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The House results on Election Day 2012 were the only bad things that happened in what was otherwise obviously a pretty great day for Democrats and progressives. The biggest question for 2014 is whether we can find a way of turning that result around. Part of the answer, of course, is dependent on how the economy is doing. If the pessimists are right and things are not looking good, we will lose seats not gain them. But even if the economy is okay, do we have a chance at being the House majority after the 2014 elections?

As many Democratic activists have pointed out, we actually won the overall votes in House races by the same 2% plus margin that Obama did, so re-districting dominated by Republican gerrymandering clearly played a big role in them holding on to the House. Democrats, though, are making a big mistake in attributing our failure solely to gerrymandering and essentially giving up on retaking the House the rest of this decade as many pundits are suggesting. I remember the same points being made after the 2002 and 2004 failures to retake the House, and in 2006 and 2008 we not only retook the House but added considerably to the margin in 2008.

The pundits will be predicting doom and gloom for sure. Not only did we fail to win the House back in a good Democratic year, they will remind us, but in the 6th year of a Presidency the president's party almost always loses seats. But historical trends never would have predicted a lot of things we have seen in politics over the last couple of decades (an African immigrant's son with a Muslim name being elected President for one, and then being re-elected in spite of a bad economy for another), and I've been in the middle of a couple big surprises in terms of the House over the years that are worth recalling here because of the lessons they teach.

The first of these was in 1998. It was the 6th year of the Clinton Presidency, and as every pundit under the sun kept reminding us, no President's party in its 6th year had picked up seats since 1822 (when there was no opposition party). Added to that little historical trend was this wee little thing known as the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Virtually all of the pundits, all the Republicans, and most Democrats were predicting a shellacking for the Democrats- a loss of 30 seats in the House was the average prediction. The DCCC was advising candidates to do anything in their power to change the subject from Lewinsky but an obsessive media and weekly revelations about things like semen-stained dresses made that impossible. But there was a group of us who had a different idea about how to reframe the election: rather than trying to change the subject, lean into the problem and reframe it. I was working at People For the American Way at the time, a group devoted to, as Norman Lear has always put it, being a PR firm for the constitution. We were disgusted with the idea of impeaching a President over having and trying to cover up an affair, and couldn't believe this was all the Republicans and the media wanted to talk about. In talking to my old colleagues from the '92 Clinton campaign Stan Greenberg and James Carville, they confirmed that their poling showed the same thing we were feeling: voters were tired of all this obsession with a sex scandal, and didn't get why you would impeach the President over such a thing. We came up with an ad campaign based on the theme that "it was time to move on". Meanwhile, literally the same week as we launched our ad campaign, out on the West coast, Wes Boyd and his wife Joan Blades, a couple who had never been involved in politics before, had the same idea, and started an internet petition about it being time to "move on" that caught on like wildfire, picking up 500,000 signatures in a matter of a few days by being spread from person to person. Nothing like that had ever happened before in politics and it was a big deal. Wes and Joan's petition and our ad campaign fed off each other, causing a huge stir in the media, and soon we had joined forces and were organizing hundreds of meetings with members of Congress, and were putting ads up in 9 of the most critical media markets in the country.

On election day, we shocked the pants off the punditry and the conventional wisdom DC establishment. Instead of losing 30 or more seats, Democrats picked up 5. We won the big targeted races in 8 of the 9 media markets PFAW and MoveOn targeted.

In 2006, it was another year where initially the pundits and DC establishment were very pessimistic about Democratic chances, saying Democrats had no chances of taking the House back. Redistricting had made it just too tough, they said, and we would be way outspent. A top operative at the DCCC called me very upset early in the cycle because I had written a memo to donors and allied groups saying that I thought we had a decent chance at winning the House, telling me not to get people's hopes up, that there was almost no chance of victory. But again, the pundits and our own party establishment got surprised.

Rahm Emanuel’s DCCC did some great work, raising an impressive amount of money, pounding away at Bush and the Republicans every day in the message wars, and deploying a great team of operatives who helped targeted campaigns in all kinds of ways. Rahm and his team deserve a lot of credit for the Democratic victory in taking back the House that year. But the broader progressive community charted their own course on strategy in House races in a couple of key ways, and without them doing that there would have been no Democratic takeover that year.

