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Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, will be competing on more Democratic-leaning turf in next year's election as a result of redistricting.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 4/22/2011 5:19:48 PM ET 2011-04-22T21:19:48

The Democrats’ magic number is 25 — or as Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Rep. Steve Israel puts it, "only 25." That's the net number of seats the party needs to wrest away from Republicans in order to regain control of the House of Representatives in next year’s elections.

With the decennial re-drawing of districts underway, Democrats don't yet know where all of their battlefields will be, or the shape they’ll take. But the view from 30,000 feet is already becoming clearer, and it looks like rocky terrain ahead for some incumbents.

In several states, incumbents will find their districts redesigned and, in some cases, eliminated.

Illinois, for example, will lose one House seat due to the state's slow population growth, as measured by the 2010 census. Since Democrats control redistricting there, they will be able to force some of the state's 11 Republican House members into districts that are hostile or unfamiliar.

But in Pennsylvania, another state that's losing one seat, Republicans control the process and are expected to squeeze one Democratic incumbent out of that lawmaker's home district.

In most states, the new maps are drawn by state legislators, with the governor having veto power.

So the House struggle really began last year when Republicans won control of state legislatures and governors’ offices in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio. The GOP also took over the New York state Senate, the Indiana House, and the North Carolina legislature.

Republicans are now better positioned to help their incumbents survive the re-mapping ordeal thanks to these recent victories.

How re-mapping will play out
Redistricting expert Tim Storey at the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures said that well over half of the new House re-mapping plans will be done by September and almost all plans will be published by April of 2012.

Three states — Arkansas, Iowa, and Louisiana — have already approved new congressional maps, he said. Missouri and Oklahoma will probably finish in the next few weeks.

Video: The Democrats’ plans to retake the House (on this page)
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In 18 states, Republicans control the re-mapping of the congressional puzzle. Democrats control the process in six states. In the remaining states, control is divided, or redistricting is done by a nonpartisan body, or the state has only one House member.

Presidents' coat-tails
Of course, no matter how favorable the new district lines might be for the GOP, a blowout re-election for President Barack Obama could decimate House Republican ranks if demoralized voters simply stayed home.

Yet apart from 2008, when Democrats gained 24 House seats, that party hasn't enjoyed the combination of a winning presidential candidate and major House gains since its 1964 landslide.

The paper-thin victory of John F. Kennedy did not bring House Democratic gains in 1960; they lost 20 seats, partly due to having scored big gains in the 1958 elections.

With Jimmy Carter at the head of their ticket in 1976, they gained just one House seat, but Democrats already had a huge majority due to the Watergate election of 1974.

With Bill Clinton at the top of the ticket in 1992, Democrats lost nine seats. And when Clinton won a second term in 1996, they gained two.

Big battles taking shape
Early indications make clear where some of the battles will be fought:

  • Evenly balanced districts shaped by nonpartisan bodies like the Iowa Legislative Services Agency;
  • Traditional battlegrounds like Florida’s 22nd Congressional District, where tough contests were fought in 2000, 2006, 2008 and 2010. This is also where two Democrats are already raising money to run against Tea Party favorite Rep. Allen West.

In Iowa, the Legislative Services Agency had to make five districts into four, as the state lost one representative. In what looks to be a marquee race, five-term Republican Rep. Steve King will likely face Democrat Christie Vilsack, the wife of former governor and now Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a newly designed district in northwest Iowa.

Video: Ryan: Raising taxes isn't the answer (on this page)

In the 2008 presidential election, Obama won 48 percent of the vote in the counties that now comprise King’s new district. King’s current district leans more Republican: Obama won only 44 percent of the vote there in 2008.

Republican operatives argue that they have some good opportunities in Republican-leaning districts that Democrats still occupy, seats that the GOP failed to win in its wave last year. Case in point: Democratic Rep. Mike McIntyre in North Carolina, a state where the GOP will be drawing the new district lines.  

GOP holding seats in Obama country
Elsewhere, Republicans now hold 14 districts that Democratic presidential candidates John Kerry and Obama won in 2004 and 2008, making them appealing targets for Democrats in 2012.

In Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District, for instance, Republican Chip Cravaack defeated 35-year incumbent Democrat Rep. James Oberstar last year. The district and its predecessor had been held by Oberstar since 1975 — and by his mentor, Democrat John Blatnik — since 1947.

Cravaack, who had $113,000 in cash on hand at the end of last month, doesn’t yet have an announced opponent.

