ICYMI – Cook Political Report: Obama’s House Efforts: Game-Changer or Not? NRCC | March 8th, 2013
Good Morning – Wanted to flag this column by David Wasserman at the Cook Political Report where he makes several insightful points that are key to understanding the house outlook for 2014. Couple key excerpts below…
“This cycle, House Democrats’ success won’t be measured by the number of hours Obama devotes to large-dollar events and candidate arm-twisting, it will be measured by the degree to which Democrats can recruit and nourish candidates who culturally and ideologically fit their districts. Life’s not fair, and in order for Democrats to pick up House seats at all in 2014, they will have to learn how to fight on Republican terrain and play the terrible hand they’ve been dealt on the map, both as a result of Democrats’ urbanization and Republican redistricting… In most districts Democrats would need to win to get to an improbable, unprecedented 17 seat pickup, Democratic candidates will need to make their distance, not their proximity, to Obama’s positions on issues like guns and health care reform a selling point of their campaign…
“In 2012, Democrats’ haranguing of House Republicans as Medicare-menacing Tea Party extremists fell flat. After over $100 million in advertising by the DCCC and the allied House Majority PAC, seniors still gave Republican congressional candidates 55 percent of the vote, down only four points from the 59 percent 2010…
“By the same token, given unfriendly terrain and unhelpful turnout dynamics, Obama and Democrats would be lucky to simply retain the 201 seats they already have. And, there are signs the White House realizes that.”
Cook Political Report: Obama’s House Efforts: Game-Changer or Not?
By David Wasserman
March 7, 2013
Much has been made of President Obama’s new-found motivation to help House Democrats regain the House in 2014. Last Saturday, the Washington Post wrote that Obama, unshackled from the burden of a reelection campaign yet “stymied” by a GOP House, “is taking the most specific steps of his administration in an attempt to ensure the election of a Democratic-controlled Congress in two years.” The article went on to quote DCCC Chair Rep. Steve Israel as saying, “To have a legacy in 2016, [Obama] will need a House majority in 2014, and that work has to start now.”
Democrats have been pitching this supposed B-12 shot to donors and members for weeks now. In a memo to his Democratic colleagues titled “Democrats are better positioned for 2014 than 2012 or 2010,” Israel noted that the “POTUS is all-in” for House Democrats and has agreed to early commitments that are “unprecedented and transformational,” including eight fundraising events in 2013 alone. The memo promised that “OFA’s ground game, which was a vital part of the Obama campaign’s success in 2012, will now be focused on Congress – energizing the critical ‘New American Electorate.'”
Yet if the White House is staking its entire legacy on winning back the House in 2014, it sure is sending mixed messages. Asked about Israel’s remarks on Monday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said, “It goes without saying the president wants those in his party to do well, but  is not a focus of his, particularly at this point.” Furthermore, the president’s well-documented scheduling of dinners and non-eleventh hour sit-downs with congressional Republicans is an acknowledgment his last four years in office won’t be like his first two, when he could pass an agenda with Democratic votes alone.
In truth, Obama’s commitment to House recruitment and fundraising is welcome news for House Democrats, but it’s also a solution for the wrong problem. The reason Democrats lost 63 House seats in 2010 wasn’t that Obama appeared at two fundraisers for the DCCC instead of eight in 2009 (the DCCC actually outspent the NRCC during the 2010 cycle). It was that Democrats were greatly overexposed after winning a giant majority in 2008, and that seniors and others who never took kindly to the Obama agenda in the first place turned out in disproportionately high numbers.
The ultimate problem for House Democrats in 2014 isn’t their own overexposure; it’s a lack of Republican exposure. Thanks to sorting, there are only 16 House Republicans sitting in districts Obama carried in 2012, including only six who sit in districts with Democratic PVI scores – seats that vote more Democratic at the presidential level than the national average. By contrast, in 2006, when Democrats needed 15 seats to take back the House, there were 24 Republicans sitting in districts with a Democratic PVI score, four times their level of exposure today.
No More Low-Hanging Fruit: Republicans in Democratic-Leaning Seats
This cycle, House Democrats’ success won’t be measured by the number of hours Obama devotes to large-dollar events and candidate arm-twisting, it will be measured by the degree to which Democrats can recruit and nourish candidates who culturally and ideologically fit their districts. Life’s not fair, and in order for Democrats to pick up House seats at all in 2014, they will have to learn how to fight on Republican terrain and play the terrible hand they’ve been dealt on the map, both as a result of Democrats’ urbanization and Republican redistricting.