The first was on the issues. Having had tough years the past couple of cycles, Democrats started out the 2006 election cycle being very cautious on the issues. Bush’s first priority was Social Security privatization, and there was a lot of talk initially among Blue Dog Democrats about working with Bush on some kind of compromise bill. When the Terri Schiavo issue popped up, many Democrats initially were going along with the Republican demands to keep her on life support against her husband’s wishes. And on the Iraq war, Rahm was recruiting trying to recruit pro-war candidates thinking that was going to be the better politics in the 2006 elections. In every one of these cases, the progressive community pushed back and demanded strong stands for progressive policies, and in each case, it turned out that the politics ended up showing the progressive community was 100% right, as taking a strong stand against Social Security privatization, against keeping Schiavo on life support against her husband’s wishes, and against the Iraq war all turned out to be great for the Democratic. These 3 issues, combined with a slowing economy and Hurricane Katrina, combined to create a wave election that swept Democrats in the House, Senate, and Governor’s seats into power.

The other key thing that progressives did was help expand the map. There are two philosophies re how to engage in a venture as big as trying to win back control of the House. The first is the traditional philosophy of the DCCC, one that had been their way of operating for the previous 4 cycles: target the districts which had been the closest in the previous cycle, but keep the targeting pretty narrow and engage in hand-to-hand combat in the districts where everything seems to be coming together in terms of a good candidate, a good campaign manager, and strong fundraising. Any race that doesn’t fit the formula in the DCCC’s eyes tended to get left by the side of the road to fend for sink or swim, with the vast majority of them sinking. You can see it in the numbers where this strategy had reached its peak, in the years between 1998 and 2004: the number of competitive races (defined as races where the winner got less than 55% of the vote) was 50 in 1998, 58 in 2000, 46 in 2002, and only 34 in 2004. When there are only 40 competitive seats, even if you win 60% of them you’re only winning 8 more of them than the Republicans, and through those heavy trench warfare years, we generally weren’t winning 60% of the close ones.

Early in the 2006 cycle, a group of progressive donors, groups, bloggers, and strategists was looking at these kinds of trends from the previous several cycles, and the lack of success at taking back the House with that kind of strategy, and we felt like we needed to inject something new into the mix. To give ourselves a better shot at winning the House, we decided we needed to expand the list of competitive races. The goal was to double it, from 34 in 2004 to 70 in 2006. A wave of new candidates got recruited to run; bloggers and MoveOn did early fundraising for House candidates at record levels; progressive donors funded special projects to do different kinds of messaging projects in a wider range of districts around the country. And all the while, we all kept pounding away at the big issues- the Iraq war, Social Security, the Terri Schiavo incident, Katrina, the economy running out of gas, a Republican congress rank with corruption- with the goal of turning the election into a wave election against the Republicans. In the end, there were exactly 70 House races where the winner had less than 55%, with the Republicans forced to play defense, spending time and money in places like Wyoming, Idaho, Nebraska, and Kansas while we won the key races in the purple districts we needed to win. The wave had built so much that we picked up 31 seats, more than double what we need to make Nancy Pelosi Speaker.

So why did we lose the House in 2012 given all the success Democrats had this year, and what are the lessons we can learn from these past elections where innovative Democrats and progressives came together to craft a winning strategy? I looked at the numbers, and was pleasantly surprised to see the competitive race number was 66, in the same range as those bigger target years of 2006 (70) and 2008 (64), because I had guessed that the DCCC had gone back to a grind it out, narrow targeting strategy, and based on that number it doesn’t look like they did. One caveat, though: after the last big Republican wave election, there were 90 races that were competitive, meaning Democrats made a serious run in that Clinton re-election year at trying to win a lot of those seats back. The smaller number this time probably has more to do with re-districting than with anything else, but I’m guessing that with limited resources, the DCCC did make a strategic decision to narrow their targeting somewhat.

I was also glad to see the win percentage in the closest races was on the positive side, especially given the huge money edge the Republicans had in House races. Of those 66 most competitive races, Democrats won 35- and of the 20 closest races, the Dems won a very impressive 70%. Kudos to the DCCC and the House Majority PAC for those numbers, it is impressive.

