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Democrats prime recruits to try to take back the House

By Deirdre Walsh, CNN Senior Congressional Producer
updated 12:29 PM EST, Mon January 30, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Democrats must turn 25 seats in order to regain control of the House
  • DCCC has identified three dozen GOP-held seats in swing areas Democrats believe they can win
  • Many of the new recruits don't have a lot of political experience
  • Republicans plan to tie Democrats to Obama and his handling of the economy

(CNN) -- Just 15 months after taking a thumping in the 2010 midterm elections, House Democrats have seized on the current anti-Washington fervor and are confident they can win the 25 seats they need to regain control of the House.

Vice President Joe Biden made a bold prediction on Friday, telling House Democrats at their annual retreat on Maryland's Eastern Shore, "I really do think we're going to win back the House."

To flip control of the House back just one cycle after losing it, the House Democrats' campaign operation is relying on a class of new recruits, just inducted into its "Red to Blue program" that targets Republican seats.

CNN obtained exclusive access to campaign chief Steve Israel's briefing for the 18 handpicked candidates earlier this week in Washington.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee brought them to Washington to hear Israel present the latest polls and his assessment of the political landscape. Israel briefed the group on his "Drive to 25" -- the battle plan that banks on their success in defeating Republicans -- in a conference room at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, just steps from the Capitol.

Israel, the top strategist for House Democrats, was blunt, telling the group, "We're not interested in electing you to the minority -- been there, done that. It sucks!"

The New York Democrat won't say outright that Democrats will win, but he put the pressure on the 18 candidates.

"It's going to be razor-close," Israel told the group. "The people in this room are going to determine whether we're on the north side of 25 or the south side of 25."

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There's no guarantee on the amount of financial help the candidates will get from the national headquarters, but the amount of money they can raise on their own and their ability to organize supporters will help them show they're ready to go the distance.

New recruits

The DCCC's "Red to Blue program" -- created by its former chief Rahm Emmanuel in 2006, when Democrats took back control of the House for the first time in 12 years -- identified three dozen Republican-held seats in swing areas that Democrats believe they can win in 2012. In half of these districts, the committee is backing a candidate. In the other half, it is awaiting results from primaries, but is already committed to helping the Democratic candidate, whoever it may be, with money and other organizational resources this fall.

CNN interviewed three of the 18 candidates who visited Washington: Jose Hernandez, an astronaut whose family worked on farms in central California; Val Demmings, the first female police chief in Orlando, Florida; and Jamie Wall, a businessman from Wisconsin.

Hernandez believes voters who backed tea party candidates in the last election are having second thoughts. He told CNN that they "are getting buyer's remorse with respect to the change in 2010."

Two polls released last week bear that out: An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed that 47% of voters preferred a Democratic-controlled Congress, compared to 41% who supported a Republican-controlled one; and a National Journal poll indicated a wider margin -- 48% said they supported a Democratic Congress and 37% said they wanted Republicans to keep control.

Most of the 18 "Red to Blue" candidates have roots in their communities, but only five have held elective office. GOP recruiters in 2010 also sought out prospective candidates who didn't have a lot of political experience.

The three top-tier recruits CNN interviewed seemed to echo the outsider pitch used two years ago by the freshmen tea party-backed Republicans they aim to defeat: We're not politicians who care about party ideology; elect us and we can break the partisan gridlock in Washington.

Democratic party officials argue these candidates emphasize "problem solving" and hope they will appeal to independent voters who abandoned Democrats in droves in 2010.

Trying to unseat California freshman Rep. Jeff Denham, Hernandez called himself a "citizen's politician." The former NASA employee joked that being a member of Congress "is not rocket science," and pointed out "I'm an engineer. I'm trained to solve problems, unlike lawyers, which most of our Congress folks are; they're trained to litigate, argue, and I'm trained to solve problems."

Demmings, who will face Republican Daniel Webster in November, summed up what the candidates have in common.

"I think we demonstrate the ability to just get it done without political gain, without a political agenda," she said.

Ignoring the fact their party runs half of the legislative branch, these Democratic hopefuls say they sympathize with voters who don't like Congress.

"There's a reason Congress is as popular as head lice right now," Wall said.

But Wall, who is running against freshman Wisconsin Republican Rep. Reid Ribble, deliberately avoided party labels, and emphasized, "If there's a good idea in the room I want to hear it whether it comes from a Republican, an independent, a Democrat. It's that kind of spirit that I think we need more of in Washington."

Wall says these candidates won't make the same mistake that Democrats made when they ran the House in the past.

"If there is one thing that Democrats did wrong, it was they didn't give the impression of focusing enough on the economy," Wall said.

But as much as these candidates attempt to showcase their independence, Republicans have made it clear they will tie them at every turn to President Barack Obama and what they say is his weak spot -- his handling of the economy.

"Ultimately a presidential election is going to revolve around, or be a referendum on the president's economic policies, and that's going to be a bad thing for House Democrats," National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Paul Lindsay told CNN.

And the GOP intends to remind voters that Democrats ran the House not too long ago. "At the end of the day, Americans have a good memory of what Washington was like ... when Democrats controlled the House and Senate, and the president in the White House," Lindsay said.

Money and redistricting

One of the reasons House Democrats believe the House is in play this year: money. The DCCC out-raised its Republican counterpart in 2011 by $7 million, with the Democrats taking in $61.4 million to the GOP's $54.1 million.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi noted on Thursday that her party's cash advantage is part of the equation.

"We've out-raised and out-recruited and out-redistricted the Republicans," she said.

But Dave Wasserman with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report said redistricting is likely to make the Democrats' hopes for capturing the majority tougher, not easier. Court challenges and states legislatures are still working on the final maps in several states, so the outlines of many congressional districts won't be complete until later this summer.

"Democrats need to win 35 to 45 Republican-held seats," Wasserman told CNN.

Republicans believe redistricting will work in their favor. Earlier this week, House Speaker John Boehner told Politico that redistricting will solidify the GOP's control of the House, which he predicted would last at least through 2020.

Boehner also said, "I think it will be nearly impossible" for Democrats to retake the House.

Pelosi, who said earlier this month she wants to win 35 House seats, tamped down those expectations on Thursday, saying, "I want more, of course, but 25 will do it -- I'll take it."

Obama rallied House Democrats on Friday, and reminded them that their fate is tied to his in November.

"I believe in you guys. You guys have had my back through some very tough times. I'm going to have your back as well, and together we're going to move this country forward," he said to cheers.

CNN congressional correspondent Kate Bolduan contributed to this report.

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