Dems search for winning playbook
Democrats are feeling increasingly confident about their chances of winning back the House and Senate in the 2018 midterms.
After a surprising victory in Alabama’s Senate election last month, the party felt like it had momentum. Decisions by a pair of high-profile House GOP incumbents, Reps. Darrell Issa (Calif.) and Ed Royce (Calif.), to announce their retirements has only left the party feeling more confident.
The Hill asked more than a dozen top officials, strategists and lawmakers in the party how Democrats should work the next ten months in Washington and across the country.
Here’s what they said the party’s top priorities and strategies should be between now and November.
Don’t be in a hurry to compromise
Democrats think Republicans have good reason to be worried about the midterms given President Trump’s approval numbers, an endless stream of White House controversies and history: The president’s party typically loses seats in the first midterm of his term.
As a result, Democrats say their congressional leaders should be in no hurry to compromise with Republicans on immigration or Trump’s demands for a wall on the Mexican border, infrastructure or spending matters ahead of a possible shutdown this week.
“The last thing Democrats should be doing is chasing after elusive bipartisan compromises,” said Democratic strategist Jim Manley, a former chief spokesman to then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
Former Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) said the focus has to be winning in November, even as lawmakers battle for legislative victories this winter.
“Democrats have a responsibility to govern, but they also have an imperative to win,” said Israel, who led the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2014.
“If they can get a deal that reflects their values on certain priorities like DACA, they should,” the former congressman said. “The problem is the lack of a predictable partner or even a manageable outcome. So I wouldn’t let those strategic decisions influence the tactical imperatives of prioritizing the 24 seats they need to win. Which means finishing recruiting, building a ground game, and raising resources to withstand a Republican onslaught.”
None of this means Democrats should reject a legislative deal. Indeed, red-state Democrats up for reelection in the Senate are seen as being nervous about pushing things too far in the spending talks.
And conflicts between the House and Senate may be in play.
Arguably, there is more incentive for Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) to compromise as he seeks to protect incumbents such as Sen. Claire McCaskill or Joe Donnelly in Missouri and Indiana, respectively.
In the House, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) is eyeing a big turnout from the left to deliver a majority to her conference.
Overall, most Democrats are erring on the side of caution when it comes to working with Republicans. They say the administration should have to work hard to win them over.
“It’s gotta be a good deal,” Manley said of any legislative compromise. “If not, it’s not worth it.”
Follow the Rahm Emanuel 2006 model
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the former White House chief of staff, was the campaign czar for House Democrats the last time they won the House majority in 2006.
While a part of Emanuel’s game plan was to recruit top candidates across the country, he also focused on the suburbs, a hotbed for moderate voters that Dems say will be the key to victory in 2018.
“Many of the key races that determine control of the House will be won or lost in suburban districts,” said William Galston, a senior fellow of governance studies at the Brookings Institution who served as a policy adviser to Bill Clinton during his administration.
Emanuel benefited from the political climate of 2006.
The election was driven by opposition to an unpopular President George W. Bush, who was drowning in headlines about the Iraq war and his handling of Hurricane Katrina. Congressional Republicans — including former House Majority Leader Tom Delay (R-Texas) and Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) — were also rocked by scandal in the months leading up to the election.
Democrats say the political climate is even more poisonous for Republicans now. For one thing, Trump’s White House is shrouded in the Russia investigation. And Republican incumbents “are dropping like flies,” in the words of one Democratic strategist helping to win back the House.
“They’re imploding,” the Democrat said. “All we need to do is let them unravel while holding firm to our issues.”
Find the right candidates
Call this the Doug Jones rule.
Democrats think Jones won in Alabama because he was the right candidate to have in the race when things opened up for the party — first with Republican Roy Moore’s win in a primary over the GOP establishment favorite Luther Strange, and then when Moore’s campaign imploded over allegations he had had sexual relationships decades ago with young teens.
Jones had deep roots in the community and connected particularly well with black voters. During his time as a lawyer, he helped secure a conviction for two Ku Klux Klan members who bombed a Baptist church in Birmingham in 1963.
“One of the things we’ve got to do is recruit candidates who are compatible with the districts they represent,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.). “If we’re ever going to win again in the south we’ve got to put candidates up that people in the south will vote for.”
Make the politics local
While voters are attuned to what’s happening nationally, what they care most about is what happens in their backyards.
“The research we have done … shows that each of these races will be won by focusing on local issues that matter to the day-to-day lives of voters,” said former Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), who launched the super PAC Fight Back California, aimed at winning seven congressional seats in the Golden State.
“Voters in these districts are tired of polarizing partisan arguments at the national level. They want members of Congress to focus on the issues that matter most in their daily lives,” she said.
In Rep. Jeff Denham’s district, which covers Modesto and parts of California’s central valley, for example, the group plans to focus on water issues along with jobs, the economy and homelessness.
None of this is to say that Trump won’t be a big part of the story in November.
Every midterm election in history has had something to do with the president, and Trump’s unconventional presidency will be the biggest overriding issue in November.
But as Democrats talk about the midterms, expect them to try to talk about specific issues in their districts in addition to Trump.
Cleaver puts it this way: Let Trump demonize himself. Don’t do it for him.
“I don’t like the man but I think we make a terrible, terrible mistake if our priority is to demonize President Trump in new ways,” he said. “I think President Trump has done a good job of demonizing himself.”
Cleaver is speaking to the fears many Democrats hold that if their attacks are on Trump are too aggressive, it could backfire. Impeachment votes, which Democratic leaders have sought to contain but which the grass roots loves, is an example of the push-pull going on in the party.
“We have to tell people what we want and what we believe in,” Cleaver said.
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