In some ways, though, these numbers are less than comforting: if we had lost most of the close races, or made the mistake of targeting too narrowly, the strategic path to winning a House majority back would be easier to create. To pick up 17 seats given what we have to work with is going to need big thinking, a big strategy. And it will take real resources. Let’s face it: one of the biggest reasons we lost the House is that most of the groups, bloggers, money, and talent in the Democratic party and progressive movement was focused elsewhere, on keeping Romney and Republicans in the Senate from running the table and taking over every branch of government. Most people and groups had given up on winning the House months ago and were spending their time, money, and brainpower on the Presidential race and those marquee Senate races like Elizabeth Warren, Tammy Baldwin, and Sherrod Brown. We need to create a Manhattan project for retaking the House with the best thinkers, biggest groups, and most influential donors in the party involved.      

We also need to stay focused on winning the big picture values debate the way we won it in this election. This election needs to be focused on building a drumbeat as to why House Republicans are so out of touch with basic American values, with everyone on the progressive and Democratic side carrying that message. We need to elevate the battle over the House, make it a case study of the values debate the entire country is having. And by the way, that will help us in Senate and Governor races, too: the most potent weapon Democrats had in the 1990s at all levels of elections was running against Newt Gingrich and the Republican House of that era. In 1996, we won the re-election campaign far more by running against Gingrich than by running against Dole, who was a nice fellow that most people liked. We tied Dole to Gingrich, and made our campaign about opposing the GINGRICH-dole agenda. (The only reason we didn’t get the House back that year was the last minute campaign finance scandal- before that broke we were clearly on a trajectory to retake the House.)

Finally, we are going to need Team Obama to get involved in a major way. One of the few things I am critical about with the Obama campaign this time around was that they utterly ignored the House. Especially with Ryan on the ticket, they had a chance to run against not only Romney but against the tea party crazies controlling the House, which is the most unpopular brand in American politics. Had they done that, we might have been able to pick up a bunch more House seats. Obama needs to suit up and get into the game in House races this time around, raising money, using his vaunted field operation. I would think that after 4 years of dealing with this group of dangerous extremists, Obama would be, as he likes to say, fired up and ready to go. If Team Obama is involved from start to finish, the potential for turning out more Obama voters goes way up as well, and we all know how important the demographics of the electorate is to elections.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, gerrymandering did not end Democratic chances to take back the House. It will not be easy in any way; it will take a huge effort and a big strategic vision for how to pull it off; Obama will have to commit fully to the battle. But absent a bad economy (a variable we just can’t know for a while), we can do this if we as a party and progressive movement commit to it.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Nice read (19+ / 0-)

      This is the most salient part IMHO:

       

    Bush’s first priority was Social Security privatization, and there was a lot of talk initially among Blue Dog Democrats about working with Bush on some kind of compromise bill. When the Terri Schiavo issue popped up, many Democrats initially were going along with the Republican demands to keep her on life support against her husband’s wishes. And on the Iraq war, Rahm was recruiting trying to recruit pro-war candidates thinking that was going to be the better politics in the 2006 elections. In every one of these cases, the progressive community pushed back and demanded strong stands for progressive policies, and in each case, it turned out that the politics ended up showing the progressive community was 100% right, as taking a strong stand against Social Security privatization, against keeping Schiavo on life support against her husband’s wishes, and against the Iraq war all turned out to be great for the Democratic. These 3 issues, combined with a slowing economy and Hurricane Katrina, combined to create a wave election that swept Democrats in the House, Senate, and Governor’s seats into power.
      You didn't mention Howard Dean, but he was a BIG reason the above happened. When Dean was DNC chair, the Democrats enjoyed their largest congressional successes in a generation.  And all he got for it from the Dem establishment was silly carping because he didn't do it "their" way.

       If we'd held on to the 50-state strategy this year, Joen Boehner could very well be a nonfactor at this point.

       We rarely win with blue dogs. And even when we do win with blue dogs, we lose -- we can't get the good policy implemented that would help cement these Dem electoral gains, as we saw in 2010.

       But otherwise, this was fun to read. Thanks.
       

    "Le ciel est bleu, l'enfer est rouge."

    by Buzzer on Fri Nov 23, 2012 at 05:49:04 AM PST

    •  Yes, blue dogs signal that the Dems are unsure (6+ / 0-)

      of the validity of their policies.  The presence of the blue dogs has fueled the success of the radical rightward pull of the GOP, and the middle did not hold.  
      I also agree that we did not accord Howard Dean the respect and permanency he so richly deserves on our side.  Obama seems to have ignored him completely.  Sad.
      My plan is to keep ridiculing the wingers' policies without tying them to individual GOPpers.  West, Walsh, et.al. washed out because they were whacko; the Birchers all have to go which won't happen unless the brand itself is retired.

