We can only imagine the mood in House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's office, or at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, on the day a front-page article in Politico screamed, "Democrats: Cede House to Save Senate." Having heard Pelosi arguing vigorously within the last three weeks—in private—that Democrats could still win a House majority this year, and pushing back hard against any arguments to the contrary, I can only assume that such a concession wasn't her idea. I cannot imagine Pelosi being very happy with the "triage" concept that would write off House Democrats as already dead.
It's no secret that the Democrats' goal of winning the House back was always extremely difficult and does not appear to be getting any easier. In December, political scientist John Sides at George Washington University estimated that Democrats had a "just over 1 percent" chance of getting a majority in November. How anyone can say "just over 1 percent" or "just 2 percent" or even "just over 3 percent" is a bit beyond me. Most of us who watch congressional races for a living do put the odds at very long; we just don't assign a percentage point of likelihood to it. David Wasserman, the House editor at The Cook Political Report, estimates that if the election were held today, Republicans would most likely gain a handful of seats. Put more conservatively, Democrats might gain two or three seats—far short of the 17 needed to flip control—while the GOP could gain eight or nine. Obviously, we have eight months to go before the election, and there is still time for things to get better, or worse, for Democrats.
The premise of the triage narrative, and the context of many recent conversations among Democrats, has been that their party's hold on their Senate majority is growing increasingly tenuous, while their hopes of winning the House are increasingly unrealistic (barring a Republican effort to default on the national debt or something equally foolish and highly unlikely). Nevertheless, the DCCC has been raising money hand over fist, with the help of a tireless and determined Pelosi, along with DCCC Chairman Steve Israel and other leadership members. Even more important, the House Democrats' campaign committee has been enormously successful in building, over the years, a massive pool of small donors. It initially did so through direct mail, then telemarketing, and most recently online outreach. The DCCC is arguably the most successful party campaign committee in terms of mass fundraising. The combination of Pelosi, the best non-presidential fundraiser in Democratic Party history, and a mass donor base has created a juggernaut that is largely independent of the Democrats' actual chances of winning a majority.
That the entity with the least chance of success has the strongest fundraising operation is, for Democrats, both ironic and unfortunate. The party needs some of that money to be channeled to the Senate, in hopes it can hold onto one chamber for President Obama's final two years in office. The Democratic move to restrict filibusters served to make majority status in the Senate even more important. If Republicans were to score a net gain of six or even seven seats in this year's election, taking them from their current 45 seats to either 51 or 52, Democrats might rue the day they even thought about changing the rule.
Another factor is also at work here: The escalated spending by outside GOP and conservative groups, which has been used to pound away at Democratic Senate candidates, is increasingly unnerving the Democrats. Americans for Prosperity, a group closely aligned with Charles and David Koch, is a particularly heavy hitter, with seven-figure buys either already on, or about to go on, the air in at least five states where Democrats are defending seats. The Washington Post reported this week the group has already spent more than $27 million on ads since August. Americans for Prosperity doled out $122 million in 2012, according to the Center for Public Integrity, much of which it aimed at Obama, but clearly the group's focus has shifted to the Senate this year. So the House Democrats' cash deluge has frustrated party members even more.
The Oval Office meeting Monday between Obama, Senate Majority Harry Reid, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Michael Bennet, and DSCC Executive Director Guy Cecil probably centered on this very subject; it is officially all-hands-on-deck time if Obama doesn't want a Republican Senate majority to contend with in 2015 and 2016. It's just a hunch that Reid wasn't very diplomatic with Obama during this conversation, likely expressing Senate Democrats' need and expectation that the president will be considerably more engaged on their behalf than he has been in the past.
This article appears in the February 8, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as Wrong Target.