Midterm elections, by their nature, are usually bearish for Democrats. Key constituencies like young people and minorities turn out in fewer numbers, giving Republican-friendly seniors and whites greater sway at the ballot box. It's a major reason few Democrats predict they can retake the House in 2014.
But officials at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee say they have found a silver lining amid all the pessimism. They're targeting 15 congressional districts — many in red states such as Kentucky and Arkansas — that they believe offer greater opportunity for success in a midterm year.
The reason for their optimism, they say, is that during presidential campaigns, the unpopularity of national Democrats in these culturally conservative areas acts as a millstone that weighs down local Democratic hopefuls. Absent that focus on Washington, Democrats running for office can better craft the independent image necessary to win in otherwise Republican-leaning districts.
It's a trend exacerbated by President Obama, who has accelerated the widening gap in popularity between local Democrats and the national party — particularly in regions of the country like Appalachia. His absence from the ticket could offer a bigger boost for a handful of Democrats than they would normally expect in an off-year race.
The DCCC's strategy invites skepticism: Some of the targets are in stoutly Republican districts, and many of them have an entrenched incumbent. And Obama, even if he's not on the ballot, is still very much the president — as Republicans will constantly point out. But for a party facing a narrow path to regain 17 seats and the majority, pulling a few surprises in these races could be essential.
"We're putting everything in place to expand the House battlefield — and that means pushing into districts where local Democrats make a strong showing in the off-year elections," said Rep. Steve Israel of New York, the DCCC chairman. "In each of these districts, Democrats can tell their local stories about how they would better represent families' values and priorities than the dysfunctional House Republicans."
Many of the districts are located in Appalachia, one of the few regions of the country where Obama performed worse than John Kerry in 2004. Just last year, the president infamously lost 41 percent of the vote in West Virginia's Democratic presidential primary to a federal inmate.
But look below the presidential results, and the ground looks more favorable for Democrats. Arkansas's 4th Congressional District, represented by freshman GOP Rep. Tom Cotton, stretches across the state's southern half. Obama drew only 37 percent of the vote there in 2012, but it's been far more favorable to Democrats in other races. The popular Democratic Gov. Mark Beebe, for instance, won 66 percent of its vote in 2010 and 60 percent in 2006. Even Kerry nearly won 50 percent of its vote during his presidential campaign.
If Cotton decides to run for Senate — as many conservative groups are urging him to do — that could open the door for Democrats, some of whom are already circling state Sen. Bruce Maloch as a possible candidate.
Kentucky's 6th Congressional District is another race where the midterm dynamic could benefit Democrats. Former Rep. Ben Chandler narrowly lost the race to Republican Rep. Andy Barr last year in a district that overwhelmingly backed Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear in 2007 and 2011. In West Virginia, outgoing Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito's 2nd District seat backed Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin with 52 percent of the vote in 2010, and it handed retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller, another Democrat, 62 percent support in his 2008 race.
In all, Democrats point to races in Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Montana, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and West Virginia where they think the party will benefit from an off-year election.
Still, the path for Democratic victory in some of these districts is narrow because many of them, even in an off year, are solidly Republican. Cotton's seat in Arkansans, for instance, represents a +9 Republican district, according to The Cook Political Report. Capito's seat in West Virginia is +8 for the GOP, and even if it's an open seat, Cook says the race "leans Republican."
Even if Obama isn't on the campaign trail for himself, Republicans will ensure he remains a large presence in the campaign. They also point out that many Democrats were elated just months ago to announce that the president had dedicated himself to raising money and recruiting candidates for the DCCC.
"This might be breaking news to DCCC, but the president is still the president and the leader of their party," said Andrea Bozek, spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "So they're going to have a hard time trying to distance themselves from someone they're so proud to have recruiting candidates across the country."