There are as yet few contenders in the other 13 Kerry/Obama/GOP districts. A few exceptions: businessman Patrick Murphy and former state legislator and West Palm Beach mayor Lois Frankel are running against West in Florida.

West had $242,000 in cash as of March 31; while Murphy had more than $300,000, and Frankel more than $250,000. A Murphy vs. Frankel primary would be a contrast of a 28-year old novice with a 62-year old political veteran who ran for Congress in 1992, losing to Rep. Alcee Hastings in a primary.

In another of the Kerry/Obama/GOP districts, New Hampshire’s 2nd Congressional District, Democrat Ann Kuster just announced that she’ll be seeking a rematch with Rep. Charlie Bass, who had about $135,000 in cash as of March 31.

This should be an excellent bellwether race: Bass won in the GOP wave of 1994, defeating a two-term Democratic incumbent. He then lost his seat in the 2006 Democratic wave to Paul Hodes. With Hodes giving up the seat to run for the Senate last year, Bass reclaimed it by defeating Kuster by 3,550 out of 213,000 votes cast, or 1.6 percent. The district leans Democratic, having gone for the Democratic presidential candidate every four years since 1992.

In other states, the uncertainty of knowing what turf they will be fighting on may force would-be challengers to wait before plunging into a race.

“A challenger must wait to analyze the new district to determine whether a campaign is politically and financially feasible (and whether they live in the right district although some of them just move),” said Storey. But, he said, “Incumbents can probably gin up the base money machine by leveraging uncertainty about their districts even if they are likely to wind up in relatively uncompetitive districts in the end.”

Medicare shaping the debate
Despite the uncertainty about district lines, it is clear that the 2012 races will be colored by the April 15 vote for the plan proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., chairman of House Budget Committee.

His plan would change Medicare from an open-ended entitlement to one in which costs would only grow by a fixed amount and seniors would pay more of the cost of care.

“There’s no doubt the vote on the House Republican budget is a defining vote in this Congress and will play a major role in the fall of 2012,” said Jesse Ferguson, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Democrats suffered in 2010 especially because they lost so many voters age 65 and over: exit poll data show that nearly 60 percent of voters in that age group voted Republican. The Democrats lost those voters partly because Obama's health care reform will cut future Medicare spending by about $500 billion over the next ten years — a fact that set the table for GOP attack ads.

Now, with the tables turned, Democrats may be able to use Ryan's Medicare redesign as their weapon to win back voters. “There are people today who will be 65 in 2021 who have been paying all their lives into Medicare, and now are confronted with a radical proposal to end it,” said Ferguson.

“Historically, debates about redesigning programs like Medicare and Social Security haven't benefited the GOP politically because, when push comes to shove, people like these programs and feel entitled to them,” said political scientist Robert Saldin, a Robert Wood Johnson Scholar in Health Policy Research at Harvard University.

“Democrats have traditionally been politically successful in tarring Republican efforts to redesign these programs as greedy and cold-hearted ploys that effectively throw grandma to the wolves to save a few dollars,” he said.

Saldin contrasted the vote last year on “Obamacare” with the April 15 vote on the Ryan plan.

“When Democrats voted for the Affordable Care Act — or ‘Obamacare’ — they were supporting a policy that was unpopular with a clear majority of the American public,” he said. “Now, Americans appear to agree with Ryan that we need to get our fiscal house in order.  But it's far from clear that they'll support his proposed means to achieve that end.”

Republicans are either seeing something that Democratic strategists do not see, or perhaps they're recalling that 15 years ago, after Republicans had passed a Medicare overhaul that Bill Clinton denounced by saying “I will not let you destroy Medicare,” most of them survived in the 1996 elections.

© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints

Video: The Democrats’ plans to retake the House

  1. Closed captioning of: The Democrats’ plans to retake the House

    >>> well, democrats need to net 25 to take back the house of representatives and they're vowing to make paul ryan 's budget the sword republicans fall on in 2012 .

    >> just four days after house republicans voted nearly unanimously to pass the ryan plan, the dccc is launching a media blitz, accusing 25 targeted house members of voting to eliminate medicare . here's a first look at a web video the dccc is launching today.

    >> you missed a spot.

    >> did someone call the fire department ? because it's about to get hot in here!

    >> new york congressman steve israel is chairman of the dccc , and he joins us now. congressman, i want to start with the news yesterday from wall street , and link it to what you guys are launching today, that web video , plus a series of radio ads you're running in these districts, in these actual congressional districts . doesn't this prove s&p right in their political analysis , which says, see, the two parties are not going to be able to come together in washington to deal with this debt issue before 2012 , because politics is going to get in the way?

