Democrats need all the firepower they have to win back Washington

Finally, we have entered the year of the midterm elections. But faced with a critical opportunity to restore checks and balances in Washington, many on the left risk organizing with, well, disorganization. They argue over whose hands should be on the steering wheel while President Trump leaves mud tracks across democracy — appointing a judiciary of ideologues and neophytes, smearing the FBI, tarring disagreeable media but feathering Fox News, hollowing out the State Department. The order is “Charge!” and many on the left disperse.

Democratic donors and activists put money and energy into dozens of causes. Progressives run groups called “Flippable” and “Indivisible.” There’s “Swing Left,” “Resurgent Left,” “Knock On Every Door” and “Run For Something.”

{mosads}Don’t get me wrong, these and other groups valuably harness energy. But winning elections requires that energy to be channeled through the deployment of resources, the targeting of voters, a sharpness of message and, yes, cold-blooded prioritizing.

Meanwhile, Republicans are hunkered down. As at Gettysburg’s Little Round Top during the Civil War, they seek to hold the Hill — this one in Washington — at all hazards. They’ve ready to reinforce a handful of congressional districts necessary to retain their majority.

The Democrats need 24 seats to seize the Speaker’s gavel, and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have told me the odds of their succeeding hover at just over 50 percent. Last year ended with a congressional generic ballot lead of more than 13 points for House Democrats. Using various statistical formulas which excite only C-SPAN addicts, such a spread translates to a Democratic net gain of nearly 40 seats.

But Republicans see shafts of sunlight in the foreboding skies. The generic ballot always tightens near Election Day. The president had a strong — in this presidency, defined as “unsordid” — 2017 finish. Plus, they’re confident that his dismal polling can’t get much lower. It will improve, providing ballast for down-ballot Republicans. His current job approval is basically down to the crowd he described almost one year ago, when he said, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose votes.”

In a volatile and unpredictable climate where any outcome is possible, Democrats need to consolidate and concentrate. Winning will require lasar-like firepower on two sets of sequential targets: short range and medium range. Short range, between now and November, requires organizing to win the midterm election. There are, as of this writing, between 30 and 45 truly competitive districts on the battlefield, where every dollar and doorknock can make a difference. Democrats have a handful of blue-leaning districts to take back.

But the meat of this election is the pink and purple of moderate and conservative districts. That means learning how to accept candidates whose positions might not pass one’s own litmus test. Maybe we can canonize some candidates for their purity. Personally, I’d rather see them in the Cannon Building, having won their elections.

Medium range, between now and 2020, is the election of Democratic governors who can dismantle the unfair redistricting firewall erected by their Republican counterparts in 2010. That year, Republicans prioritized the election of governors who, post-census, drew safe seats between then and now. It worked. In 2012 Democratic House candidates won almost 2 million more votes than Republicans, but remained in the minority.

If they win the House in 2018, then lose state houses in 2020 and find themselves locked into a minority until 2032, Democrats will be textbook examples of Santayana’s quote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (Full disclosure: I’m a strategic adviser to the Democratic Governors Association’s “Unrig The Map” project.)

Progressives often grouse that Republicans win competitive House elections aided by gerrymandering, super PACs and voter suppression. Fair enough. But they also carry into battle the intangible qualities of discipline and focus, marching on the campaign trail in strategic lockstep towards the goal of implementing their agenda. Democrats intent on restoring checks and balances will need to do the same in the next 11 months and beyond. There’s a lot riding on it.

Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years. His next novel, “Big Guns,” will be published in April 2018.

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