How House Democrats Shot Themselves in the Foot

Believing they couldn’t win a majority, they made a half-hearted effort to recruit strong candidates and raise money.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, flanked by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, speaks to reporters.
AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
April 3, 2016, 8:20 p.m.

If you’ve listened at all to House Demo­crats in re­cent years, you couldn’t help feel­ing pess­im­ist­ic about their pro­spects. The party down­played its chances to win back a House ma­jor­ity—un­til 2022. They blamed ger­ry­man­der­ing for their prob­lems, con­veni­ently ig­nor­ing the fact that dis­trict lines in Illinois, Mary­land, and Ari­zona were all drawn in the Demo­crats’ fa­vor. For the first time in years, party lead­ers didn’t even go through the mo­tions of say­ing they were go­ing to cap­ture the House in 2017, which has been the usu­al spin in re­cent elec­tion cycles. All this poor-mouth­ing has served to dampen re­cruit­ment, de­press fun­drais­ing, and serve as a self-ful­filling proph­ecy that the GOP had a lock on the ma­jor­ity.

Sud­denly, with the pro­spect that Don­ald Trump could head the GOP tick­et in 2016, the mood has dra­mat­ic­ally shif­ted. The party is scram­bling to re­cruit can­did­ates in di­verse, GOP-lean­ing sub­urb­an dis­tricts that they wrote off earli­er in the year. But it shouldn’t have taken Trump for Demo­crats to re­cog­nize that there was a pos­sib­il­ity to com­pete for a House ma­jor­ity. It was al­ways a chal­lenge, but nev­er im­possible.

One of the main reas­ons Demo­crats down­played their chances of tak­ing back the House was that it served their own lib­er­al ideo­lo­gic­al in­terests. If ex­tern­al forces were pre­vent­ing Demo­crats from win­ning back a ma­jor­ity, there was no need to re­place po­lar­iz­ing House Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi with a young­er, more-mod­er­ate law­maker. If ger­ry­man­der­ing was the main cul­prit for the party’s woes, there would be no pres­sure for Pres­id­ent Obama to mod­er­ate his agenda. Rahm Emanuel won back the House in 2006 by re­cruit­ing an ideo­lo­gic­ally di­verse slate of can­did­ates, many of whom op­posed gun con­trol and im­mig­ra­tion re­form. But that’s ideo­lo­gic­al heresy for many Demo­crats these days, even if used in the ser­vice of win­ning GOP-lean­ing seats.

But it wouldn’t take cul­tur­ally con­ser­vat­ive po­s­i­tions for Demo­crats to com­pete across the coun­try. Con­sider: There are 65 Re­pub­lic­an-held House seats with Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port rat­ings of R+5 or less, mean­ing that in the past two elec­tions, the GOP pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate ran no more than 5 points bet­ter in those dis­tricts than his na­tion­al av­er­age. Most of the seats are in the type of sub­urb­an areas where Demo­crats must be com­pet­it­ive to win the White House. They only needed to net few­er than half of them—30 seats in total—to re­gain con­trol. Yet, as Na­tion­al Journ­al’s Kim­berly Railey re­por­ted, Demo­crats nev­er thought they had a chance in many of these GOP-lean­ing seats from the be­gin­ning, and they are now play­ing a des­per­ate game of catch-up to re­cruit enough can­did­ates be­fore ad­di­tion­al fil­ing dead­lines oc­cur.

Un­der Pres­id­ent Obama, Demo­crats de­cided that restor­ing their ma­jor­ity de­pended on ral­ly­ing the base while down­play­ing the im­port­ance of swing, cent­rist voters. They bought in­to the myth that midterms, with lower turnout from Obama’s core co­ali­tion, were a lost cause for them. That meant they had all but writ­ten off the House, where the av­er­age con­gres­sion­al dis­trict tilts ever-so-slightly to the right. Demo­crats should have long ago real­ized that re­ly­ing on Trump wasn’t their only path to a ma­jor­ity. Pro­mot­ing a more-mod­er­ate mes­sage—one that’s tough­er on na­tion­al se­cur­ity and less wed­ded to gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tion—was a way to win that didn’t rely on the op­pos­i­tion im­plod­ing.


1. Even as the threat of sig­ni­fic­ant down-bal­lot losses looms with Trump at the top of the tick­et, there haven’t been many signs of a wave elec­tion—at least not yet. Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats are still tied in the gen­er­ic bal­lot, ac­cord­ing to a new Pub­lic Policy Polling auto­mated na­tion­al sur­vey. In this week’s Mar­quette Law School poll, GOP Sen. Ron John­son is now with­in 5 points of former Sen. Russ Fein­gold among Wis­con­sin voters—a much smal­ler de­fi­cit than in past polls. Even op­tim­ist­ic Demo­crats in­volved in Sen­ate races are see­ing tight polling in battle­ground races in New Hamp­shire, Ohio, and Pennsylvania—states the party must win to take con­trol of the Sen­ate.

The main threat that Trump poses to con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans isn’t that mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­an voters would sud­denly sup­port down-bal­lot Demo­crats in Novem­ber. The big­ger threat is that he’d spur Demo­crat­ic turnout (in par­tic­u­lar, His­pan­ic voters) and dis­cour­age Re­pub­lic­an wo­men and sub­urb­an­ites from even show­ing up on Elec­tion Day. And those turnout pro­jec­tions are dif­fi­cult to mod­el this far out from Elec­tion Day, without know­ing who the GOP nom­in­ee will be.

2. If Trump loses the Wis­con­sin primary Tues­day, it will be the first time since the Iowa caucuses that he lost a state—and was un­able to point to any oth­er vic­tor­ies the same day to coun­ter­act the bad pub­li­city. With an­oth­er two weeks be­fore the New York primary, Trump will need to come up with an­oth­er di­ver­sion to avoid los­ing mo­mentum.

3. A key test of Pres­id­ent Obama’s re­main­ing juice with Demo­crats will come in Pennsylvania, where Demo­crat­ic voters will de­term­ine their party’s Sen­ate nom­in­ee against Sen. Pat Toomey. The party lead­er­ship is squarely be­hind Katie Mc­Ginty, a former chief of staff to Gov. Tom Wolf, over former Rep. Joe Ses­tak, who nearly de­feated Toomey in 2010. Des­pite Ses­tak’s past polit­ic­al suc­cess, Demo­crat­ic lead­ers have been wary of his per­son­al quirk­i­ness and un­will­ing­ness to run a tra­di­tion­al cam­paign the way that party lead­er­ship wants.

So even though Ses­tak leads in the primary polling, Pres­id­ent Obama and Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden de­cided to put their weight be­hind Mc­Ginty last week. Mc­Ginty quickly put up a tele­vi­sion ad tout­ing Obama’s sup­port. Obama hasn’t had much suc­cess in trans­fer­ring his own per­son­al likab­il­ity to down-bal­lot Demo­crats, however. The pres­id­ent’s en­dorse­ment of party-switch­ing Sen. Ar­len Specter did him no good in 2010, as Specter lost to Ses­tak in the Demo­crat­ic primary. And with the pres­id­en­tial primary grabbing more head­lines than the Sen­ate race in Pennsylvania, it’s very pos­sible Obama will strike out again in a big way.

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