    >> no, not at all. in fact, you have two distinct issues here. one is, you have the fundamental difference between democrats and republicans . with respect to medicare . we said we can reduce our deficits by doing things like asking the richest oil companies in the country to pay their fair share of taxes. so we want to reduce deficits, but we want to do it the right way. the republicans have said, we should reduce taxes by ending medicare , by ending the guaranteed medicare benefit for seniors. so this is about democrats who want to balance the budgets by asking the richest of the rich, people making over $1 million, oil company executives to pay their fair share of taxes and republicans want to do it by giving those people tax breaks , $100,000 tax cut if you're making over $1 million, and balance the budget on the backs of seniors. two fundamental differences. now, let me say one other thing. s&p downgraded its outlook for our ability to reduce our debt. we have said -- democrats have said to the republicans , we would support a clean vote on the debt ceiling without the politics, without the social riders, without extraneous issues. let's just do a clean vote, and we can get past this, and i hope that my republicans friends will take us up on our offer, do the right thing, and put the politics aside.

    >> let's talk about this medicare issue. you know, house democrats didn't like it when they were on the business end of the scare tactics about medicare and the health care debate. aren't democrats basically turning the tables and using those very same tactics now?

    >> no, not at all. in fact, what we have on our side is the truth. what we have on our side is an actual vote that took place on friday, where if every single republican, except for four, voted to end the guaranteed medicare benefit, you can't give indicate on it, you can't interpret it, it is an end to the guaranteed medicare benefit, they take the guaranteed medicare benefit, and by statute, they give it to private insurance companies . they say to seniors, you will get your medicare from insurance companies . oh, that really works great so far, whether you're a senior or not. insurance companies have really helped us with health care up to now.

    >> well, it's for future medicare recipients. it's for future medicare recipients, just so we're clear on that particular point. but also, the president has also offered some pretty hard cuts on medicare , because both parties do acknowledge, you've got to make some changes in medicare if you want to resolve the debt crisis.

    >> well, it is -- it's true. it's future medicare recipients. i happen to be one of them. people in their 50s, their 40s, they've spent decades paying into the medicare system, and now the rug is pulled out from under them. they're told, you paid in, and now we give the money, not to you, not to your doctor, but to an insurance company . and with respect to the president, look, we are willing, ready and able to engage republicans on responsible improvements in reforms to medicare . but ending the medicare guaranteed benefit is not improving it. it is ending it. and we draw the line in the sand on issues like that.

    >> congressman, do you feel as if the white house is consulting enough with house democrats on its plan? i mean, there was a pretty high profile report about how minority leader nancy pelosi ended up getting boehner, reid and the president together, but didn't invite mcconnell because they didn't want pelosi there? do house democrats not have enough influence in this white house ?

    >> well, i haven't heard that report, so i can't comment on it. i will tell you that when the dividing line is not house democrats versus the white house . the dividing line is the president and house democrats who are working every day on the right choices, and republicans who seem to pursue the wrong choices. we are the ones, the president and house democrats are joined at the hip. there's no daylight between us on issues, and choices like asking the richest of the rich to pay their fair share , but protecting medicare for seniors. today's and future seniors. so we are on one team on this, and we're going to continue to work together for the right choices.

    >> congressman, you're targeting these 25 districts. how realistic do you really think you have at winning -- of your chances of winning back the house ? not many people believe you can do it. do you really think that because of the ryan plan you suddenly have a chance, and you didn't two weeks ago, would have before the ryan plan?

    >> well, i'll be honest with you, chuck. after the past election, we were in despair, we were doubtful, we were did he sespondendespondent, and not many people believed we would be able to do what we have done already. we have raised more than the republican campaign, outraised them in january, february, march and into the quarter. and we're doing it with our drive to 25. we have a clear-eye plan. we need only 25 seats to take the house back. there are 14 districts credible represented by republicans that voted not just for barack obama , but for john kerry . and 47 districts currently represented by a republican that voted for president obama . so we have a wide open playing field . and we're going to hold republicans accountable in every single one of those districts, with ads like the one that you just saw. after the election, we picked ourselves up, we dusted ourselves off, and we began to fight back. and by fighting back, and fighting for seniors in the middle class , we will get the house back.

    >> all right. steve israel , democrat from new york, and chairman of the dccc . thanks for joining us this morning on "the daily rundown."

    >> thank you.

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