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« SD-AL: Primary Win Bounces Noem Into Lead | Blog Home Page | NPR Poll Spells Trouble For Dems In November »

Retirements Force Dems To Shift Program To Defense

By Kyle Trygstad

With the swearing-in yesterday of Republican Rep. Tom Graves of Georgia, Democrats now hold a 255-178 majority in the House. And with a large majority comes the necessity in future elections to play more defense than offense, and that's exactly what Democrats are doing this year.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's Red-to-Blue program, inherently centered on playing offense, proved successful four years ago under the leadership of then-Chairman Rahm Emanuel as an effort to highlight the top Democratic candidates in the country and help them raise money. In the minority, it mostly assisted Democratic challengers running in Republican-held congressional districts.

This year, thanks to a large number of retirements in moderate districts, nearly 40 percent of the candidates in the program are running in districts left vacant by a Democratic incumbent. That includes seven of the 11 candidates whom the DCCC enrolled in the program on Monday.

Overall, 10 of the 26 candidates in the program are from Democrat-held districts. Five of the 26 are running in open Republican seats, and 11 are challenging a Republican incumbent. Included among the 10 is West Virginia's Mike Oliverio, who defeated longtime Rep. Alan Mollohan in a primary last month.

Polling shows a distinct anti-Washington mood among voters across the country, and handicappers have warned of the possibility of Republicans retaking the House. However, while an increasing number of retirements usually signal a bad climate for the majority party -- and that's certainly what 2010 is for Democrats -- in this volatile midterm election cycle some Democrats like Oliverio may have an advantage over the retiring Democratic incumbent: They can run against Washington just as much as their Republican opponent.

The 10 candidates in the Red-to-Blue program running in Democratic districts are: Oliverio; Chad Causey (AR-1); Joyce Elliott (AR-2); Denny Heck (WA-3); Roy Herron (TN-8); Julie Lassa (WI-7); Bryan Lentz (PA-7); Gary McDowell (MI-1); Stephene Moore (KS-3); and Trent Van Haaften (IN-8).

Still, the retirements and vulnerable first- and second-term members force Democrats to take much of their focus off of playing offense in the narrow set of GOP districts the party could challenge. Among the seats Democrats hope to pick up is that of Pennsylvania Republican Jim Gerlach, whose 6th district President Obama won with 58 percent in 2008. The party also has high hopes for Tarryl Clark, a state senator challenging Republican Michele Bachmann in Minnesota's 6th district and added to the program yesterday.

Another is state Sen. Colleen Hanabusa, running in a district held by Democrat Neil Abercrombie for the last 24 years. However, due mostly to a split vote with two Democrats running in a three-person special election for Hawaii's 1st district, Republican Charles Djou defeated Hanabusa and former Rep. Ed Case last month. Hanabusa is expected to take the heavily Democratic seat back in November.

"These candidates have stormed out of the gate, and the Red to Blue program will give them the extra edge to win in November," DCCC press secretary Ryan Rudominer said in a statement to RealClearPolitics. "They have already proven their commitment to being independent leaders who puts jobs and economic recovery first. We look forward to helping them keep making that case to voters in the months ahead."

The last two election cycles were about winning as many Republican seats as possible. This year, with the wind no longer at the party's back, the focus is on keeping the seats they've won -- and including the 10 Democrats from open Democratic districts in the Red-to-Blue program is part of that process.

"The Democrats are prepared for this...They've seen this wave coming. They've constructed a high seawall," former Republican Rep. Tom Davis said Sunday on ABC's "This Week." "The Republicans have got to take this anger and translate it in districts across the country if they're going to win."

"They have a possibility of taking the House back," Davis said, noting that the GOP has had the best recruiting year of either party in a generation. But, he added, "This is not an automatic."