      Building a better America with activism, cooperation, ingenuity and snacks.

      by judyms9 on Fri Nov 23, 2012 at 06:00:27 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Hope (4+ / 0-)

    Having been through serious frustration with Tom DeLay's gerrymandering of Texas during an off year, your diary gives me hope.  I will go back and re-read when time allows, but I would love to see some serious funding from national into more districts in Texas to oust the teapublicans, especially in my district TX 26, (the worthless Michael Burgess.)

    "We have facts on our side. They have propaganda on their side."

    by rlharry on Fri Nov 23, 2012 at 05:59:40 AM PST

  •  It's for damn sure........................... (11+ / 0-)

    we won't win back the house is 2014 if nationally progressives and Dems repeat 2010.  BHO is not going to be able to get any where near the agenda we want through congress in the next two years with the Teahadists in the House pulling on Boehner's short and curlys.

    Just as in 2010, voters will “punish” the POTUS’s party by staying at home for the 2014 mid-terms unless we start planning and organizing now.  We need to help purge as many of the RW loons from the House as possible, gain a House majority and keep the Senate.

    If we take anything away from this last election it should be that “Liberal” is not a dirty word, “people power” is a real force in politics,  planning and organization can beat money, and being smart is an asset not a liability.

     

    The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation--HDT

    by cazcee on Fri Nov 23, 2012 at 06:09:48 AM PST

  •  Pres Obama has an incentive to get the gavel to (7+ / 0-)

    Nancy Pelosi

    I hope Pres Obama decides for once to get down and dirty and put his hide on the line.
    He needs to help recruit, support financially, morally and ideas wise, candidates who can win some  targetted, winnable seats.

    Not only will his legislative agenda have an easier path, but his sucess will have a positive effect as we look to 2016,

    Hillary !!!

  •  Make the policy imperatives a reason to vote (6+ / 0-)

    by putting them on the ballot.

    Income Inequality? Put a hike in the minimum wage on the ballot wherever possible.

    Idiocy in the Drug War? Put legalization for medical use of marijuana or similar issues on the ballot wherever relevant.

    Money in Politics / Citizens United? Find a means to get Udall's constitutional amendment promoted at the ballot box.

    That (very) short list is not intended to be exclusive.

  •  Ohio SoS Husted besides making voter suppression (5+ / 0-)

    a new art also campaigned against a voter initiative to turn redistricting over to a special board taking that power away from the legislature. (It failed). The current gerrymandering gave Ohio a majority republican congressional delegation when by votes it should be Democratic. His real reason to do several underhanded anti-initiative tricks was now he wants to distribute the electoral votes according to the gerrymandered districts which would have given Romney most of Ohio's electoral votes. His public explanation is he wants to make Ohio LESS important in elections???

    I'd tip you but they cut off my tip box. The TSA would put Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad on the no-fly list.

    by OHdog on Fri Nov 23, 2012 at 06:29:50 AM PST

  •  Must begin NOW (10+ / 0-)

    I'm glad you wrote. The trick is to embed how these guys are voting against the self-interest of Republican voters, and you simply cannot do it 18 months from now.

    We need funding for ads that appear EVERY TIME the House balks at supporting the middle class. For example, right now we need LTEs saying: "In 45 days your earned income tax credit/FICA reduction etc is ending. How is YOUR congresscritter going to vote?

    We worked for McDowell in MI-1. Benishek squeeked past him with massive infusion from the Kochs, our nearest neighbor to the west. But it cost them big time. Gary McDowell can take this district if a two-year consistent message keeps going out

    •  Agree (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Check077, pdx kirk
      House Republicans are so out of touch with basic American values
      how these guys are voting against the self-interest of Republican voters
      I'd like to see flyers mailed to every voter on the votes their Rep makes that work against the voter.  The Rep votes to end Obamacare and supplies talking points about freedoms.  Baloney.  The Rep in that vote voted against affordable insurance for people with preexisting conditions like cancer or birth defects.  Tell the voters that.  And all the other details that effect these voters, one detail at a time.  The Rep voted against an infrastructure stimulus bill giving talking points about the deficit.  The Rep in that vote voted against putting local workers to work rebuilding a failing bridge in that district.  Tell the voters, detail by detail.  And there will be hundreds of other examples.
  •  great post! (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    pdx kirk

    does anyone know a web page that has all the House election results with number of votes cast?

    wikipedia has all the races but only percentages.

    thanks

    An ambulance can only go so fast - Neil Young

    by mightymouse on Fri Nov 23, 2012 at 06:55:33 AM PST

  •  Short and sweet (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    pdx kirk

    When we put the same effort into the 2014 mid-terms we just put into the 2012 contest, we'll sweep a ton of seats.

