Political history suggests a party that has just won a sweeping House majority will spend the following cycle defending their new incumbents. But this year, Republicans are increasingly optimistic they can buck the trend.
The post-redistricting landscape appears difficult enough to prevent Democrats from winning back a majority in 2010. But in separate briefings with reporters on Monday, House Speaker John Boehner and top officials at the National Republican Congressional Committee said they believe the party can not only limit its losses, it can actually gain a handful of seats or more.
"There's one word that I've been preaching to our members and candidates, and that's offense," Boehner said at an event hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. "I want to use more of our resources on offense than I do playing defense. And while the political prognosticators are out there talking about how many seats we're going to lose ... that is not my goal. My goal is to gain seats."
NRCC Executive Director Guy Harrison pointed to 78 competitive House seats, including 31 in Democratic hands and two that feature a Democratic incumbent and a Republican incumbent fighting over a redistricted seat.
Republicans now openly pooh-pooh the notion that Democrats can net anywhere near the 25 seats they need to hand the gavel back to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
"A year ago, the conventional wisdom in Washington was that 25 was a realistic number," said Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La. "Most people recognize now that there's no shot this drive for 25."
Democrats point to positive poll numbers, including an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey released last week that shows their side with a 47 percent to 42 percent lead on the generic congressional ballot.
But on a district-by-district level, Republicans have a point. Democrats should find their best pickup opportunities in seats the party lost in 2010, but they failed to recruit top-level candidates in nearly two dozen of those seats. Freshmen Republicans like Reps. Pat Meehan, Mike Kelly, and Lou Barletta of Pennsylvania; Rick Crawford and Tim Griffin of Arkansas; and Tom Reed and Richard Hanna of New York hold just some of the seats that Democrats lost to Republicans in 2010 and are barely contesting this year.
Other Democratic-held open seats in conservative territory are trending toward Republicans virtually uncontested. Districts in Oklahoma and Arkansas are all but gone already.
"Essentially what's happened here is you've shrunk the playing field," Harrison said.
Fewer competitive seats on the table means the NRCC can spend its money elsewhere. Harrison pointed to the Philadelphia media market as an example: "The fact that we don't have to play defense in a $600,000 media market helps when we go on offense elsewhere," he said.
And several seats that should be safely in Democratic hands are suddenly competitive, thanks to scandals engulfing individual Democrats. Reps. John Tierney of Massachusetts and David Cicilline of Rhode Island are both fighting negative headlines and low popularity ratings, giving Republicans rare opportunities in what had been solidly blue New England.
"Race-by-race polling shows Republican incumbents with anemic numbers because voters have a deep sense of buyer’s remorse that this Republican Congress protected millionaires over Medicare and the middle class," said Jesse Ferguson, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.