It’s hard to talk about the 2012 congressional elections without starting with the Senate and the remarkable election night for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Democrats scored a net gain of two seats, something that was inconceivable 90 days ago or, for that matter, on Nov. 5. They held five of their six most vulnerable seats, and no Democratic incumbent lost reelection. Of 10 toss-up races, Democrats won nine. For what was generally considered to be a non-wave election, those results are extraordinary.
The DSCC was dealt a weak hand at the start of the cycle, prompting some analysts to question the sanity of Chairwoman Patty Murray of Washington, talented Executive Director Guy Cecil, and their team for taking on the challenge. They had to defend 23 seats to 10 for Republicans. Democrats had more retirements and, for much of the cycle, more vulnerable seats.
But Murray and her team decided to play offense instead of defense, and they made their own success. First, they recruited competitive challengers to every Republican incumbent who might be vulnerable. They recruited an insurance policy or two, such as getting Rep. Joe Donnelly of Indiana to run for the Senate. They recruited solid candidates to defend their own vulnerable open seats, even in states that were strongly Republican—for example, Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota. Senate Democrats made sure their campaigns were well staffed, placing managers, communication directors, fundraisers, and field staff in races where their talents could be maximized. Finally, and contrary to early conventional wisdom, Democratic outside groups such as Majority PAC and Priorities USA raised enough money to blunt the impact of outside Republican groups. In the end, Democrats earned every seat they won.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee doesn’t deserve the criticism being heaped upon it for losing two seats. The committee, under the leadership of John Cornyn of Texas, includes talented professionals who did the best they could under the circumstances. Executive Director Rob Jessmer, Political Director Rich Dunn, and Communications Director Brian Walsh are as good as they come. The NRSC was dealt a good hand at the start of the cycle, but many things beyond its control eroded its position. Republicans have problems matching Democrats in recruiting candidates and managing primaries because the GOP base simply not does allow the party to anoint the strongest candidate in a race. In 2010, the NRSC got involved in primaries and faced a backlash from conservative voters that produced weak nominees who cost them three seats. This cycle, the committee stayed out of primaries but saw GOP voters pick weak candidates in Indiana and Missouri, two states they should have won. At the end of the day, the losing team always looks for a scapegoat, and the NRSC is a natural one, but the fault truly lies with a recalcitrant and inflexible base.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, along with its allies at the House Majority PAC (more or less its super PAC arm), deserve credit for “beating the point spread” in the House, scoring a net pickup of seven or eight seats, depending on the outcome of races that have yet to be called. Heading into Election Day, most strategists pointed to more-modest Democratic gains or even a GOP pickup of a seat or two. The DCCC’s critics may credibly argue that the committee’s line of attack on Medicare failed to move the needle in many places, but it’s important to understand that the “Drive for 25” was never really an attainable goal to begin with. Republicans now have built-in advantages—chiefly redistricting and the concentration of nonwhite voters in a few minority-majority districts—that make it impossible for Democrats to reach a majority in the absence of a massive wave. The fact that Democrats were able to win some 200 seats with a less-than-universally-loved president topping the ticket is remarkable.
After suffering a few recruitment and primary setbacks early in the cycle, Democrats excelled at hand-to-hand combat, as evidenced by the fact that many more Democrats prevailed in GOP-leaning districts than did Republicans in Democratic-leaning districts. DCCC Chairman Steve Israel of New York—with a supporting cast of seasoned operatives such as DCCC Executive Director Robby Mook, communications gurus Jennifer Crider and Jesse Ferguson, and Independent Expenditure Director Travis Lowe—deftly trained candidates, kept pace with GOP fundraising, and put several previously uncompetitive seats (such as Mary Bono Mack’s CA-36) in play. The House Majority PAC, as well as the Center Forward PAC, deserve credit for erasing the GOP’s 2010 super PAC monopoly and helping adversely redistricted Blue Dogs—two examples are Reps. John Barrow (GA-12) and Jim Matheson (UT-04)—survive against all odds in Republican-leaning districts.
Of course, House Republicans had reason to cheer on election night, too. After talk throughout much of 2011 that Democrats would gain 10 to 20 seats, the GOP kept its losses to single digits. Chairman Pete Session’s National Republican Congressional Committee, led by Executive Director Guy Harrison, Communications Director Paul Lindsay, Political Director Mike Shields, and Polling Director Brock McCleary, correctly calculated early on in the cycle that offense was the best defense. Their early attacks to encourage Democratic retirements helped create a GOP open-seat advantage and eventually forced Democrats to spend millions of dollars defending seats in places like Connecticut, Rhode Island, and southern Illinois. But particular credit is due to the NRCC’s independent-expenditure effort, directed by Joanna Burgos. Her team made smart, ahead-of-the-curve spending decisions in many districts where GOP polling seemed less than conclusive or even conflicting. Along with the American Action Network and the Congressional Leadership Fund, the NRCC successfully bailed out several very weak GOP incumbents, such as Reps. Dan Webster (FL-10) and Dan Benishek (MI-01), saving the GOP from double-digit losses.
This column appeared in print as "Playing Their Hands."
This article appears in the November 17, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.
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