This week’s Democratic retreat was supposed to be an opportunity for House Democrats to fine-tune their message ahead of the November midterm elections.
But House Democrats’ most prominent messenger — and Republicans’ favorite boogeywoman — stole the spotlight, without even attending the major sessions of the opening day of the retreat.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi took to the House floor Wednesday to tell the stories of “Dreamers,” undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, and didn’t stop for eight hours.
She said she wouldn't support a two-year budget deal brokered in the Senate without a commitment from Speaker Paul D. Ryan to consider immigration legislation that would address the legal status of Dreamers. She broke the record for the longest-ever floor speech.
Watch: Pelosi Holds House Floor Seeking DACA Commitment From Ryan
With the prospect of another government shutdown looming, House Democrats late on Tuesday moved their annual retreat from Cambridge, Maryland, to the Capitol complex. The party’s top brass leaned into the location change on Wednesday, blaming it on Republicans’ inability to govern and using it to argue that the American people should entrust them with the majority.
“We’re here today because Republicans continue to show they cannot lead this country,” Caucus Vice Chairwoman Linda T. Sánchez said at the retreat’s opening press conference.
It felt more like a regular leadership press event, held in a familiar Capitol Hill location, except that the party’s top two leaders, Pelosi and Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, weren’t there.
At that point, Pelosi had been holding the floor for nearly four hours. The National Republican Congressional Committee quickly seized on Pelosi’s speech, calling her “the gift that keeps on giving for the NRCC.”
“I can only say one thing: go, Nancy, go,” NRCC communications director Matt Gorman said in a statement.
The Pelosi factor
Republicans have pounced on Pelosi’s comments about the benefits of the tax law representing “crumbs” to the average American. Footage of the minority leader referring to the tax plan as “crumbs” or “Armageddon” have become ubiquitous in every press release and ad touting the GOP tax plan.
In the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District — the first congressional matchup of the midterm election year — Republicans are pounding the Democratic nominee as a Pelosi disciple.
It’s the same message used against Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff last year and most Democratic candidates in last year’s special elections. Republican outside groups, namely the Congressional Leadership Fund — the super PAC backed by House GOP leadership — have committed to spending millions tying House Democrats and their recruits to Pelosi.
Although Pelosi is a prolific fundraiser, there’s long been hunger among some rank-and-file members for a leadership change. Those calls were especially loud after the 2016 elections, when Democrats netted only six House seats, and after Ossoff lost the most expensive House race in history last June.
Ever since Democrats’ disappointing 2016, party leaders have stressed the importance of returning to an economic message that connects with the working-class voters Trump won. There’s been much agreement about the need for a strong message heading into November, but sometimes conflicting iterations of that message.
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Democrats need to gain 24 seats to win the House. To do that, they’re going after wealthier, suburban districts that 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton carried. Twenty-three Republicans represent districts Clinton carried.
But in an effort to expand the map, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is also targeting seats Trump took by less than 50 percent of the vote, as well as some deep red territory. That includes districts Trump carried by high double-digit margins.
Meanwhile, Democrats are defending a handful of districts Trump carried. Seven of the DCCC’s Frontline members, who represent the party’s most vulnerable, are sitting in Trump districts. Democrats are also trying to hold on to competitive open seats in districts Trump carried in Nevada, New Hampshire and Minnesota.
Biding their time
Asked whom they wanted to hear from at their retreat, Caucus Chairman Joseph Crowley said most members mentioned someone like former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. And so, he joked, the caucus decided to bring in the real deal.
Pelosi was still talking about immigration when Biden arrived later that afternoon to address the caucus in the Capitol Visitor Center.
Biden delivered a positive message about Democrats’ chances of retaking the House and said he’d do whatever they ask of him to help in that endeavor.
Energy is at the Democrats’ back. Historically, the party out of control of the White House traditionally picks up seats in midterms. This cycle’s Democratic challengers are raising significant money. More than 50 Democratic challengers have outraised GOP incumbents in competitive races.
On the eve of the Democratic retreat, a Democrat won a Missouri state House special election in a district Trump carried by nearly 30 points. It’s the 35th state legislative seat Democrats have flipped in the 2018 cycle. The party has been energized by down-ballot wins in Virginia and New Jersey last November. And although the Alabama special election was a unique situation, strategist say it taught the party some tactical lessons about mobilizing minority voters.
Biden pointed to those victories in New Jersey, Virginia and Alabama. And he name-dropped Conor Lamb, the Democratic nominee in Pennsylvania’s special election, prompting applause from House Democrats. Last June, when Democrat Archie Parnell was running in a similarly red district in South Carolina, some of the members most involved in the DCCC didn’t even know who he was.
Chewing gum and walking
The chatter around Pennsylvania’s 18th District right now is another sign Democrats are trying to expand the House battlefield.
“The Red to Blue team here knows he has a real chance of winning,” Biden said, alluding to the DCCC’s efforts to flip GOP-held seats.
Biden criticized Trump at length, as well as Republicans who he said are only looking out for the president. But he warned Democrats against getting distracted.
He spoke especially forcefully about what he called a “false choice” between fighting for socially progressive values and delivering a message of economic security for the middle class.
He also cautioned Democrats against losing sight of their own message when responding to the president.
“We are so concerned with stopping the attack on American values,” he said, that the party has sometimes had trouble “getting back to the real work.”
“We’ve got to start hollering more loudly for those folks out there,” he said of working-class Americans. “We ought to be able to chew gum and walk at the same time.”
“Go out and holler guys, go out and holler!” he told the crowd.