Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) speaks during a press conferencefollowing… (Win McNamee/GETTY IMAGES )
Democratic Party officials believe that Kevin Strouse is exactly the kind of candidate who can help them retake the House next year.
He’s a smart, young former Army Ranger — good qualities for any aspiring politician. But what party leaders really like is that Strouse doesn’t have particularly strong views on the country’s hottest issues.
Immigration? Tax policy? “Certainly I have a lot of research to do,” Strouse acknowledged in an interview Thursday as he announced his candidacy in a suburban Philadelphia House district.
Strouse’s candidacy reflects an emerging Democratic strategy for taking back the House from Republicans after the tea party takeover of 2010.
The best way to defeat the conservative, ideologically driven GOP, Democrats say, is to field non-ideological “problem solvers” who can profit from the fed-up-with-partisanship mood of some suburban areas. These districts will offer some of the few competitive House campaigns in the country.
“You pick your strategic high ground and force them to fight on it,” said Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), who as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has begun a particularly early effort at traveling the country and working the phones to lure Strouse and others like him into races.
Israel’s approach is a variation on the model used by then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), the campaign committee chairman in 2006 when Democrats took over the House in George W. Bush’s “six-year itch” midterm. Emanuel sought out centrists and conservatives to run in rural districts, particularly in the South.
But after the GOP 2010 wave and the redrawing of district lines, most of those seats have been locked away for Republicans. What remains are a clutch of suburban seats — not unlike Israel’s own on Long Island — full of nonpartisan professionals who are more concerned about day-to-day issues than ideological battles.
Democrats have identified 52 possible districts where they could flip a seat, many in suburban areas where party officials hope to attract candidates who can break free from traditional partisan labels.
Strouse, 33, fits the bill. He enlisted in the Army in spring 2001. A suburban Philadelphia native, he served three combat stints in Afghanistan and one in Iraq as an Army Ranger, and was among the ground troops who recovered Jessica Lynch in the earliest days of Iraq combat. He then joined the CIA, where he spent six years in counterterrorism operations. Strouse is running to unseat Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R) from a district directly north of Philadelphia, a swing area that since 1979 has sent Republicans to Congress for 18 years and Democrats for 16 years.
Across the country, Israel and Democrats are fighting history. Democrats did well last year, but fell 17 seats short of the majority in the House. And only once in the past 60 years has the president’s party gained seats at the halfway point of his second term.
The independent Rothenberg Political Report rates only 50 total seats as competitive, split evenly between the two sides. Republicans begin the 18-month stretch to Election Day with 209 seats safely in their corner, meaning they need to win just nine of the 50 battleground seats to secure the majority for the entire four-year stretch of Obama’s second term, according to Rothenberg.
Republicans intend to play political offense, too. On Wednesday, the National Republican Congressional Committee rolled out ads against seven Democrats for opposing a GOP-drafted balanced budget plan. Five of those come from deep red districts that have supported the past three Republican presidential nominees.
“The map leans to the right. Their only path to the majority has got to be winning Republican districts,” said Daniel Scarpinato, spokesman for the NRCC.
This landscape was created, in part, by GOP-dominated state legislatures drawing up most of the House districts after the 2010 census. Their precision was borne out by last year’s election results: While Obama beat GOP nominee Mitt Romney by nearly 5 million votes, the president won a majority of votes in just 208 House districts to Romney’s 227.
The Democrats think their strategy can neutralize some of the map’s built-in disadvantages.
Strouse introduced himself last week as a candidate who knows how to “solve problems” and who “got the job done” protecting the nation.
“I’ve thrived in situations where there’s a fair amount of chaos,” Strouse, a graduate of Columbia University and Georgetown’s master’s program in security studies, said in a telephone interview.
Strouse only recently became a registered Democrat. “I took with pride that I was working in these nonpartisan organizations,” he said of the Army and CIA. Eventually, he became shocked by “the degree to which the Republican Party moved to the right” on social and fiscal issues.