WASHINGTON -- News of the relatively meager tax rate Mitt Romney pays will "create fury" and help hand the Democrats control of the House of Representatives in the fall, said Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Romney, a wealthy businessman and heir, revealed recently that his taxes will probably come in at about 15 percent, which is significantly less than what is paid by many Americans -- particularly those in the upper-middle class -- who earn far less than he does.
In the latest example of how Democrats seeing a Romney effect helping down-ballot contenders for lower offices, Israel said Wednesday that having a rich, low-taxed member of the "one percent" at the top of the GOP ticket only helps Democratic candidates.
"This election is going to be about rebuilding the middle class," Israel said at a briefing to announce the Democrats' best prospects for winning in the fall. "When people find out in the middle class that they are paying a higher tax rate than somebody who does much better than they do, who gets a much larger paycheck than they do, that's going to create fury."
And that fury will be directed at "an economic system that has squeezed the middle class" and work to the advantage of Democrats, Israel argued.
"To the extent that that is an issue -- and I think it is the defining issue in the presidential campaign and in the House campaigns -- we do better," Israel said.
The Romney campaign referred to an article by GOP economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin that described discussions of Romney's taxes as "silly." Eakin argued that much of Romney's income comes from investments, not from having to work at a job that pays a salary, and therefore is taxed mostly at the 15 percent capital gains rate.
National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Paul Lindsay, however, said that the GOP thinks voters will blame the overall economy on Democrats.
"The economic system that will define this election is the one instituted by President Obama that has hurt job creation and made a bad economy even worse," Lindsay said. "It has squeezed all taxpayers, and Democrats are the guilty party who will be held accountable for it on Election Day."
Republicans also have argued that, if there's a down-ballot effect, it will be from Obama hurting Democrats.
But when it came to the top of his own ticket, Israel argued that the national picture was less important, even with President Obama running against Congress as a "do-nothing" body -- a charge that could tarnish down-ticket Democrats just as much as Republicans.
"I've had the privilege of speaking to the president about this on several occasions and I believe that he has been more assertive in using the word 'Republican' when he runs against the Congress," said Israel.
Israel also said he did not want Democrats to distance themselves from Obama, explaining that the president's larger message would still benefit them. "To the extent that the president reminds people that the Republican Congress has tried to prevent any progress on the economy, has defended tax breaks for millionaires but opposed tax cuts for the middle class, the more he campaigns against those responsible in Congress, the better it is," he said.
Israel also contended he has a different focus than the president's campaign.
"We have created our own battleground, our own battle spaces, our own field program, our own message," Israel said. "The battleground to take the House back for us -- it goes through California and Illinois. I'm not sure the DNC or the president is going to be investing huge resources in California and Illinois. For us, it's Texas. We've got to do well in Texas."
Illinois and California are generally regarded as safe Obama territory, while Texas goes reliably for Republican candidates. Israel did admit that there is overlap between the White House campaign and House races in states such as Nevada, Pennsylvania and Florida, but he insisted his candidates would succeed independently.
"We have our own candidates who reflect the specific and unique priorities and values of those districts, and that's how we will win," Israel said. "We will win this on the streets and not at the 30,000-foot level."
Democrats need to take back 25 seats to win control of the House. Israel said that he has 76 "real deal" competitive races -- a slight improvement to the estimate he made just last week.
His comment's came in announcing nearly 40 "Red-to-Blue" contests that Israel thinks Democrats have a strong chance at winning, and where they will focus resources.
Far more than Romney's taxes, Israel said the overall environment as coming together in a way that could entirely flip the dynamic of 2010's contests, when Republicans powered by the Tea Party drubbed the Democrats.
Citing growing outrage at income inequality and what he called GOP attempts to end Medicare and hike payroll taxes, among other things, Israel said that Democrats were picking up momentum, especially with crucial independents, in a way that reminded him of 2010.
"Last cycle was just a perfect storm. We had gale force winds against us," Israel said. "This cycle, it looks like it may be generating a perfect storm against the Republicans."
Michael McAuliff covers politics and Congress for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.
SUBSCRIBE AND FOLLOW
Get top stories and blog posts emailed to me each day. Newsletters may offer personalized content or advertisements.Learn more