How many balloons do you order for a party celebrating nearly 40 House Democratic losses? Are confetti cannons an appropriate response to retaining the House majority by a slender margin of one, two, or three seats?
This bizarre conversation has taken on a somewhat comic urgency among party strategists closest to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Why? Because House Democrats are increasingly confident that they are going to beat back the Republican onslaught and keep control of the chamber -- even as they suffer massive losses across the country.
This is what passes for optimism in Democratic circles. And the hopeful outcome is a possibility because just enough Democrats warned the rank and file more than 18 months ago that these midterms promised to be a disaster for the party.
On February 5, 2009, mere hours before President Obama was to speak to a euphoric House Democratic Caucus, Van Hollen declared that 70 to 80 House Democrats would be vulnerable and that the party could lose dozens of seats in 2010 (something he resisted saying in public well into this year). Stan Greenberg, a pollster for the DCCC, told the members to look closely at the lawmakers sitting around them because many wouldn't be back in 2011. This political shock therapy came when Obama's approval rating was near 70 percent and the Democrats, according to Greenberg's polling, were ahead of the GOP by 34 points on health care and 25 points on the economy. "I said, 'We are basking in the afterglow, but beware,' " Van Hollen recalled.
Democrats were told to start raising money immediately and to prepare for a Republican rebound -- even though that seemed virtually impossible at the time. Van Hollen didn't like what he saw -- not the polls but the district-by-district vulnerabilities that came with victories in 54 swing districts in 2006 and 2008. In 2010, House Democrats would be defending seats in 48 districts carried by John McCain in 2008 and 83 won by President Bush in 2004.
In 1994, Van Hollen told the caucus, the entire party fell asleep, but "that won't be the case this time."
The party plan, following a strategy conceived by then-DCCC Chairman Rahm Emanuel, now running for mayor of Chicago, was to demand quarterly fundraising totals from all freshman and sophomore Democrats seeking re-election. These 41 so-called Frontline Democrats also had to sign a contract with the DCCC, a formal memorandum of understanding promising to raise enough campaign cash by March 2010 to pay for their entire TV ad budget for the final six to eight weeks of their contests.
On both fronts, the quarterly fund-raising reports and the memorandum of understanding commitment, incumbents who fell behind were forced to meet with Van Hollen and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, chairwoman of the Frontline program. Senior Democrats describe these sessions variously as "going to the principal's office" and a "parent-teacher conference." Either way, Van Hollen and Wasserman Schultz did most of the talking, with an implied threat hanging in the air: If you don't meet these targets, you might not receive party money down the home stretch in a tough race.
Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona took the message to heart. By August of this year, she had raised $2.3 million and carried $1.9 million cash-on-hand into the final months of the campaign. Her 8th District opponent, Republican Jesse Kelly, raised $568,372 and had only $78,980 cash-on-hand. This week, the DCCC removed Giffords from its independent-expenditure TV budget because it calculated that she could survive on her own.
Van Hollen also set up an office in the Longworth House Office Building and staffed it with hand-picked party operatives who provided advice on communications, legislative strategy, and constituent services to all 41 Frontline members. The key was to give relatively unknown lawmakers a chance to shine back home.
"There has always been a saying that young members should be seen and not heard," Van Hollen noted. "That was turned around."
Rep. Gary Peters, a freshman from Michigan's 9th District, was given an outsized role in dealing with the government's efforts to rescue General Motors and Chrysler and with the "cash for clunkers" program. Before the House adjourned, it acted on new NASA policy that gave Rep. Suzanne Kosmas, of Florida's 24th District, high visibility on a key Space Coast jobs issue. Both the Peters and Kosmas races remain competitive -- in large part, Democrats argue, because the freshmen have been able to localize their races.
At the same time, party leaders were focusing on more than two dozen Democrats with substantial seniority who had not run modern races in tough political climates for years. Ike Skelton of Missouri, Rick Boucher of Virginia, and Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota were among those summoned to private meetings and put on notice.
Skelton, for one, snapped into action, hiring a campaign manager in early 2009 and holding 13 D.C. fund-raisers by year's end. He had collected $1,941,184 through June and boasted a cash-on-hand advantage of $1.3 million versus $247,000 for his GOP challenger, Vicky Hartzler. Van Hollen is more buoyant than he has been in months, but he's also not thinking about confetti cannons just yet.
This article appears in the October 9, 2010 edition of National Journal Magazine Contents.