WASHINGTON – In a competitive district east of Denver, Democrat Andrew Romanoff is counting on voter anger at a divided and ineffectual Congress to help him unseat three-term Republican Rep. Mike Coffman.
"I must have blinked and missed it," the challenger said of the House's work this past year. "It's become a punch line to call this the least productive Congress in history or to joke 'how do you tell when Congress is in session or on vacation, it's hard to tell the difference.'"
Ten months to next year's midterm elections, Democrats are determined to make Congress' slim production of fewer than 60 laws and plenty of incompletes — on immigration, gun control, tax reform and basic spending bills — a defining issue, heaping much of the blame on the GOP-led House for obstructing President Barack Obama's second-term agenda.
Republicans dismiss criticism about a sparse record and insist that the driving issue in 2014 will be the impact of Obama's health care law, with a raft of canceled insurance policies, higher premiums and an endless cycle of problems.
"Voters are more motivated when something is taken away from them," Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., head of the campaign committee to elect Republicans, said this past fall during the woes of the health care website's startup.
Walden's Democratic counterpart, Rep. Steve Israel of New York, has his own assessment: "Voters are paying members of Congress to do a job, to get things done, not to just sit back and obsess about repealing a single law."
The election will decide who is right and who controls Congress for the last two years of Obama's presidency.
The GOP has held the House majority since January 2011 and is widely expected to maintain that edge in next November's contests. Congressional officials and outside political experts point to the drag of Obama's low approval ratings, the troubled health care law and the traditional losses for the president's party in midterm elections.
Republicans insist they will expand their 232-201 majority — there are currently two vacancies — but no one expects the gains of 2010 when the GOP notched 63 Democratic seats and captured House control. Past Republican wins and redrawn congressional lines have reduced the universe of competitive seats.
The GOP has seven top targets, including the all-but-certain pickup in Utah with seven-term Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson's retirement, and 26 other seats they've focused on to expand their majority. Democrats are looking at some three dozen potential takeaways, including open seats in northern Virginia and Iowa with the retirements of 17-term Republican Rep. Frank Wolf and 10-term Rep. Tom Latham.
Republicans repeatedly have tried to unseat long-time Democrats in Republican-leaning districts, such as five-term Rep. John Barrow in Georgia, nine-term Rep. Mike McIntyre in North Carolina and 12-term Rep. Collin Peterson in Minnesota. All three lawmakers, however, survived the tea-party driven, Republican wave of 2010 and redistricting changes in 2012.
The more likely incumbents to fall are first-term Democrats who barely won their seats in a high-turnout, presidential year.
Democrats see takeover possibilities in Pennsylvania, Indiana, Nevada and California as well as open seats in New Jersey, where Rep. Jon Runyan of the 2010 class decided against another term, and Arkansas, where Rep. Tom Cotton is running for the Senate. One of the party's top recruits is James Lee Witt, who served as director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the Clinton administration and is pursuing the Arkansas seat.
Any Democratic hopes of limiting expected Republican gains center on districts like Colorado's 6th, a suburban Denver stretch that includes Aurora and Littleton. Democrats redrew the boundaries and the district's population of 748,467 people now includes 150,540 Hispanics, 71,290 African-Americans and 41,644 Asian-Americans, according to the latest U.S. Census figures.
A changing demographic with a more diverse population is one reason why Obama prevailed, 52-47 percent, over Republican nominee Mitt Romney in 2012. Coffman, a conservative Republican, won Colorado with just 48 percent of the vote, two percentage points ahead of his Democratic rival.
Democrats are determined to highlight immigration, the stalled legislation in the House and Coffman's evolution on the issue. One of their top recruits is Romanoff, the former speaker of the Colorado House who served four terms in the legislature.
The son and grandson of immigrants from Eastern Europe, Romanoff backs the bipartisan, Senate-passed bill that would provide a path to citizenship for most of the 11 million immigrants living in the U.S. illegally and tighten U.S. borders. He criticized the Republican-led House's inaction on the bill and GOP leaders' preference for a piecemeal approach rather than comprehensive legislation.
"Congress is more interested in playing political games," Romanoff said in a recent interview.
Coffman, once a hard-liner on immigration who complained about the so-called DREAM ACT and who introduced a bill allowing locales to use English-only ballots, has changed and now favors a path to citizenship for young immigrants brought to the country by their parents.
"While we are a nation of immigrants, our policies regarding immigration are dysfunctional," Coffman said earlier this year in pressing for action. He said legislation "must show compassion to the families that have been here regardless of their immigration status."
Democrats have already highlighted the one vote on immigration in the House, a June 6 vote for an amendment that would have barred money for implementing Obama's 2012 policy to let some young immigrants remain in the United States. Coffman voted for the measure in an outcome that was largely along party lines, 224-201.
On health care, Coffman said Republican talk about repealing the law isn't sufficient when facing the electorate.
"There's no doubt we have to come up with alternatives that we can all coalesce around," he said, suggesting a series of bills, including insurance reforms.
Romanoff is talking about a fix, too. But he also focuses on preventive care measures and the law's prohibition on denying coverage for pre-existing conditions, popular elements that Democrats like to highlight.
Both candidates have sufficient funds for the race. Romanoff reported $1.3 million cash on hand in the latest filing with the Federal Election Commission, Coffman reported $1.2 million.