Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) stands as she is introduced by President… (Brendan Smialowski / AFP/Getty…)
LANSDOWNE, Va. – Boosted by modest gains in November and a series of pep talks from their party’s biggest names, House Democrats left their annual retreat Friday seeming to relish the idea that they could close the Obama presidency the way it started -- with control of the House of Representatives.
To do so, Democrats would need to gain at least 17 seats in House races in 2014 –- an outcome that would confound political orthodoxy in which a sitting president’s party tends to lose seats in the House after his sixth year in office.
But the party is laying the groundwork now to try to get there, readying a policy agenda it believes will have broad appeal and working to build the foundation for a political comeback.
That includes the strong backing of the White House. Democratic campaign aides say President Obama has made a personal commitment to help the party in House races, with recruitment and fundraising, including eight fundraisers in 2013, either alone or in conjunction with the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm.
If Democrats stay focused, Obama told the members Thursday, “I would expect that Nancy Pelosi is going to be speaker again pretty soon.”
Democrats expect that Republicans will learn from the missteps that cost them the White House and seats in Congress during the 2012 election. The midterm electorate may also be less favorable to Democrats than it was in the presidential year.
But they still see Republicans as vulnerable as the GOP struggles to regain its footing after the "fiscal cliff" battle in which Democrats provided the votes to move the final deal through the House.
When Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) gave his caucus an update on the political landscape Thursday afternoon, he played for them a video montage of negative news clips (watch below) about the House Republicans. Included in it was Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey saying the GOP majority was “to blame for the continued suffering” of victims of Superstorm Sandy, and coverage of the vote for speaker at the start of this Congress in which announcers discussed “fault lines” among the majority.
Israel also included that video in an email to two dozen potential Democratic candidates in 2014 races, part of a recruitment effort to ensure the party can follow through on its goal.
“I think it pretty much speaks for itself — this kind of dysfunction and extremism is the reason we need you to run, and why the time is now,” Israel wrote. “Voters are fed up with the Congress of chronic chaos and ready for the common-sense solutions you can offer them. I hope that in two years you’ll be joining us at this retreat.”
Among the potential Democratic recruits who received the message: Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar, a potential candidate in California’s 31st district; former Orlando Police Chief Val Demings, a potential challenger to Republican Daniel Webster of Florida; and Gwen Graham, the daughter of former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who Democrats would like to see run to reclaim Florida’s 2nd District seat.
The National Republican Congressional Committee dismissed the Democrats' enthusiasm about the coming election, particularly any role the president might play.
“President Obama recruiting a bunch of liberal lap dogs to run in middle-of-the-road House districts will go a long way toward ensuring a Republican victory in 2014,” spokesman Daniel Scarpinato said.
Pelosi, the San Francisco Democrat who could potentially return to the speaker’s office if Democrats were to reclaim the House majority, cautioned that Democrats would never “underestimate an opponent” in the coming election cycle, as former President Clinton advised them earlier Friday.
“I don't underestimate any opponent,” Pelosi said, adding: “I don't overestimate them either.”
Democrats are ready for that challenge, she said, but first are focused on the coming legislative session, invigorated by the new 49-member freshman class of Democrats.
“They want to serve and they want to serve in the majority. And in order to do that we must increase our numbers,” Pelosi said. “The election, well, that will happen when it happens. But right now we want to work together to get the job done.”
During three days at a golf resort west of Washington, Democrats took part in a number of briefings on the major legislative issues ahead of them, including immigration, gun violence and preventing sequestration, and on developing their economic messaging, with the theme “stronger America.” There was also a panel updating members on the implementation of the president’s healthcare law, cyber security, and one titled “The Assault on Democracy.”
But the highlights were keynote speeches from Obama, Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden and International Monetary Fund Managing Directorr Christine Lagarde –- and a more lighthearted presentation from Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert that was closed to the media.
On whether he thought Democrats could win back the House, Colbert demurred.
"Not sure if American people care either way, Congress less popular than colonoscopies,” he said, according to a person in attendance.