By DONNA CASSATA, Associated Press
MCLEAN, Va. (AP) — House Democrats' hopes of mitigating the damage in the midterm elections lie in the fast-growing suburbs of northern Virginia, the cities and towns near Iowa's covered bridges of Madison County and not far from New Jersey's Pine Barrens.
No one is suggesting that Democrats can net the 17 seats needed to capture control of the House from the Republicans, not against the harsh political headwinds of traditional losses for the president's party in midterms, an unpopular health care law and President Barack Obama's low approval ratings.
The Democrats' loss in a competitive special election in Florida last week only added to the party's woes. Republicans were gleeful.
"I think we're in for a tsunami-type election in 2014," Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus proclaimed this week.
Yet Republican retirements in a half-dozen swing districts provide Democrats with an opportunity to grab a handful of seats this November. The party has cleared a path for its preferred candidates while the GOP faces some messy primaries that underscore the divide between conservatives and the establishment.
In a Virginia district stretching from wealthy enclaves overlooking the Potomac River to the Shenandoah Valley, Republican Rep. Frank Wolf announced in December that he would step down after 34 years, giving Democrats a shot in a district that Republican Mitt Romney won by just 1 percentage point in the 2012 presidential election.
Democrat John Foust, a Fairfax County supervisor for the past seven years, already had set his sights on the seat, declaring his candidacy days before Wolf's announcement. Last fall's 16-day partial government shutdown, felt hard among the tens of thousands of federal employees in the district and outside contractors, was the deciding factor.
"The government shutdown was so indicative of the way Congress is working," the soft-spoken Foust says in an interview in which he describes himself as mainstream and pragmatic. "The Republicans are willing to sacrifice ordinary people to pursue a partisan agenda. It's just not acceptable."
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is firmly behind Foust. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., will venture to McLean on Wednesday for a fundraiser.
Republicans will select their nominee on April 26 from six candidates, with the GOP establishment preferring Wolf's former aide, state delegate Barbara Comstock. She faces a challenge from a strong conservative, fellow state delegate Bob Marshall, who has represented several counties in the district since 1991.
The selection will take place through a "firehouse primary," in which the party will run its own election at polling sites it designates throughout the district.
The question in November is whether the government shutdown will still resonate with voters in the Virginia district or be a distant memory, overtaken by dissatisfaction with Obama and frustration with the health care law.
The numbers are daunting. In the November 2010 midterms, Republicans delivered what Obama called a "shellacking," netting 63 seats in the House while gaining six in the Senate. In March of that year, the president's approval rating was 53 percent before sliding to 47 percent in November, according to Associated Press-GfK polling.
Surveys this month put Obama in the low 40s.
"Polls numbers are not where we would want them to be, but Republican congressional poll numbers are at an historic low and a fraction of where the president is. So everything is relative," said Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Republicans hold a 233-199 advantage in the House, with three vacancies.