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Democrats See Suburban Moms as Key to Retaking House

Democrats See Suburban Moms as Key to Retaking House

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - February 28, 2012


Democrats angling to reclaim the House of Representatives in November say they are "in range" of their goal, but need kid-toting women in the suburbs to help them get there.

Rep. Steve Israel, a New York lawmaker leading the Democrats' charge, told reporters Tuesday that the unaffiliated "soccer mom" in "independent, fairly affluent" suburban districts is "the unique subset of voters that I obsess on, absolutely obsess on."

"That's our sweet spot," he said at a breakfast meeting sponsored by the Third Way, a centrist think tank. And Israel believes the way to find that kind of voter is by looking to districts led by Tea Party-affiliated members.

In the 2010 midterm election, 9 million independents swung for Republican candidates, giving the GOP control of the lower chamber. Independents "were frothing at the mouth, angry in 2010," said Israel. Focus groups and polling, though, tell him these voters cast their ballots against the Democrat in district races, and not necessarily for the "Tea Party Republican."

"They couldn't even tell you who they voted for, many of them," he said. "They remembered that they voted against the Democrat." Israel's party now sees an opportunity to better define their opponents in these types of districts.

Women were split between the two parties in 2010, though Obama won them by about 13 percentage points four years ago. But the recent debate surrounding the president's mandate for contraception insurance coverage could be a boon to Democrats in some districts. Israel says the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which he chairs, raised $650,000 in online donations during the House Oversight Committee's recent hearings on the mandate. The issue, which Democrats are framing around women's rights and access to contraception, has ignited the base, Israel said.

The DCCC is prepared to raise the issue in order to attract independent voters in races they deem appropriate.

"We're going to be exquisitely targeted in our message," the six-term congressman said. "We've got it down to a science: We can identify persuadables where denying a contraceptive to a woman works and what drives them out, and we can also indentify persuadables in which that doesn't work and where we will talk about something else."

Democrats need a net gain of 25 seats in order to retake the majority in the House. The DCCC plans to win back control by focusing on 43 Republican-held seats in districts Barack Obama won four years ago, and 19 red seats that backed both Obama in '08 and John Kerry in 2004.

Israel said there's "no way" Democrats can regain all of the Obama seats, but estimated they can secure 13 of them; that number, coupled with 13 of the Obama/Kerry districts, would bring their potential gain to 26 seats.

Analysts predict an uphill battle for Democrats, characterizing a 26-seat pickup as a wave -- and history shows that back-to-back waves are rare. But Israel, a self-proclaimed student of history, said, "You can't develop a strategy based on the last war."

Democrats also have 15 vulnerable incumbents to protect. If they lose a third of them, Israel said, their net gain drops to 21 -- "still in range" of their target. But if the endangered lawmakers were able to make it through the "tsunami" of 2010, he argues, they can survive in 2012. Redistricting, however, has created an even tougher path for some of them. North Carolina's Heath Shuler, for example, chose to retire rather than compete in a new, more conservative district.

Democrats predict picking up three or four seats in Illinois and two or three seats in California. They've also pledged to compete in Texas, where Israel envisions picking up additional spots.

Overall, the DCCC chairman said, candidates will be running with the president. He is meeting with Obama's campaign manager, Jim Messina, and the president's senior adviser David Plouffe later this week.

Still, to avoid being swept into a national narrative, Israel is encouraging Democratic candidates to keep the election local, as if they were running for town mayor. "If you're running because you have an ideology you want to pursue as a member of the U.S. Congress, you're probably not going to win. If you want to debate economics, you're probably not going to win," he said. "If you knock on a door and somebody says, 'There's a pothole outside' and you say, 'That's not my job; my job is to figure out the European debt crisis,' you will lose. Get a shovel. Get some asphalt. Fill the pothole." 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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