MCLEAN, Va. — Democrats know they perform poorly in midterm elections. Just ask President Barack Obama.
"We get clobbered — either because we don't think it's important or we've become so discouraged about what's happening in Washington that we think it's not worth our while," Obama told big-money donors at a Florida fundraiser late Thursday.
"We're going to have to get over that," he said. "This is a top priority."
If Democrats are to have any hope of mitigating the damage, they must capitalize on Republican retirements in a half-dozen swing districts. 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.
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 the drag of 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.
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., plan to 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.
Pelosi insisted on Thursday that the 4-year-old health care law would be a political winner for the party in the fall. Republicans, who point to higher premiums and canceled policies, are certain it will cost Democrats House seats and possibly the Senate.
The recipe for Republicans, says J. Hogan Gidley, a senior political adviser for ad maker BrabenderCox, is to focus on "a pinch of the economy, a dash of jobs and a heaping spoonful of Obamacare."
As a Democratic candidate, Foust offers a fix-but-don't-scrap argument.
"We're at a point where we can't turn it back over to the insurance companies," he said. "We've got to take what we got and address the problems that exist."
Elsewhere on the political map, Democrats are upbeat about their chances in Iowa's 3rd Congressional District, where Republican Rep. Tom Latham, a close confidante of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, made the surprise announcement that he would retire after 10 terms. Obama won the district by 4 percentage points in 2012.
Democrats have rallied around former state Sen. Staci Appel. Republicans face a crowded primary of six candidates, including Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz, state Sen. Brad Zaun and David Young, who has worked as Sen. Charles Grassley's chief of staff.
If no candidate gets 35 percent on June 3, the decision on the nominee kicks to a convention, where the party's far right has a greater say.
Appel will be battling not only the eventual GOP nominee but Iowa's seemingly shatterproof glass ceiling. Two states — Mississippi and Iowa — have never elected a woman to Congress or the governor's mansion.
New Jersey, where two-term Republican Rep. Jon Runyan is retiring, offers a chance for Democrat Aimee Belgard, a member of the Burlington County Board of Freeholders, the county's governing body. Republicans favor Tom MacArthur, a former mayor, but unsuccessful Senate candidate Steve Lonegan is pressing ahead with a challenge to what he calls "the liberal wing of the GOP."
Obama won the district by 4 percentage points in 2012. The primary is June 3.
Democrats in the Philadelphia suburbs are counting on Dr. Manan Trivedi, an Iraq War veteran, to flip a seat held by Republican Rep. Jim Gerlach for six terms. Ryan Costello, a lawyer and Chester County commissioner, is the likely GOP nominee. The primary is May 20.
Democrats are all but certain to flip the California seat held by eight-term Republican Rep. Gary Miller, who is retiring. Obama won the district by 16 percentage points in 2012.