Democrats Urged to Seek More Targets In Effort to Take Back House Majority

Posted January 31, 2003 at 6:50pm

By Erin P. Billings Roll Call Staff House Democrats have been warned: Either mount strong challenges in more GOP-held seats or be prepared to stay in the minority indefinitely.

While Democrats spent their annual retreat weekend at the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort and Spa in Pennsylvania focusing almost exclusively on developing strategies on the economy and homeland defense, Members also got an earful about what they needed to do to take back the House.

By and large, Democratic Members and staffers alike called the getaway one of the most successful in recent years, with greater attendance and enthusiasm than in the past. The event featured several prominent strategists and Democrats, including former President Bill Clinton.

Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) called the retreat “extraordinarily successful” with more Democrats participating than “we’ve ever had.” Leaders estimated that nearly 150 of the 206 Democratic House Members attended the three-day event.

Hoyer said Democrats were walking away from the retreat with the belief that they must focus on both politics and policy in crafting a winning message, arguing that Republican policies “both in the short term and the long term are ineffective and produce negative results.”

Democratic Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), who organized the retreat, agreed, and said progress was made in forging long-term positions about how to win back the House and beat the GOP on the key issues of the economy and homeland security.

“This administration has failed miserably on homeland security … and failed miserably in terms of fiscal responsibility,” he said.

Democrats have labored in the House minority since their ranks were decimated in the 1994 elections, when Republicans picked up 52 seats. While Democrats gained seats in the next three elections, they took a step backward in November, losing six seats in the House.

Several sources said the retreat’s political discussions focused less on rehashing recent losses and more on how Democrats can succeed in the future.

“Members are up,” Menendez said. “We’ve had hours of discussion here and Members didn’t revisit the past. They are looking forward to the future. They realize there are challenges ahead, but they are ready to tackle those challenges.”

One speaker, in particular, at the retreat told Members that in order to pull out of the minority, Democrats must widen their scope, mounting challenges in Republican-held seats they haven’t targeted in the past. Mark Gersh, Washington director for the National Committee for an Effective Congress, stressed that Democrats must look at any Republican-held seat where then presidential nominee Al Gore beat Bush, or where minority populations are above 20 percent.

While that formula may not be a dramatic departure, Gersh laid out a statistical argument in great detail, noting that in order to net the 12 seats they need, Democrats must target a minimum of 35 Republican held seats. Of those seats, he said, 18 should be in districts where the GOP Member won with less than a 10 percent margin, while another 12 should be those where victory was between 10 percent and 20 percent but with better than 47 percent Democratic “performance.” He also stressed a stronger focus on winning open seats, a calculus Democrats have been on the losing end of in recent cycles.

Gersh, the pre-eminent targeting and demographics specialist in the party, has long championed the merits of expanding the House playing field in hopes of providing the party with a margin of error in their attempts to retake control.

Since 1998, however, that strategy has failed as roughly 40 House seats — less than 10 percent of the overall body — have been truly competitive and closely contested by the parties.

“I don’t think any of this is new information, but Members are finding themselves [so] completely overwhelmed by a Republican White House that they are finally starting to listen,” said a top Democratic staffer.

Added another: “Essentially, he said, ‘We have to expand the number of seats we’re looking at.’ If we’re going to take back the House — and it’s doable — we have to expand the seats we’re targeting and do a better job on open seats.”

“We have to expand the playing field,” echoed a third senior Democratic staffer. “There are a number of Republicans who haven’t been challenged in recent cycles in ostensibly Democratic or Democratic districts where Gore won.”

And, the aide continued: “We have to protect the marginals, we can’t lose any incumbents and we need a moderate message that wins in those places.”

Those plans received a boost Friday when Rep. Ken Lucas (D-Ky.) announced he would seek re-election in his Republican-tilting, northern Kentucky 4th district. Hoyer reportedly played a large role in Lucas’ decision.

Speakers at the gathering didn’t give Members a specific road map to victory, one senior aide said. But, Members were told that in order to try to win they must focus the message more clearly on one or two priorities and more proactively attack Republican policies while looking beyond traditionally marginal seats.

One successful example already in this Congress, Members agreed, was the Democrats’ economic stimulus package, which they unveiled a day before Bush launched his proposal.

Hoyer said while Democrats did experience losses in 2002, they have been largely successful in picking up seats since going into the minority.

“Last year was not as good as we hoped, it wasn’t good at all,” Hoyer acknowledged. “But I think there’s a real enthusiasm and confidence level here that [we can win] if we focus on the policy and build consensus on the economy, how to create jobs, grow the economy and get people back to work.”

Beyond that, Democrats were instructed to do a better job in candidate recruitment, finding not just a candidate but the right candidate, several sources recounted. They noted several districts where a potentially vulnerable Republican has not faced a formidable challenger in years, and promised Democrats would not be complacent about that.

“We need to go into those suburban districts where we do a good job on the top of the ticket, but where there are Republican Members who haven’t been challenged in ages,” said a senior Democratic aide.

Beyond the raw politics of winning, Democrats also worked to hone their message on homeland security and the economy, specifically to drive home their mantra that Bush is “the most fiscally irresponsible president in history.” Members were told that they must provide evidence that further tax cuts hurt average Americans by cutting into Social Security.

“Democrats shouldn’t be afraid of questioning what Bush is doing,” said a Democratic aide.

Democrats already have decided to more narrowly tailor their political agenda to the nation’s flagging economy and national security.

“We need to get back to who we are, what we believe in and tell Americans that we are here for you,” said Cindy Jimenez, spokeswoman for Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

“It’s not so much that we need to target all the Republicans, but that we look at the electorate and communicate our message and energize our base,” she added. “We need to get them energized, to be inspired to get out and vote.”

Sources said Clinton, who one leadership staffer called “a huge hit,” did a good job raising Members’ spirits. He focused most specifically on Bush’s foreign policy and the looming war in Iraq. The two-term Democratic president told Members that they should be “outraged morally” that Bush is calling for greater tax cuts when Americans are being sent to war.

“No president in history has cut taxes for the wealthy while going to war,” the staffer recalled of Clinton’s remarks.

Another House leadership aide said Clinton advised: “We should be optimistic, the issues are with us and we have to get the message out that we are with them, and the people are with us.”