    Enagaged activism wins elections. 100 million words on liberal/progressive websites gets beat by one new GOP voter casting their vote.

    by Nebraska68847Dem on Fri Nov 23, 2012 at 07:04:11 AM PST

  •  Yes (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    pdx kirk

    ESPECIALLY, the last 2 paragraphs of your diary.

    Political compass: -8.75 / -4.72

    by Mark Mywurtz on Fri Nov 23, 2012 at 07:16:47 AM PST

  •  This is an awesome diary. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dewstino, pdx kirk

    It's the kind I tip and rec, without reservation. Why? You provide grist for discussion, and context, and you know whereof you speak.

    In maturity, I have come to appreciate hindsight more and more. You'll never have a better teacher. I am always coming back to the eternal question: How can I(we) do it better next time?

    I like this remark here:

    We need to create a Manhattan project for retaking the House with the best thinkers, biggest groups, and most influential donors in the party involved.  
    We have the message and the popular appeal. We have the chops. Let's get out there and act like we mean business in 2014.

    It's here they got the range/ and the machinery for change/ and it's here they got the spiritual thirst. --Leonard Cohen

    by karmsy on Fri Nov 23, 2012 at 07:23:12 AM PST

  •  We need to take advantage of the unexpected. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    pdx kirk

    Example: OH-14, a long-time incumbent retires after the primary.  Repubs are allowed to replace him on the ballot.  Dems don't have a strong candidate and aren't able to make a race of it.

    Generally we can't win with a nobody.  We need stronger candidates to run in case of the unexpected, like a late retirement, or a late-breaking wave.

  •  YES!! (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    pdx kirk

    Bene Scriptum, Bene Intellectum.

    by T C Gibian on Fri Nov 23, 2012 at 08:38:37 AM PST

  •  couldn't agree more (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dewstino, pdx kirk

    In my OFA survey my no. 1 priority was to turn the house in 2014 in part by having the organization focus on addressing the democrats' mid term turnout problems.  So much damage has been done by allowing the tea party and their ilk dominate those cycles at the state, local and national levels.  

  •  Obama's margin (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    wu ming

    "...we actually won the overall votes in House races by the same 2% plus margin that Obama did..."

    Please: Obama won by more than 3%. Huge difference.

  •  Thanks for this post. I feel it is not too soon to (0+ / 0-)

    start planning for 2014. A strong mid term election holds only positives even if we fall short of taking back the house.

    I think it paying some attention to State House races in tight states could be fertile ground for our brand of activism as well.

    .....it's on the table, under the watermelon she demurred. Thanks, I was planning on shaving anyway he replied.

    by pdx kirk on Fri Nov 23, 2012 at 10:18:57 AM PST

  •  Yes We Can (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    pdx kirk

    It may take some alignment of the stars and planets, but it is not an unreasonable expectation as long as two things happen:

    Republicans keep being Republicans. Even if they got the memo they will either continue to live in denial or just simply find themselves simply unable to do the things truly necessary to appeal to anyone other than their shrinking base. I think this is highly likely to be the case.

    The economy must continue to improve. If it does not, it will be absolutely necessary to win the message war that it is Republican political leadership that is continuing to intentionally further fuck up the economy  that they are responsible for creating in the first place. It is also a message that has the advantage of being the truth.

  •  GOPbaggers must be RELENTLESSLY attacked... (0+ / 0-)

    ... as non-serious, clownish, incompetent, ideologically-obsessed, nihilistic, destructive idiots with NO INTEREST WHATSOEVER in the welfare of their constituents, other than the moneybags big-money campaign donors.

    Any time a GOPbagger says anything he must be ATTACKED.

    Build the public perception they are a bunch of idiots.

  •  Not by the old rules! (0+ / 0-)

    Get some cajones. Stick to a few strong principles and stick together. Get strong candidates. Think big.

    For example, Harry--re-introduce the Dream Act tomorrow. It will pass the Senate (Snowe and Brown!) and fail the House. Then put some bucks into the press!

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