Can Obama meaningfully help Democrats cajole fence-sitting, potentially appealing candidates into tough races against GOP incumbents behind the scenes? Absolutely. And it wouldn’t be the first time the president and the first family have gotten involved: First Lady Michelle Obama’s encouragement was instrumental in getting former NASA astronaut Jose Hernandez to run against GOP Rep. Jeff Denham (CA-10) in 2012. But as Hernandez’s race showed, there are also pitfalls associated with being portrayed as “Obama’s handpicked candidate” in marginal and conservative-leaning districts.
In most districts Democrats would need to win to get to an improbable, unprecedented 17 seat pickup (see our current list of races in the Likely Republican column), Democratic candidates will need to make their distance, not their proximity, to Obama’s positions on issues like guns and health care reform a selling point of their campaign. Many southern Democrats were able to do just that successfully in 2008, when Obama was on the ballot but his agenda wasn’t yet specific. But in many cases, they were also assisted by raw GOP primary scar tissue, something the DCCC can only cross its fingers for now.
Then there’s the issue of House Democrats’ message. In 2006, all kinds of Democrats gained seats in all kinds of districts because they didn’t all have to defend the same brand; all they had to do was beat up on a Republican president who was underwater in all but the reddest districts. In 2010, Republicans were able to run against Obama’s agenda on healthcare in energy in more than four dozen districts Obama had lost in 2008. Today, Obama’s brand is very defined – for better or worse, depending on the district – and most Democrats who sing a different tune will need to build their separate brand on their own.
In the rare instances presidents’ parties have gained House seats in midterm elections – and we’re talking only handfuls of seats – they’ve typically been able to cast the other side as bullies (see 1998 and impeachment) or obstructionists (see 2002). Can Democrats make the case that 2014 is similar to 1998, when congressional Republicans were pursuing a narrow, unpopular agenda? It’s too early to tell what will be on voters’ minds 20 months from now, but so far GOP-led debt trimming at the possible expense of keeping TSA agents on duty hasn’t captured the voting public’s attention like an Oval Office sex scandal.
In 2012, Democrats’ haranguing of House Republicans as Medicare-menacing Tea Party extremists fell flat. After over $100 million in advertising by the DCCC and the allied House Majority PAC, seniors still gave Republican congressional candidates 55 percent of the vote, down only four points from the 59 percent 2010. The numbers only proved that voters were chiefly focused on Obama and the state of the economy, and their low opinion of congressional Republicans in poll after poll reflected more of an apathy towards Congress than truly focused anger. What Obama and Democrats can do to change that is the real conundrum
Boom and Bust Turnout
Recruiting candidates who fit their districts and settling on a message that ratchets up independents’ anger towards Republicans still won’t solve another basic Democratic quandary: unlike in the 1990s, when voter allegiances at the congressional level didn’t vary much by age, seniors remain a much more Obama-averse group than millennials, and remain much more likely to vote in midterm election years. This means Democratic candidates will need to win even higher shares of the independent vote just to get back to where they were in 2012 – and 2012 left them 17 seats shy of a majority.
That’s where Democrats say OFA’s powerful list of “New American Electorate” voters will come in. Of course, we heard that before in 2010, when Democrats were desperate to mobilize the same group of young and minority voters that showed up at the polls the first time in 2008. It’s possible, even likely, that Obama’s organization has identified more of these voters and knows more about what motivates them than it did in 2008. But that doesn’t change the fundamental rule that presidential elections motivate casual voters in a way midterms never can. For Democrats, this is once again a question of mitigating fall-off.
In this “boom and bust” turnout era, perhaps the only good news for Democrats is for the 18 who escaped 2010 and 2012 and persist in seats with Republican PVI scores. For conservative Democrats like Reps. John Barrow (GA-12), Mike McIntyre (NC-07), and Jim Matheson (UT-04), a midterm turnout means a drop in straight-ticket voters and a proportional increase in longtime voters who know them on a more personal level, although Barrow in particular must be wary of a drop-off in African-American turnout should he forgo a Senate bid. Indeed, one perennial DCCC challenge is to simply get these members to keep running.
Obama can certainly boost House Democrats’ recruitment and fundraising efforts in productive and meaningful ways, but his lack of dedication isn’t what cost Democrats in 2010 and 2012, nor can his added efforts alone get Democrats anywhere near the 17 seats they need to take back control. Because Democrats lost so many seats in 2010, they are highly unlikely to suffer mass casualties in 2014. By the same token, given unfriendly terrain and unhelpful turnout dynamics, Obama and Democrats would be lucky to simply retain the 201 seats they already have. And, there are signs the White House realizes that.