WASHINGTON — Buoyed by Republican retirements and fat campaign coffers, U.S. House Democrats are optimistic about expanding their majority — perhaps by picking up a Republican-held seat in South Florida.
Democrats are eyeing as many as six House seats in Florida, including three Miami seats now held by Republicans, Reps. Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. Their challenger: are former Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez, former Miami-Dade Democratic party chief Joe Garcia and businesswoman Annette Taddeo.
The party is also targeting Reps. Tom Feeney in Oviedo, Vern Buchanan in Sarasota and Ric Keller in Orlando. The party is also hoping to find a candidate to run for the Space Coast area seat being vacated by Rep. Dave Weldon, one of nearly 30 Republicans retiring or resigning from the House.
''There's an awful lot of activity in Florida,'' said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the Maryland Democrat who chairs the House campaign committee.
Van Hollen singled out Democrat Christine Jennings, who is running for the Sarasota seat again after narrowly losing to Buchanan and contesting the 2006 election, which was marred by more than 18,000 ballots that showed no vote cast in the congressional race.
Jennings ''won the election last time, but is running again,'' Van Hollen said. He also cited Democrat Suzanne Kosmas, who is challenging Feeney and announced today that she's raised more than $500,000 so far on the bid.
The party also has to defend two new seats, won by Reps. Ron Klein of Boca Raton and Tim Mahoney of Palm Beach Gardens, but Van Hollen said it's hoping by November ``to spend less money defending new members and more money on offense.''
He acknowledged, though, that the party needs to resolve Florida's delegate dilemma.
''From the perspective of the House races and the energy and the enthusiasm around those races, it's going to be important to have Florida voters invested in the races,'' he said. ``Not just for the Florida seats, but for the party, it will be obviously important to resolve the Florida and Michigan situations.''
The national Democratic party stripped Florida and Michigan of delegates last summer for scheduling their primaries earlier than party rules allowed. Party chief Howard Dean pledged last week to help find a compromise to give the states a voice in picking the presidential nominee, but the presidential campaigns have yet to agree on a resolution.
Van Hollen said he's confident the situation will be resolved, but cautioned that a number of factors could spoil the outlook for Democrats, including a bitter primary spat. ''We need to make sure that we continue to have the energy and excitement on the Democratic side that we saw in the early primaries,'' he said. ``The only thing that could undercut that is if the Democratic primary gets so divisive that it's difficult to patch it up and heal the wounds in time to be together in November.''
Republicans said Democrats may be too ambitious about ousting any GOP incumbents in Florida, where the GOP holds 16 of 25 House seats.
''They have been throwing lots of darts at Florida and saying they'll target there, but case by case our members are really well positioned,'' said Julie Shutley, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Shutley said the party is confident it can retain the seats, noting in particular that polling from Sarasota 'suggests Jennings' electability has gone down'' because of her protracted contest over the 2006 election.