As Democratic House Members in swing districts get ready for tough campaigns this fall, let me offer the following advice based on my own experience in 1994.
As we all know, 1994 was the year that Democrats lost control of the House for the first time in 40 years. Republicans picked up a net of 54 seats including defeating a number of Democratic incumbents and taking open seats previously held by Democrats. It was the 100 year flood.
Democrats are now faced with the prospect of a second 100 year flood in 2010 though it is far from certain that Republicans can actually pick up the 40 seats necessary to take back control of the House.
In 1994, I represented a district in Texas with a 53 percent Democratic performance index. It was ok but not great for a Democrat. I realized early on that it was going to be a tough year and took a variety of steps to hold onto my seat. I wound up with 52.7 percent of the vote and survived the flood. Here’s what I did:
(1) I made sure I had enough money to run a full-scale campaign. This meant going back to all my regular contributors and telling them that I had a real contest on my hands and needed them to both max out personally and to reach out to their friends. It worked and I had enough money to make a significant radio and tv buy, to undertake a very heavy direct mail effort and the put together a major ground campaign. Every bit of it was necessary.
(2) I did not ignore my opponent even though he had not held office before and was totally unknown before entering the race. Incumbents sometimes will ignore their opponent, making him earn name recognition. This is a bad idea in a tough year. You must draw a sharp contrast with the opponent, pointing out real issue differences and shedding light on his past history. We did extensive opposition research and determined that my opponent had made an illegal $50,000 loan to his campaign from a corporation he controlled. Also, we gave my opponent a legislative record by telling the press that his signature on the GOP’s “Contract with America” meant that he was supporting cuts in Social Security. We made him into a household name by the time the campaign was over and he didn’t like the context.
(3) I worked strength. Consultants will tell you to concentrate on swing voters. That’s ok as long as you don’t forget the people who brought you to the dance. My district was about 20 percent African American and we ran a massive get out the vote effort in that community. Your strongest supporters sometimes get discouraged when the general political environment is tough. It is important to make sure friends get to the polls in big numbers. We dramatically increased African American turnout in the district over what it had been in previous non-presidential years when turnout normally drops off and it was that vote that saved me on election night.
(4) We recorded my opponent every time he appeared on a right-wing radio talk show. Republicans will often let their guard down when they are taking to a friendly talk show host and say things that will come back to haunt them in the election. A recent example of this occurred when one of the candidates in the Republican primary for governor in Texas made an unguarded comment to Glen Beck on FOX. That candidate left the impression that our government had somehow participated in the events leading up to the attack on 9/11. Her primary opponents have made her eat those words for breakfast, lunch and dinner ever since.
Some Democrats in swing districts will wind up losing no matter what they do because the environment is so toxic. But at least there are things they can do to increase their odds of surviving.