By ALEX ISENSTADT The political environment continues to deteriorate for House Democrats ahead of a midterm election that’s certain to diminish their ranks.
With President Barack Obama’s unpopularity hindering their candidates and Republican cash flooding into races across the country, Democrats are increasingly worried that the election will push them deep into the minority and diminish their hopes of winning back the majority in 2016 or beyond.
Looking to contain the damage, Democrats are pumping money into liberal congressional districts that were long thought to be safely in their column. Over the last several days, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has directed resources to maintain seats in Hawaii and Nevada, both of which broke sharply for the president in 2012 — an indication of just how much the terrain has shifted against the party over the past two years.
Other unexpected races are suddenly in play. Some Democrats, for example, have begun to worry about the prospects of California Rep. Lois Capps, an eight-term congresswoman who is typically a lock for reelection but who now finds herself in a competitive race against Republican Chris Mitchum, a perennial candidate and the son of the late actor Robert Mitchum. In a sign of how seriously national Democrats are taking the threat, the DCCC is making a last-minute purchase of $99,000 worth of radio advertising in the Santa Barbara area to boost Capps, according to a committee aide.
Operatives from both parties expect Republicans to net five to 10 seats, which would give them some cushion heading into what’s expected to be a much more challenging 2016. Some Republicans, trying to tamp down rising expectations of even bigger gains, point out that a recently-redistricted congressional map has dramatically narrowed the playing field of competitive districts and limited potential pick-ups.
They also caution that they have yet to put away Democrats in many races that remain close.
Still, as the election heads into the final week, it’s clear that the landscape is tilting against Democrats. Of the 30 House races seen as most likely to change hands, 23 are held by Democrats.
Capps isn’t the only incumbent Democratic officials are scrambling at the last minute to defend. DCCC Chairman Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) recently coordinated a fundraising event for Rep. Dave Loebsack, a fourth-term Iowa incumbent who has recently come under barrage from GOP groups, and reached out to donors on his behalf.
On Tuesday afternoon, Israel and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi will hold a hastily-planned conference call for members to provide them with an update on the political terrain and to press them to contribute to the party’s coffers.
“There’s no question it’s a tough climate for Democrats right now but it certainly doesn’t come as a surprise,” said Emily Bittner, a DCCC spokeswoman. “Heading into the final week of the election every single Democratic incumbent is still competitive, which is drastically different from the situation in 2010.”
Party operatives say Obama is weighting down House candidates across the country. In the districts of 24 of the 30 most vulnerable Democratic incumbents, more voters say they view the president unfavorably than favorably, according to polling data conducted over the last month for party strategists and provided to POLITICO. In 10 of those 24 races, Democratic lawmakers have recently lost ground along with the president.
The effect is particularly acute in culturally conservative bastions like West Virginia and downstate Illinois, where Democratic strategists say Reps. Nick Rahall and Bill Enyart are watching their reelection hopes fade due in large measure to Obama’s diminished standing. Republicans have tethered both incumbents to the president: One new TV ad against Enyart imagines him and Obama together on posters made famous during the president’s 2008 campaign.
“Make no mistake,” the commercial says. “The Obama-Enyart agenda is devastating to our families and bankrupting southern Illinois.”
Other House Democrats have been encumbered by subpar performances of their party’s statewide candidates. Leading that list is Iowa Senate hopeful Bruce Braley, who party operatives say is dragging down three of their congressional contenders in the state.
Money is another worry. Republican groups have poured cash into House races in the final weeks, erasing a once formidable Democratic financial advantage. Since July 1, GOP outfits have spent $99.4 million, while Democrats have invested $81.9 million, according to campaign filings.
In many instances, Republicans are spending money to put races in play that had long been considered safe for Democrats. American Action Network, a national group with ties to House Speaker John Boehner, has begun airing TV commercials in blue districts in Hawaii and eastern Iowa.
The maneuvering has prompted Democratic groups to yank money from districts they’re trying to seize from Republicans in order to protect seats they already control. Over the past several weeks, the DCCC has pulled funds from top recruits in Colorado and Virginia and begun running TV ads in two eastern Iowa districts, both of which Obama won in 2012.
On Monday, House Speaker John Boehner visited the Iowa districts to campaign for GOP hopefuls Rod Blum, a software company owner seeking the seat Braley is vacating to run for Senate, and Mariannette Miller-Meeks, an opthamologist waging a campaign for the seat Loebsack occupies. A poll released on Monday showed Blum climbing to a narrow 43 percent to 42 percent lead over his Democratic opponent, state Rep. Pat Murphy.
“All year,” said Cory Fritz, a Boehner spokesman, “the speaker has been emphasizing the importance of making the most of every opportunity.”