Can this man save Obama's legacy?

Steve Israel's working to win back a Democratic congress. The odds are long, but the president's agenda is at stake

Published August 31, 2013 12:30PM (EDT)

  (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
(AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Rep. Steve Israel, a New York congressman, is entrusted with one of the more Sisyphean tasks in national politics: pilot a Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives, even if demographics, mathematics and history are aligned against it. To pull off the task that could save the president's second-term agenda, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) says he’s banking on a revamped get-out-the-vote operation that can replicate the success of the Obama campaign and push Democrats toward the 218 seats needed to control a House majority.

“Next year is shaping up quite well because people have had it with the obstructionism and the ideological extremism of the Republican majority and the House of Representatives,” Israel insists. He says the DCCC is targeting young voters, investing in a voter turnout program that identifies voters who participated in the 2012 election and persuades them to vote in 2014.

Although most experts are skeptical of its chances, the DCCC’s math allows for a fairly rosy 2014 outlook. While the Republicans currently hold a 233 to 200 advantage, Israel's group notes that Obama won 17 Congressional districts last year now represented by Republicans, giving Democrats an opening. Add on the number of districts Obama lost narrowly — defined as garnering at least 48 percent — plus the general belief that it’s still too early to predict the dynamics of next year, and the dream of a Democratic House suddenly seems a bit less farfetched. Overall, the DCCC believes as many as 55 districts are represented by “vulnerable” Republicans.

Israel, with conviction, says the DCCC has vastly expanded its targeting department, micro-targeting potential voters, particularly the coveted yet unreliable 18-29 demographic that has become a central piece of the Obama coalition. The DCCC also brought in a national field director much earlier than they have in the past.

“We know, almost on a precinct level, where there’s going to be a drop-off in turnout. As long as we can anticipate that and work it, we won’t be surprised like we were in 2010 when there was no awareness of how bad the turnout was going to be,” Israel argues.

2010, the year the Republicans rode an anti-Obama Tea Party wave to seize the House from Democrats — who rode their own anti-George W. Bush wave to a majority in 2006 — will loom large over all acrimonious policy clashes for the rest of the decade. That's because a radicalized Republican majority was likely cemented that year when Republicans controlled the critical decennial redistricting process in most states, locking in favorable districts until 2022.

Experts say the same forces that allowed for a 2010 Republican wave will still be at work for 2014, thwarting the DCCC’s increasing sophistication and slight fundraising financial advantage. If history is any guide, turnout will be lighter and the voters who do show up will be much older and whiter. A yawning ideological gap now exists between how younger and older voters actually vote, with 60 percent of voters between the ages of 18 and 29 supporting Obama last year. Democrats have reveled in this statistic, citing it as evidence that they are the party of the future, but it effectively means Republicans will roll into midterm elections with a significant upper hand for the foreseeable future.

“There’s an unprecedented generation gap in partisan support and the generational boom and bust pattern between presidential and midterm elections is devastating to House Democrats,” explains Dave Wasserman, the House editor of the Cook Political Report.

As recently as the 1990s, such an age gap didn’t exist, allowing the Democrats to consistently win midterm elections. Democrats, in addition to losing the gerrymandering battle in 2012, now find themselves “naturally” gerrymandered too, furthering their disadvantage. Political scientists are pointing to the increasing number of Democratic voters clustering into urban areas, lessening their clout among a wider number of districts.

Leading into 2010, Republicans seized on these advantages, crafting an ultimately successful multi-year plan to win the House and control the redistricting process. The Republican State Leadership Committee, a Washington-based political group dedicated to electing GOP state officeholders, recently issued a report on the plan called Redmap. The $30 million strategy consisted of two steps: take over state legislatures before the Census and redraw state and Congressional districts to secure partisan advantages.

Redmap’s success makes 2014 look particularly bleak for Democrats. According to FairVote, a nonpartisan organization that examines voting patterns and laws, Democrats will have to win about 56 percent of votes nationwide to retake the House next year, a far cry from the roughly 49 percent Democrats won last year.

It’s also not clear how much Obama and his team could have done to chip away at the GOP majority while he was seeking re-election. Israel joked that even if Obama spent 365 days a year trying to elect a Democratic majority, he’d complain the number wasn’t 368; many in the political world have argued that in hindsight, more could have been done in 2012 to bring the Democrats closer. Political observers like Wasserman contend, however, that Obama’s coalition of younger and minority voters is simply engineered to win statewide races, while the GOP coalition is tailor-made to win Congressional districts, limiting Obama’s options.

“The fact is, in 2012, the president’s re-election was paramount and he had put everything he had into his own re-election. In contrast, this year, he’s already done three events for the DCCC, one in New York, one in Chicago, one in San Francisco,” Israel said. “He is working very, very hard to elect a Congress that will be about solutions rather than hurting the economy to hurt him.”

Pending litigation in Florida, Texas and Virginia over Republican-dominated redistricting plans could, through newly redrawn maps, end up handing a few seats back to Democrats, but the dent these lawsuits would make in the GOP majority would still be slight. Obama also remains a galvanizing force for right-wing activists to show up at the voting booth.

“We know in 2006 Democrats were able to overcome the structural advantage the Republicans had, but they were able to do it based on the unpopularity of George Bush. This was a rallying cry for Democrats,” said Michael McDonald, a professor of public affairs at George Mason University who studies voting behavior. “There’s no George Bush in office. There’s a Barack Obama and we know that Obama has been a lightning rod for conservative activists in 2010 and 2012. It’s unlikely that Republicans are suddenly going to sit on the sidelines in 2014.”

What can also save Democrats is the sort of national calamity, like a government shutdown over the upcoming debt ceiling debate, that voters, independents in particular, overwhelmingly blame on Republicans. Wasserman points to weak messaging on the part of Democrats so far, arguing that their rhetoric is unchanged from the 2012 cycle. For the Democrats to be successful, though, they will need to consistently brand Republican legislators the way Israel wants and make that stick in the minds of midterm voters, especially independents.

Wasserman, however, does not believe portraying Republicans as radicals hell-bent on sinking the country will be enough for Democrats to overcome their deficit of seats, particularly because the most conservative, anti-Obama Republicans, like Iowa Rep. Steve King or Texas Rep. Steve Stockman, simply aren’t threatened in their own districts.

“Republican obstructionists aren’t from vulnerable districts,” Wasserman said. “The new default in politics is a Republican House and Democratic White House.”

By Ross Barkan

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