Trouble Ahead For Democrats In Upcoming House Special Elections And Looking Ahead To 2018

There’s a lot of energy on the Democratic side as opposition mounts to President Donald Trump. On Capital Hill, Democrats are mounting historic opposition to the President’s cabinet picks and protests across the nation are drawing large numbers of participants and media coverage.

What’s missing so far is results. The Democrats in the Senate simply don’t have the numbers to stop anything. That dynamic will change as the focus moves beyond nominations and onto legislation where Republicans will need to find help from across the aisle to get to the 60 vote threshold to invoke cloture.

Still, turning that energy into electoral victories will remain a challenge in the first elections of the Trump era.

Four members of the House have been named to the cabinet (Mike Pompeo (KS-4) to CIA, Mick Mulvaney (SC-5 ) to OMB, Ryan Zinke (MT-AL) to Interior and Tom Price (GA-6) to lead HHS) Democrats don’t look to be competitive in any of them.

“The starting point is that we have to all acknowledge that those seats are all held by Republicans and they’ve been held by Republicans for quite some time,” [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman and Representative from Washington Denny] Heck said.

On the ground, Heck said there were Democratic candidates who could be considered but he stopped short of saying these seats were winnable for Democrats.

“We’re going to be very realistic about these four congressional districts while nonetheless talking and reaching out with people that indicated interest and seeing if in fact they demonstrate the key principles or characteristics of viability,” Heck said.

Even allowing for the Republican nature of those seats, the Democrats plan to target GOP districts in 2018 where Hillary Clinton won or did better than normal faces challenges. In most of those districts, the incumbent Republican member outran both Clinton and Trump.

So much of what happens next year in the House will be determined by the national environment. But Republicans can take heart that as they go into a midterm under a Republican president, they are not nearly as overextended in the House as Democrats were going into 2010. In that election, Democrats were defending 48 seats that John McCain carried in 2008, and they ended up losing the House. Republicans today are only about half as overextended, and it’s an open question as to whether Democrats can legitimately contend for many of these Clinton-Republican seats. And Republicans should have at least a few appealing targets of their own, such as some of the Trump-Democratic districts.

Then again, going into the 2006 midterm, Democrats were defending 40 seats that George W. Bush won two years earlier, while Republicans were only defending 18 seats that John Kerry had won in 2004. So the Democrats were overextended based on the previous presidential results in these districts, but it didn’t stop them from taking control of the House.
Two years is a very long time in politics but the time for Democrats to start gearing up and recruiting candidates is getting closer. How top flight candidates feel about the party and its chances will go a long way to determine whether or not they are ready to capitalize on what may or may not turnout to be a friendly environment.

It’s this basic blocking and tackling by the party that has some activists concerned.

Before they will become competitive again, Democrats need to reform their election machinery from top to bottom. Party committees and caucuses have developed a consultant-driven campaign model that restricts innovation and rewards failure. As the world moves through a communications revolution, Democrats continue to rely on tools that worked well a decade or more ago, but don’t get the job done today.

The party has created a top-down approach to campaigns, with direction coming from caucus organizations in Washington or state capitols. They control the structure, the hiring, the message, and the budget. Strategic decisions are often driven by consultants who have more interest in tactics than strategy. A great ad or 2,500 points of television or 10 pieces of mail are tactical. Figuring out the coalition necessary to reach 50% plus one and determining the most cost efficient ways to reach and persuade the various audiences is strategic. Democrats have become more of a tactical party than a strategic one.

So much of what the Democrats are facing today is reminiscent of the position the GOP found itself in following President Obama’s win in 2008. While Republicans were able to get a toe-hold on the road to recovery in 2010, it took a few more cycles and plenty of heartburn to get there. Given the unusual nature of Trump and his political coalition, they in many ways just exchanged it for a new type of heartburn.

The choices the Democrats make now will go a good way to determining if they can convert the grassroots energy to results and how long they will be in the political wilderness.