House Democrats' Art of War

Steve Israel has been reading his Sun Tzu.

The New York Democrat, who kicks off his second term as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, has already begun an ambitious campaign to recruit candidates to run for Congress in 2014. His party needs another 17 seats in Congress to win back the majority, a goal he says isn't out of reach--so long as he recruits the right candidates.

"The fundamental lesson I learned coming out of the cycle is that the cycle--it's not about 2014, it's about 2013," Israel said in an interview this week. "Our success was because we recruited early. We organized early. It was all about hitting the road and getting those recruits, the right kinds of recruits. So we're going to build on that playbook--which is, you go aggressive, you go early."

That sounds like Sun Tzu, the Chinese military philosopher of the first millennium B.C. "The victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won," he wrote.

Democrats wasted little time in setting ambitious recruiting goals. The party begins the 2014 election cycle with its eyes on 48 Republican-held seats across the country, Israel said, including 30 in which the GOP incumbent won by less than 10 percentage points.

Israel himself began recruiting on Election Night. As he consoled candidates like Val Demings, who lost to Florida Republican Daniel Webster by 3.5 percentage points, and Nate Shinagawa, who lost to New York Republican Tom Reed by 3.8 points, Israel urged them to try again in two years.

Brendan Mullen, an Indiana Democrat who ran surprisingly close to Rep.-elect Jackie Walorski, and Rep. Mark Critz of Pennsylvania, who lost his reelection bid to Republican Keith Rothfus, have also gotten the hard sell to try again. Pete Aguilar, who missed out on a runoff in California's 31st Congressional District, has already visited DCCC headquarters to discuss a 2014 bid against Rep. Gary Miller.

"Listen, this is just pregame. The real race is in 2014. Now you've learned lessons, now you're ready to be a member of Congress," Israel said he told those candidates. "That's a reflection of going early and going aggressive."

The DCCC is counting on some of their most junior members to win over anxious recruits. At least 20 representatives-elect, including Texan Joaquin Castro and Bay Stater Joe Kennedy, have joined top party leaders for recruitment meetings already, Israel said. He's hoping encouragement from new members who just won difficult races will spur candidates who might take a more skeptical view of a phone call from an older member who hasn't had a competitive contest in years.

Republicans aren't sitting on the sidelines by any means. Though the National Republican Congressional Committee hasn't formally named a recruiting point person, the committee has already sat down with several potential candidates, said Andrea Bozek, a committee spokeswoman. And like Democrats, Republican members of Congress are getting into the game.

"We've had a tremendous outpouring from members themselves who want to help with recruiting this year," Bozek said.

Seven Democrats hold seats that each of the last three Republican presidential nominees have won. Republicans expect to target Reps. Jim Matheson of Utah, John Barrow of Georgia, and Mike McIntyre of North Carolina, three Democrats who narrowly won reelection this year; Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick and Ron Barber in Arizona; and Reps. Collin Peterson of Minnesota and Nick Rahall of West Virginia, whose culturally conservative but historically Democratic districts could swing right.