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After dramatic term, GOP bullish on holding House


Republicans are optimistic about their chances of retaining control of the House despite a dramatic two-year tenure in charge that saw approval of Congress touch all-time lows.

The battle for the House is far from set in stone, but political forecasters are skeptical of Democrats’ ability to achieve the net gain of 25 seats they need to wrest control from the GOP. The change in the chamber’s makeup come January is expected to fall within a narrow band in which Republicans either add or subtract a few seats from their 49-member majority.

J. Scott Applewhite / AP

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohiois flanked by other House GOP leaders during a news conference June 27 on Capitol Hill.

“What’s happened is that the normal gains you would expect Democrats to get coming off a 63-seat loss were offset by some retirements and Republican districts being shored up through redistricting,” said Charlie Cook, editor of the nonpartisan “Cook Political Report,” which follows congressional races.

The renewed GOP optimism marks a slight shift from just a few months ago, when House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, warned his party had a “one-in-three chance” of losing the House.

Former Rep. Tom Davis and Former Rep. Martin Frost talk about how Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama should handle the health care mandate tax vs. penalty conversation.

“Our incumbents are in a strong position, and our challengers are running great races,” said Paul Lindsay, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC). “Voters understand that House Republicans were sent to Washington to stop the madness of this administration, and we've done that.”

Democrats, as one might expect, are quick to disagree. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has outraised its Republican counterpart at points this cycle – a feat for a non-incumbent party – and most recently pulled in $2.3 million in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling upholding President Obama’s health care law.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who lost the speakership after Republicans’ victories in 2010, told Reuters last week that her party, right now, has the momentum.

Mia Love is generating buzz in Utah with a historical run for Congress that would make her the first black Republican female elected to the House of Representatives. NBC's Craig Melvin reports.

"It’s easier to win 25 seats than to hold 63," the California Democrat said at a summit in Washington. "We have out-recruited the Republicans and we have fabulous candidates. This time we will be ready."

But Democrats are quick to caution that political observers shouldn’t consider that statement a guarantee.

“There's nobody who's said we're definitely going to win the House,” said a Democratic strategist familiar with the party’s House campaign efforts. “We've said it's going to be a good night, but we've never guaranteed victory from the outset.

Democrats held a one-point advantage (within the margin of error) in the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. Forty-five percent of voters said they would prefer a Democratic Congress as an outcome of this fall’s elections, while 44 percent said that they would prefer the GOP to be in charge. Eleven percent said they were unsure.

Still, though, Republicans have in recent months closed an advantage that Democrats had opened in NBC/WSJ polls earlier this year. Democrats held a six-point lead in the generic ballot in January of this year.

January marked what was arguably a low point, politically, for House Republicans. A fight over payroll taxes late last year – when Republicans insisted on offsetting spending cuts to finance an extension of a payroll tax cut favored by the president and Democrats – threatened to crystallize an impression of a House led by hard-charging conservatives.

That followed a year in which Republicans had stared down Obama multiple times on funding the government. And an August showdown that raised the specter of defaulting on the national debt took a toll on nearly every participant involved.

“The possibilities of Republicans self-destructing to the point where it could cost them 25 seats, it was there. You could have seen the path last summer,” Cook said.

So what’s changed? Quite simply, Congress has stayed out of the headlines. While Washington has hardly been a model of good governance, a package last week to extend low student loan interest rates and fund highway infrastructure projects short-circuited some of the claims of a “Do-Nothing Congress.”

“They’re not engaging in a lot of self-destructive behavior,” said Cook, adding that some sort of catalyzing, self-destructive event would likely be needed to put Democrats in position for a takeover.

There’s still much that could change, though, in the battle for Congress. The presidential election could unfold in any number of directions, and lawmakers on both sides are carefully heeding economic indicators set for release over the next couple of months.

Each side, though, has started to firm up its message and reserved millions in airtime this fall to advance it.

Republicans are particularly eager to use the Supreme Court’s determination that the new health reform law is constitutional under the power of Congress to tax. It lends some measure of credence to a tried-and-tested Republican attack – accusing Democrats of raising taxes. The GOP has also sought to tie Democrats to Obama in districts where the president is less popular, prompting some Democratic candidates or incumbents to forgo the party’s summer convention in Charlotte.

Democrats, meanwhile, have enjoyed a degree of political mileage from the past two Republican budgets offered by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan. These budgets proposed reshaping Medicare and drastic spending cuts over the next decade, and the overwhelming majority of House Republicans voted to advance them.

Democrats have made no secret about their intention to turn that budget back against Republicans.

“The Republican budget choices are going to be the focal point this fall,” said the Democratic strategist.