A Conversation With Democratic Strategist Kelly Ward
Ex-DCCC executive director looks back on 2016 election
While the race for the 2018 midterms has effectively kicked off (Inside Elections and Roll Call have released initial race ratings for both the House and Senate), some of us are also still analyzing the 2016 election results.
I recently sat down with Kelly Ward, the former executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, to get her take on how November went for the party and specifically for House Democrats. In December, she announced she was leaving the group for a new Democratic redistricting effort.
Here’s the first part of a video of the interview. Part two will follow Wednesday.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Nathan Gonzales: What is something you might have done differently, as executive director of this committee?
Kelly Ward: Sure. It’s a good question and something I’ve thought a lot about and I think as the ED and just also as Democrats, part of what we really needed to do was to accept the reality that [Donald Trump] really could win. Someone in a meeting used the phrase “failure of imagination” and I think that is a really good phrase. I think that’s what it was. In some ways, we didn’t really accept that it was possible and didn’t really let ourselves believe — intuitively, internally — that it was something that could happen and decisions and behaviors sort of fell from that.
NG: Do you think the committee misunderstood Trump or his appeal and how would you rate the accuracy of the data that you were seeing throughout this cycle?
KW: A campaign is about trying to meet voters where they are and when you talked to voters in 2016, where they were and what they were thinking about was Donald Trump. That is a statement of fact — that voters viewed this election through the lens of Donald Trump. And so, what we were trying to do was put the House races in that context to help voters understand there is Donald Trump in the national election, and how to think about Congress and your House Republicans in that context. And I think that was the right strategy because, again, the races are nationalized. The voters were thinking about the election through the lens of Donald Trump.
District by district, we didn’t talk about Donald Trump everywhere. We talked about Donald Trump in key races where that was the best district-by-district strategy for how to connect to voters, and provide a message, and provide a contrast to the House Republican. I think the overall strategy of putting these races in the national context was right.
Now, the thing that was different was Donald Trump won. Had Hillary Clinton won, I think, we would have picked up a lot of seats, more so than we even did. She did win in some districts where we won, in some districts where we lost, but the notion of trying to fit the House race into a nationalized environment is right. And that is what we, as a party, I think need to be doing, generally.
The thing to know about campaigns and about House races that is very clear when you look back at the 2016 election is that campaigns are always about a meta-narrative. They are always about one big thing at the end of the day. The elections are about one major thing and in 2016, it was still about change. It was an election about change and voters were willing to even give Donald Trump, someone who is so awful on so many levels, a pass because they wanted change so badly and that is the piece that I think we failed to really appreciate.
The second point, to your question about data, is ironically, there has been a lot of coverage in the postelection about how the data was wrong, but when you look at the data, the signs are there. The data itself wasn’t as off as it has been in previous cycles. It’s just that we all — again, back to the failure of imagination — we failed to see it or we wrote it off. You can one-off or explain things away and I think there was probably too much of that — not just from Democrats, but from Republicans and from the media.
NG: In 16 years of doing this, I don’t think I’ve seen the public criticism of the committee, on the Democratic side. The National Republican Congressional Committee went through some infighting when they were losing elections. But we are talking about a handful of [Democratic] members who were pretty vocal in their critique of how the committee handled the election. What’s the tangible impact of a committee broadening the playing field and focusing on districts that are long shots, if not worse. What’s the tangible impact as the committee starts to focus on those races as well as the natural toss-ups?
KW: Sure. Well, I always call it the arc of the campaign. The cycle goes through an arc and one of the first steps on that arc is candidate recruitment and it is right to recruit deep. It is absolutely the right strategy to — and we did this and have done this in every cycle, at least since I have been paying attention to the DCCC — you have got to recruit deep and you have to find candidates in as many districts as you possibly can and I think that the DCCC is doing that again this cycle with the list of 59 potentially targeted races that they released a few weeks ago. You have to get as many candidates on the playing field as possible. It’s right to do if you are in a wave environment in your favor. It’s right to do if you are in a wave environment against you. So, recruiting deep is the right strategy, and then you have to see how the campaign plays out to know which of those candidates are legitimate and which ones maybe fell by the wayside for whatever reason — which districts are competitive that particular cycle, which ones aren’t.
NG: Let’s look ahead. You are moving into a new role, leading the
National Democratic Redistricting Committee …
KW: That’s right.
NG: … I had to get all the words right. I’ve been around long enough that I remember Impact2000 …
NG: … I remember in 2010, it was called the National Democratic Redistricting Trust; we know how well that round of reapportionment went for Democrats. How is this group going to be different?
KW: We are the only entity, the only entity, that is focused on redistricting a hundred percent of the time, at least in the Democratic Party infrastructure. That is our job, to look at the map with a redistricting lens and to identify where are the targeted districts, gubernatorial races, legislative districts, targeted elections where
Democrats can win, so we can be at the table when the redistricting process happens in five years.
Part of what happened last time — both a combination of luck and strategy on the Republican side — is that Democrats were just straight-up walked out of the process and I think what we want to do is to get Democrats back at the table to win races between now and 2021 so that we have Democrats at the table, ready to influence the process to help draw the maps and through that, we think we will get better outcomes, more fair outcomes, and we will un-rig this lock on the map that the Republicans created. That’s what we are trying to do and the reason we are different is because we have a partisan goal, to a more fair outcome, which is we want to elect Democrats and get Democrats at the table and we are looking at the map through the lens of redistricting to say: “OK, that gubernatorial race is really important for a redistricting outcome. This legislative seat or flipping this particular chamber is a national priority.” Because it’s how we are going to pick up seats in Congress and get the House back once redistricting happens.