Convention: To NRCC, Offense is the Best Defense

Jessica Taylor August 28, 2012 · 11:17 AM EDT

TAMPA, Fla. -- Republicans are defending their majority, but that’s not stopping them from playing offense and from trying to pin Democrats down and forcing them to defend some of their own districts.

GOP operatives are very bullish on their chances in several districts where Democrats survived tough races in 2010. As congressional candidates take the convention stage on Tuesday afternoon, Republicans will be highlighting some of those unique challengers and their stories.

It’s 25 year-old Ricky Gill’s first trip to a national convention, but he’s not here as a delegate, observer, or volunteer -- he’s one of Republicans’ top recruits in California’s 9th District against Democratic Rep. Jerry McNerney -- a contest several GOP operatives are becoming more optimistic about.

Part of that hope comes from Gill’s strong fundraising and unique story that strategists say is propelling him in the competitive contest in the San Joaquin Valley. We currently rate this race as Leans Democratic.

Gill said in an interview in Tampa on Monday his speech will focus on his own “American dream” -- the son of Indian immigrants who were obstetricians and operated a vineyard in the Valley, he’s stressing his Lodi roots as a contrast to McNerney’s Sacramento base -- a contrast GOP strategists have been pleased with. Gill is also highlighting the district’s city of Stockton’s recent bankruptcy -- the largest city in the U.S. to declare, and he says that puts even more of an emphasis on his message of financial reform and the economy.

While Democrats have pointed to Gill’s youth and relative political inexperience (though he did serve on the state board of education when he was in high school) as a negative, the recent law school graduate said that’s a plus for him as he heads into November.

“I’m untainted,” said Gill. “Coming at me is like swinging in the dark.”

California is one state where Democrats likely to need to gain a handful of seats in order to secure the 25 they need to win back the majority. But it’s not as easy a path as they once had hoped with primary losses taking at least two once competitive races virtually off the map.

A race Republicans narrowly missed out on last cycle was in Kentucky’s 6th District. Democratic Rep. Ben Chandler prevailed narrowly over first-time candidate Andy Barr by just 647 votes, and this year the Republican is back for a second try, though the district got narrowly better for Democrats in redistricting.

Barr said in an interview outside the Howl at the Moon bar, just after a Kentucky delegation event, that one of the contrasts he’s stressing between himself and Chandler are his votes he says would hurt the district’s coal industry, particularly Chandler’s vote for cap and trade legislation. The National Republican Congressional Committee just launched another ad against Chandler on Tuesday,

Barr said the speaking slot here in Tampa is critical for him, as he needs to peel away Romney-Chandler voters to his side and limit crossover balloting. As much as he can do to tie himself to the GOP nominee, the better.

“This president has picked a fight with all Kentuckians,” said Barr. “He’s hurt the economy in Kentucky through his war on coal.”

Overall, GOP operatives struck a bullish tone as the convention kicked off. NRCC Executive Director Guy Harrison noted that his outlook is even more optimistic in recent weeks, and predicted that a good night for Republicans could mean a gain of between four and eight seats, he explained in a briefing on Monday.

"There's no shot that this 'Drive for 25' is anything other than fiction," Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the NRCC's recruiting chair, added.

The Rothenberg Political Report currently projects between a possible small gain for Republicans or a small loss -- between a gain of one seat or a gain of six for Democrats. But even with Budget Chairman Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) place on the presidential ticket, NRCC leaders said that the Democrats' Medicare message will quickly fade, and argued that their strong GOP recruits make them competitive in places they shouldn't normally be -- a point Democrats

“We take a lot of pride in Paul Ryan,” Harrison said of the Medicare argument. “We welcome this fight, we want this fight.”

As many as a dozen GOP incumbents and challengers in other competitive races, from Wisconsin to North Carolina to Pennsylvania, are expected to speak this afternoon, though the original schedule was condensed after Tropical Storm Isaac forced the first day of the convention to be cancelled.

Harrison also pointed to the absence of a national wave as more good news for Republicans and GOP strategists have been encouraged by private polling lately. As long as there isn’t a national tide against Republicans and the public is divided on President Barack Obama’s leadership, it’s difficult to see large numbers of GOP incumbents being thrown out of office.

"A tight election for us is good," said Harrison. "A tight race means in most of our seats we’re in Republican territory."