The Democrats Have Cash in All the Wrong Places

Nancy Pelosi’s campaign committee is flush, even though she’s unlikely to become speaker again next year. But it’s Senate Democrats who need the most help.

WASHINGTON - MARCH 22: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) (C) has a laugh during a news conference after the House passed health care reform legislation at the U.S. Capitol March 22, 2010 in Washington, DC. The House passed the Senate's version of the health care bill by a vote of 220-211 and without a single Republican vote.  
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Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
Feb. 7, 2014, midnight

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.

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