Democrats need to focus on one thing: Winning seats in Congress

Show me a chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee or the National Republican Congressional Committee, and I’ll show you someone who’s put a calloused finger — or, in the case of one former DCCC chairman from Chicago, half a finger — on a scale in a local congressional primary.

The most recent attention has been focused on DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Lujan and Texas’s 7th District, which is represented by Republican John Culberson and was carried by Hillary Clinton. The DCCC posted unflattering materials about a progressive Democratic candidate who, it deemed, had less potential to win a general election.

{mosads}I don’t second-guess the decisions made by Lujan. I do, however, understand what propels the thinking in races like the one in Texas, and others like it.

The job of the chairperson is to win seats. That’s it. It’s not to enforce party doctrine, purge ideological dissenters, or purify the wellspring of party orthodoxy. It’s to set a battlefield of offense and defense that maximizes your potential to win general elections and, in the case of the DCCC, win the majority.

That means threading a needle between base and swing voters without drawing your own blood. And that’s not easy. Proclaiming preferences from Washington can backfire. But on the day after the election, the campaign committees are judged on wins and losses, not lineups.

In this environment, there’s a frenzy of high-altitude optimism about Democrat and their chances to win the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. Of the 24 seats they need to secure the majority, I’ve heard estimates of 30, 40, even 60. It’s a total offensive battlefield so wide and deep that, of the 24 seats they require, they can expect to win, oh, about 400.

But there’s the sobering reality of redistricting. In 2010, the Republicans took over state capitals and built a redistricting firewall specifically to withstand the toxic environment they’re in this cycle. I can see a fairly comfortable path to 18 to 20 seats. At that point, the path gets steeper, narrower, and the GOP firewalls get stronger. At that point, at this point at least, it’s a coin flip.

Victory for Democrats is on a path that zigzags through foreboding territory in Republican-leaning districts where moderate and independent voters may be up for grabs. There, the trick is fielding candidates who can attract swing voters while not demoralizing the base. It’s the nuclear fusion of a turnout universe and a persuadable universe. This requires just the right candidate.

But the path has worked before. In 2006, when Democrats last took the House majority, it was because of candidates who fit their districts like gloves. Maybe they were right-handed gloves, at times, but good fits nonetheless. They were able to pry voters from the Republican Party brand in places like North Carolina, Indiana, Mississippi, rural Colorado, Ohio, western Pennsylvania and elsewhere.

Did they pass the test of ideological purity? Maybe not in every case. Did they give Democrats the majority needed to pass the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, to raise the minimum wage, to make college more affordable and, yes, to provide affordable health care? You bet they did.

That’s the same path Democrats must blaze between now and November, only now it’s much harder. The 2012 Republican redistricting coup has simply taken too many blue and bluish districts off the map. Democrats can’t impose tests of ideological purity in purple districts that generally want less ideology, especially when Republicans are expected to be operating with a budget of “win at all costs.”

Winning a majority will require two things: over-performing in Republican districts and unity among Democrats. The focus on the DCCC’s campaign management is the ultimate in inside baseball.

To win the majority, Democrats need to keep their eyes on the ball, which is the Trump administration, and what concrete improvements a Democratic majority will bring to the lives of voters with at least 24 additional seats necessary for the majority. A perfect candidate should be judged by only one standard: Can she or he win Republican districts?

Henry Grantland Rice was the early 20th century American sportswriter who wrote, “For when the ‘One Great Scorer’ comes, to mark against your name, he writes — not that you won or lost — but how you played the game.”

That may work in the elegance of sports writing, but in the brutish, ruthless world of congressional elections, a different question will prevail. On the day after the midterm election, Democrats from Capitol Hill to local precincts will ask, “How many seats did we pick up?”

Very little else will matter. Nor should it.

Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years and chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. His next novel, “Big Guns,” will be published in April.

Tags campaign Congress Democrats Hillary Clinton John Culberson Steve Israel

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