The Parties Prep for a Rematch

As the recruiting season gets underway, Democrats seem to have the wind at their backs, but both sides are wary of sudden shifts.

From left, Rep. Niki Tsongas, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera during a small-business roundtable discussion at 99Degrees Custom on March 3, 2017, in Lawrence, Mass.
AP Photo/Elise Amendola
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
March 13, 2017, 8:20 p.m.

There are three dis­tinct­ive sea­sons in the bi­an­nu­al elec­tion cycle. The first is to fig­ure out what happened in the last elec­tion and why. The second is to re­cruit the strongest can­did­ates you can find. The third is the cam­paign it­self. The Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee’s autopsy of the 2012 elec­tion, un­der the dir­ec­tion of then-party chair­man Re­ince Priebus, was un­pre­ced­en­ted and highly com­mend­able—even if most of its ad­vice was ig­nored.

This year, Demo­crats be­came so con­sumed with the Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee elec­tions that they didn’t really ex­am­ine what happened on a na­tion­al level. One thing that is tak­ing place, though on an ad hoc basis, is look­ing at the vot­ing tapes (though ac­tu­ally no longer on tape) to see who voted in 2016—and who voted in 2008, 2010, 2012, and 2014.

A big ques­tion for Demo­crats is wheth­er Hil­lary Clin­ton was a uniquely prob­lem­at­ic can­did­ate, or wheth­er the party was suf­fer­ing from a more sys­tem­ic prob­lem. No doubt the Demo­crat­ic de­feat was due to a com­bin­a­tion of both, but the deep­er ques­tion is how much of each. Simply blam­ing Clin­ton or her cam­paign for the loss would clear the party’s con­science, but it wouldn’t ex­plain Demo­crats’ dif­fi­culties with cer­tain con­stitu­en­cies. Work­ing-class whites, for ex­ample, once a key con­stitu­ency of Frank­lin Roosevelt’s New Deal Co­ali­tion, can now be more aptly de­scribed as a key ele­ment of the Re­pub­lic­an base.

The second phase, can­did­ate re­cruit­ment, is crit­ic­al. While it is tech­nic­ally true that you can’t beat someone with (lit­er­ally) no one, there are plenty of nobod­ies, fig­ur­at­ively speak­ing, who get elec­ted in wave elec­tions. People on a lark or with de­lu­sions of grandeur file for an of­fice, their party cap­tures na­tion­al mo­mentum, and sud­denly they’re be­ing sworn in­to Con­gress. Just walk down a cor­ridor on Cap­it­ol Hill and you’re sure to see a door with a name of someone who ini­tially ran as a nobody.

But it is ob­vi­ously bet­ter to have more than just hav­ing pot­ted plants on the bal­lot. In a per­fect world, you get someone who is qual­i­fied, ap­peal­ing, and in tune with the pub­lic mood. Some­times ex­per­i­enced can­did­ates are best; at oth­er times, out­siders have a bet­ter chance. An­oth­er rel­ev­ant ques­tion is wheth­er can­did­ates who are strong primary can­did­ates will stand up in the gen­er­al elec­tion. Some mod­er­ates and es­tab­lish­ment-ori­ented Demo­crats are con­cerned that Demo­crats will nom­in­ate a lot of Bernie Sanders and Eliza­beth War­ren de­votees, not just in re­l­at­ively lib­er­al jur­is­dic­tions but also in con­stitu­en­cies that would prefer less-ideo­lo­gic­al can­did­ates.

The House and Sen­ate cam­paign com­mit­tees for both sides, the two gov­ernors’ as­so­ci­ations, and the state-le­gis­lat­ive cam­paign com­mit­tees in each of the 50 states are busy re­cruit­ing now. The first fil­ing dead­lines gen­er­ally be­gin in Decem­ber with Illinois and Texas, the last ones oc­cur dur­ing the sum­mer of 2018. While a lot of can­did­ates are self-starters and don’t need re­cruit­ing, oth­ers have to be found and ca­joled to run. One thing I have learned over four dec­ades of be­ing in this busi­ness is that any­one who has to be con­vinced to run might not have the heart for it, and some big names who are past their primes can turn out to be lousy can­did­ates.

More im­port­ant is the polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment dur­ing the re­cruit­ing sea­son. When the wind ap­pears to be at the back of one party, it tends to have a bet­ter re­cruit­ing year. This is also a con­sid­er­a­tion when in­cum­bents de­cide wheth­er to run again. If the year looks to be tough for an in­cum­bent’s party, it can be an in­cent­ive to re­tire. But not al­ways. I re­call a sen­at­or who had been in of­fice for sev­er­al terms telling me that he would like to re­tire then but was wor­ried that his party would not be able to hold his seat. He de­cided to run again and is still on the Hill after a couple more terms.

Right now, the wind seems to be fa­vor­ing Demo­crats, which should make their re­cruit­ing and in­cum­bent re­ten­tion some­what easi­er. It should be more dif­fi­cult for Re­pub­lic­ans. That may re­main the case, but cur­rents some­times change. In 1981 and 1982, Demo­crats were still re­coil­ing from Ron­ald Re­agan’s land­slide, 10-point vic­tory over Pres­id­ent Carter, an elec­tion in which Re­pub­lic­ans scored a net gain of 34 House and 12 Sen­ate seats, gain­ing a ma­jor­ity in the up­per cham­ber. Demo­crats entered the Re­agan pres­id­ency in a full fetal po­s­i­tion only to have a re­ces­sion turn the tables. They picked up 26 House seats, and the GOP won four Sen­ate races by the nar­row­est of mar­gins, gain­ing a wash and avert­ing a dis­aster.

So watch the polit­ic­al winds now, dur­ing this odd year. They are not de­term­in­at­ive of what will hap­pen in next year’s midterm elec­tions, but they will sup­ply im­port­ant clues.

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