U.S. Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y.
(Photo: Jack Gruber, USA TODAY)
WASHINGTON(USA TODAY) -- Could Democrats regain the House of Representatives in 2014?
History says no, but New York Rep. Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, says the combination of an improving economy and a Republican Party focused on investigating President Obama just might make it possible.
"It's going to be hard, no question about it," Israel said in an interview in his Capitol Hill office on "Capital Download," USA TODAY's weekly newsmaker video series. But "this country has an unquenchable thirst for less ideology and more solutions. ... As long as our candidates are running as problem-solvers and solution-ists and a strategy of solutions, I think we have a good chance of winning the House."
Over the past century, the party that has held the White House for two terms has lost House seats, sometimes dozens of them, in every midterm election except one. However, the exception was in 1998, during Bill Clinton's second term - and that anomaly is fueling Democratic hopes of defying the political norm again next year.
"It was very similar to the climate that we have now," Israel said. "The president gets elected, re-elected, in 1996. The Republicans in the House of Representatives make a decision to do everything they can to bring him down. ... They launched 35 separate, partisan, witch-hunt investigations - and the Democrats won seats in the second midterm election of the Clinton presidency; won five seats."
Democrats need to pick up 17 House seats to regain the control they lost to Republicans in 2010. Israel says there are 52 House seats "in play." The non-partisan Cook Political Report now identifies 37 Democratic-held seats and 30 Republican-held seats as competitive or potentially competitive.
One big target for Democrats: Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who for a time sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 but only narrowly held on to her House seat in November. She faces a rematch against businessman Jim Graves. Israel said a campaign poll taken last week by the firm PPP for the Graves campaign put him ahead of Bachmann, 47%-45% - within the margin of error of 4.4 percentage points but a sign of a close contest.
The biggest boost for Democrats would be an improving economy, Israel said. "If the economy shows signs of health, then I think we have a much better climate in which to win the House."
And he acknowledged concerns about the political impact of the Affordable Care Act as major provisions to cover the uninsured go into effect in January. Most states have declined to set up the exchanges where the uninsured will shop for coverage - defaulting instead to a federal marketplace - and close to half have raised questions about whether they will participate in the expansion of Medicaid to cover low-income Americans.
"There's no question in my mind that many Republicans have made the calculation that they want the programs to fail in order say 'I told you so,' even though they're responsible for the failure," Israel said. "Where there are problems, whether they are inflicted by Republicans or they're created by the natural growing pains of any new endeavor, we need to make sure those problems are solved, that people understand the benefits of this act."