For most of the election cycle, Democratic strategists were optimistic they could hold the House because of their arsenal of opposition research. But Democratic attacks failed to bring down enough Republican challengers to keep the majority.
Democrats thought GOP challengers were simply too flawed to be acceptable alternatives to voters who wanted change. But as Republicans learned in 2006 and 2008, the messenger and the audience matter just as much, if not more, than the message when it comes to political attacks.
“If you were in a red district, nothing worked,” according to one veteran Democratic strategist, reluctantly recalling the most recent elections.
In Tennessee’s 8th district, Democrats tried to use Scott DesJarlais’ divorce records to paint the Republican as an emotionally unstable man who threatened his wife and petitioned to have his child support payments reduced. Democrats in Georgia’s 8th district called for GOP nominee Austin Scott’s divorce records to be unsealed, and national Democrats spread rumors about its contents.
In Florida’s 25th, Democrats described Republican David Rivera’s “troubling history of going to great lengths to hide a violent past,” according to an Oct. 1 news release. Democrats also tossed around domestic violence accusations against him and an incident where Rivera allegedly forced a truck off the road.
And in Ohio’s 16th, Democrats accused Republican Jim Renacci of “placing profits before safety” by endangering his nursing home residents to make more money and highlighting the story of a woman who died in a facility he owned.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won all four Congressional districts in the 2008 presidential election, and all four Republicans were elected to Congress this year. Scott won by 5 points, Renacci and Rivera by 11 points, and DesJarlais by a whopping 20 points.
The Renacci attack is reminiscent of 2008, when Republicans accused then-Democrat Parker Griffith of under-medicating cancer patients in order to make more money off of them. Griffith won that competitive open-seat race by 4 points.
But even in more competitive districts that President Barack Obama carried by less than 10 points two years ago, Democratic attacks often fell on deaf ears.
In Florida’s 22nd, Democrats touted Republican Allen West’s ties to an “infamous motorcycle gang and organized crime syndicate.” In Texas’ 27th, GOP nominee Blake Farenthold was labeled as having been “photographed partying with scantily clad women,” and Democrats gleefully passed along a corresponding picture.
“Frank Guinta fled the scene of a bar brawl, stepping over the victim’s body on his way out the door,” Democrats accused of the GOP nominee in New Hampshire’s 1st district.
All three Republicans defeated Democratic incumbents this fall, and only Farenthold’s race was close.
“It’s harder to disqualify candidates in a national election,” the Democratic source said.
Voters tuned out the Democratic attacks because they were frustrated with the party in power. In 2006 and 2008, the same attacks would have destroyed these GOP candidates.
“People were more willing to take it from the press than to take it from us,” the source added.
In handful of races, the local media drove the narrative on the attacks against GOP nominees.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.