Democrats are feeling fine these days. Polls show them winning a clash with the GOP over tax increases, they believe President Obama’s reelection victory has provided him a mandate and they enjoy watching stunned Republicans writhe as they grapple with painful questions about how the party not only lost the White House, but lost badly with key groups necessary to win the presidency.
So last week House Democrats reelected the status quo, most notably Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), made the first female Speaker of the House in a historic wave victory in 2006, but who lost the post four years later in an equally historic GOP wave election resulting in the greatest losses for the Democrats in 72 years. In a year in which Obama won an electoral landslide, the party only managed to pick up eight seats, but, still 60 seats down from four years ago, Democrats chose to stay the course.
The backlash to Democratic policies resulted in Republicans winning back the House, 22 state legislatures and 10 new governorships while every GOP incumbent governor was reelected as well. Once the party lost Democrats like former House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton of Missouri, many of their districts were redrawn and are now safely Republican. This year the party backed Rep. Mark Critz (D-Pa.) against the more centrist Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.), who had crossed his party on healthcare reform and other issues in a campaign for a newly drawn district — only to see Critz lose to the Republican challenger, Rep.-elect Keith Rothfus, last month.
Democrats are expected to fare poorly in 2014; historical trends show the party of second-term incumbent presidents usually lose seats in midterm elections. Another disadvantage for Democrats is the makeup of midterm electorates — GOP voters will be far more likely to turn out than the Latino, African-American and young voters who just helped reelect Obama and usually vote only in presidential elections. Some Democrats worry the party has yet to acknowledge the need to recruit the kind of candidates who can win the few remaining swing districts and to make the changes required at the leadership table to adjust to a post-Obama era.
Thus far, in the House, Democrats haven’t moved to hand over the reins to the next generation they way Republicans have. Though House Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerNunes rebuffs calls for recusal Wounded Ryan faces new battle Bottom Line MORE (R-Ohio) is a veteran, his lieutenants are all in their 40s. Many expected Pelosi to step aside in 2010 so that Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) could become leader and other younger members could move up the leadership ladder. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that prized committee spots — like ranking member of House Ways and Means and Financial Services — are held by Democrats tainted by ethical and legal problems. Combined with the fact that Pelosi remains a controversial figure, some Democrats are frustrated that House Democrats are not nurturing new national voices to sell the party’s message.
“We lost the senior vote overwhelmingly in this election and we are the protectors of Medicare and Social Security,” said one Democrat who believes the party must make policy as well as personnel changes. “We can throw money at a problem, but we have forgotten how to be popular.”
Funny thing is, Republicans might say the same thing about their party.
Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.