The House results on Election Day 2012 were the only bad things that happened in what was otherwise obviously a pretty great day for Democrats and progressives. The biggest question for 2014 is whether we can find a way of turning that result around. Part of the answer, of course, is dependent on how the economy is doing. If the pessimists are right and things are not looking good, we will lose seats, not gain them. But even if the economy is okay, do we have a chance at being the House majority after the 2014 elections?
As many Democratic activists have pointed out, we actually won the overall votes in House races by the same 2 percent plus margin that Obama did, so re-districting dominated by Republican gerrymandering clearly played a big role in them holding on to the House. Democrats, though, are making a big mistake in attributing our failure solely to gerrymandering and essentially giving up on retaking the House the rest of this decade, as many pundits are suggesting. I remember the same points being made after the 2002 and 2004 failures to retake the House, and in 2006 and 2008 we not only retook the House but added considerably to the margin in 2008.
The pundits will be predicting doom and gloom for sure. Not only did we fail to win the House back in a good Democratic year, they will remind us, but in the sixth year of a presidency the president’s party almost always loses seats. But historical trends never would have predicted a lot of things we have seen in politics over the last couple of decades (an African immigrant’s son with a Muslim name being elected president for one, and then being reelected in spite of a bad economy for another), and I’ve been in the middle of a couple big surprises in terms of the House over the years that are worth recalling here because of the lessons they teach.
The first of these was in 1998. It was the sixth year of the Clinton presidency, and as every pundit under the sun kept reminding us, no president’s party in its sixth year had picked up seats since 1822 (when there was no opposition party). Added to that little historical trend was this wee little thing known as the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Virtually all of the pundits, all the Republicans, and most Democrats were predicting a shellacking for the Democrats — a loss of 30 seats in the House was the average prediction. The DCCC was advising candidates to do anything in their power to change the subject from Lewinsky but an obsessive media and weekly revelations about things like semen-stained dresses made that impossible. But there was a group of us who had a different idea about how to reframe the election: rather than trying to change the subject, lean into the problem and reframe it. I was working at People For the American Way at the time, a group devoted to, as Norman Lear has always put it, being a PR firm for the constitution. We were disgusted with the idea of impeaching a President over having and trying to cover up an affair, and couldn’t believe this was all the Republicans and the media wanted to talk about. In talking to my old colleagues from the ’92 Clinton campaign Stan Greenberg and James Carville, they confirmed that their poling showed the same thing we were feeling: voters were tired of all this obsession with a sex scandal, and didn’t get why you would impeach the president over such a thing. We came up with an ad campaign based on the theme that “it was time to move on.” Meanwhile, literally the same week as we launched our ad campaign, out on the West coast, Wes Boyd and his wife Joan Blades, a couple who had never been involved in politics before, had the same idea, and started an internet petition about it being time to “move on” that caught on like wildfire, picking up 500,000 signatures in a matter of a few days by being spread from person to person. Nothing like that had ever happened before in politics and it was a big deal. Wes and Joan’s petition and our ad campaign fed off each other, causing a huge stir in the media, and soon we had joined forces and were organizing hundreds of meetings with members of Congress, and were putting ads up in nine of the most critical media markets in the country.
On election day, we shocked the pants off the punditry and the conventional wisdom D.C. establishment. Instead of losing 30 or more seats, Democrats picked up five. We won the big targeted races in eight of the nine media markets PFAW and MoveOn targeted.
In 2006, it was another year where initially the pundits and DC establishment were very pessimistic about Democratic chances, saying Democrats had no chances of taking the House back. Redistricting had made it just too tough, they said, and we would be way outspent. A top operative at the DCCC called me very upset early in the cycle because I had written a memo to donors and allied groups saying that I thought we had a decent chance at winning the House, telling me not to get people’s hopes up, that there was almost no chance of victory. But again, the pundits and our own party establishment got surprised.
Rahm Emanuel’s DCCC did some great work, raising an impressive amount of money, pounding away at Bush and the Republicans every day in the message wars, and deploying a great team of operatives who helped targeted campaigns in all kinds of ways. Rahm and his team deserve a lot of credit for the Democratic victory in taking back the House that year. But the broader progressive community charted their own course on strategy in House races in a couple of key ways, and without them doing that there would have been no Democratic takeover that year.
The first was on the issues. Having had tough years the past couple of cycles, Democrats started out the 2006 election cycle being very cautious on the issues. Bush’s first priority was Social Security privatization, and there was a lot of talk initially among Blue Dog Democrats about working with Bush on some kind of compromise bill. When the Terri Schiavo issue popped up, many Democrats initially were going along with the Republican demands to keep her on life support against her husband’s wishes. And on the Iraq war, Rahm was recruiting trying to recruit pro-war candidates thinking that was going to be the better politics in the 2006 elections. In every one of these cases, the progressive community pushed back and demanded strong stands for progressive policies, and in each case, it turned out that the politics ended up showing the progressive community was 100 percent right, as taking a strong stand against Social Security privatization, against keeping Schiavo on life support against her husband’s wishes, and against the Iraq war all turned out to be great for the Democratic Party. These three issues, combined with a slowing economy and Hurricane Katrina, combined to create a wave election that swept Democrats in the House, Senate, and governors’ seats into power.
The other key thing that progressives did was help expand the map. There are two philosophies re how to engage in a venture as big as trying to win back control of the House. The first is the traditional philosophy of the DCCC, one that had been their way of operating for the previous four cycles: target the districts which had been the closest in the previous cycle, but keep the targeting pretty narrow and engage in hand-to-hand combat in the districts where everything seems to be coming together in terms of a good candidate, a good campaign manager, and strong fundraising. Any race that didn’t fit the formula in the DCCC’s eyes tended to get left by the side of the road to fend for itself, sink or swim, with the vast majority of them sinking. You can see it in the numbers where this strategy had reached its peak, in the years between 1998 and 2004: the number of competitive races (defined as races where the winner got less than 55 percent of the vote) was 50 in 1998, 58 in 2000, 46 in 2002, and only 34 in 2004. When there are only 40 competitive seats, even if you win 60 percent of them you’re only winning eight more of them than the Republicans, and through those heavy trench warfare years, we generally weren’t winning 60 percent of the close ones. (more…)