far greater turnout than had been expected. For his part, Chandler concluded that Republicans were especially vulnerable because of "not keeping their promises to veterans," especially on health care. "We were surprised by our victory margin," he said.

The focus on veterans' issues may be a successful offshoot of Pelosi's initiative to expand legislative outreach programs to various issue-based constituencies, including veterans, labor union members, small-business owners, African-Americans, and Hispanics. Pelosi has met several times with leaders of national veterans' organizations and has discussed how policies would be different if Democrats were in charge. In addition, her staff has developed regular e-mail and other communication channels with these groups to reinforce contacts by Pelosi and key Democratic lawmakers. "The outside groups tell us that they have never had this level of outreach from Democratic leadership," said Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly.

But it hardly escaped attention on Capitol Hill that Pelosi failed to venture into Kentucky during the recent campaign. Asked about her assistance, Chandler voiced "admiration for her energy, determination, critical thinking, and ability to raise money," yet he added, "It's a lie to say that I'll do what she wants."

Pelosi will be tested as House campaigns go into full swing in the coming months. Those close to her say that her hands-on management and her intensive focus on the party's message and fundraising will be a plus. "She has created a persona of her own across the country that's very important for us," Matsui said. "Many people want her to be speaker." But House Republicans will continue to try to exploit Pelosi's potential vulnerability as a "San Francisco liberal."

Pelosi's status as an emerging star will take her party only so far, however. To succeed in regaining the House in November, Democrats acknowledge, they will need a strong performance by Kerry in selected districts. "If Kerry wins, the odds that we take back the House and Senate increase significantly ... not because of coattails, but because of the context of the debate," said Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich. Matusi added that Kerry will be a "great candidate for us.... He's smart, wily, and knows how to run a campaign. We'll need that in some places where it would be very difficult for us."

Other House Democrats remain cautious about how closely they want to tie their fortunes to Kerry's, especially in the more conservative South, where some lawmakers already have distanced themselves from the party's presumptive nominee. "We will put together a campaign that will take advantage of the voters' energy, regardless of how Kerry does," one Democratic strategist said.

Many Democratic lawmakers contend that the key is focusing on the record of the Republican-controlled Congress. Yet one of the top GOP leaders at the helm dismissed such a strategy this week. "Democrats are always going to be against whatever we are doing," DeLay said. "They know that they have nothing to run on." For now, the increasingly confident opposition is eager to engage.

 
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