DCCC Sees ’04 ‘Trend’

Posted June 14, 2004 at 6:44pm

With two special election victories under their belts and “generic” ballot polling tilted heavily in their favor, House Democrats will convene a Caucus-wide meeting today aimed at convincing their rank-and-file Members that winning back control is now a plausible proposition.

The centerpiece of this effort will be a presentation by targeting guru Mark Gersh that casts 2004 as a “trend election” based on continued feelings of economic insecurity, particularly among rural voters.

While Democrats have yet to predict that this year will bring the kind of “wave” election that swept Republicans into the House majority in 1994, there is a growing belief in the party that the combination of voter uncertainty about the foreign and domestic spheres will ensure a sustained wind at the backs of their candidates this fall.

Gersh will appear at House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) weekly “Leader’s Luncheon” along with Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Matsui (Calif.) to make that case.

Bringing in Gersh is an attempt to show Members that winning back the majority is more than just rhetoric by the leadership, according to one knowledgeable Democratic aide.

“We want Members to know tangibly this is really doable,” said Matsui. “The goal is to let Members know that other people are thinking the same thing we’re thinking.”

National Republican Congressional Committee Communications Director Carl Forti dismissed the possibility of Democratic House control as a “half-baked theory.”

“All of this is predicated on ‘if’ it is a trend year,” said Forti. “Right now there is no sign that this is going to be a trend year.”

Nonetheless, House Democrats are increasingly energized, and Pelosi is hoping for full Caucus attendance today; she has been working hard to ensure that more than just the usual suspects attend the meeting, aides said Monday.

At the gathering Pelosi will make a renewed push for Member involvement in both message efforts and fundraising, according to several informed Democratic sources.

“To get everybody there and get them on board requires repeated efforts,” said one House Democratic leadership aide.

Previewing his remarks Tuesday, Gersh said that recent generic ballot polls showing Democrats with leads varying from 9 to 19 points, coupled with the special election victories of Reps. Ben Chandler (Ky.) and Stephanie Herseth (S.D.), convinced him that “it is absurd to argue that [Democratic control] can’t happen.”

“The economic security issue has touched something here,” said Gersh. “It is not going to go away by this election.”

Though the economy has improved markedly in recent months, Democrats, led by Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), have continued to argue that it is still far from healthy and note that more than 1 million people have lost their jobs since the start of the Bush administration.

Under Gersh’s logic, the generic ballot edge that Democrats currently enjoy is a manifestation of rampant voter unease with the way Congressional Republicans are handling domestic affairs.

“I have seen 5-, 6- and 7-point [generic ballot] leads evaporate,” said Gersh. “Never have I seen a double-digit lead last this long. It has a chance to be durable.”

This unsettled voter feeling is particularly concentrated in more rural areas that tend to be less well-to-do and more conservative, Gersh said, and have been trending against Democrats for the past decade.

Forti dismissed the recent generic ballots, arguing that the question is inherently tilted toward Democrats.

“When have Republicans not been down on the generic ballot and when have we not closed [the margin] on Election Day?” said Forti.

Even Gersh acknowledges that Democrats are unlikely to sustain such a large generic ballot edge, but believes that “if 75 percent of the generic [lead] dissipates it it still plausible” that they could take the House majority.

Gersh, who frequently in past cycles has said the playing field was simply not large enough for Democrats to win back the House, now believes that with a tailwind, the party doesn’t need to broaden its target list.

“In an even year, there may not be enough marginal seats to win,” he said. “In a year when one party has an advantage you can get about two-thirds to 75 percent of the marginal seats.”

Looking at the House playing field, Democrats will need to perform at the higher end of that spectrum to have a chance at the majority.

The number of competitive seats is estimated by both sides to be — at most — 40.

A Republican-led redistricting in Texas has already delivered two seats to GOPers, and under even the most optimistic scenario Democrats lose at least two of their five endangered Members in the Lone Star State.

Outside of Texas, Democrats can ill afford to lose even a single incumbent or more than one of their 14 open seats.

Under that scenario, Democrats would bring a 16-seat deficit into their Republican open-seat and challenger races.

Seventeen House Republicans are retiring, with seven of those seats seen as potentially competitive. At most, 16 Republican Members seeking re-election can be described as endangered; Republicans have only lost nine incumbents since 1998, however.

To take back the House, Democrats would have to win 17 of those 23 competitive open-seat and challenger contests — roughly 71 percent of all endangered GOP seats.