Dems’ midterm strategy: Triage
By: Alex Isenstadt
April 18, 2014 05:06 AM EDT
House Democrats, battered by Koch brothers ads and facing a grim outlook for the midterms, are providing the clearest indication yet of how they plan to respond: By shoring up imperiled incumbents and only the most promising challengers, but most likely leaving some of the party’s upstart hopefuls to fend for themselves.
The aim of the strategy, detailed in nearly two dozen interviews with party officials and strategists, is a tacit acknowledgement of the ominous political environment Democrats are up against this year. The goal is to stop Republicans from padding their 17-seat edge and keep the party within striking distance of the majority in 2016, a presidential election year that could well be more favorable to Democrats.
On Friday, House Majority PAC, a leading Democratic super PAC and one of the biggest players in congressional races, will begin placing its first round of TV ad reservations, according to an outline first shared with POLITICO. Of the 24 districts the group is reserving commercial time in, 18 of them are occupied by party incumbents. The ads will begin running around Labor Day, when the midterm sprint begins in earnest.
Some of the reservations are intended to prop up lawmakers long seen as vulnerable, such as Massachusetts Rep. John Tierney and Minnesota Rep. Rick Nolan. But the group says it’s learned a valuable lesson from 2010, when the party waited until too late to help incumbents they believed were safe but who ended up losing. House Majority PAC will buttress several Democrats who’ve been favored to win, such as New York Rep. Dan Maffei and Florida Rep. Patrick Murphy.
Ali Lapp, the group’s executive director, said the initial investments totaled $6.5 million but that she ultimately expected to spend between $45 million and $50 million. By reserving ad time at a relatively early point in the year, she said she was laying down a marker on where her group would play in the fall.
“In a midterm election things are tough for Democrats and we’re seeing an influx of cash by the Koch brothers. It’s making things even tougher,” said Lapp, who served as a top lieutenant to then-Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel during the party’s 2006 House takeover. “We need to shore up our members who represent marginal districts.”
Operatives working with Democratic groups say they’ve been tasked with examining how much damage incumbents have incurred from a wave of attacks funded by Americans for Prosperity, a Koch brothers-funded outfit. They’ve been conducting polling much earlier in the election year than they initially anticipated.
Democrats privy to the survey data say West Virginia Rep. Nick Rahall, a 19-term incumbent who’s been pummeled by the Koch ads, now trails his Republican opponent significantly. Two other Koch targets, Arizona Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick and Ron Barber, have seen their poll numbers drop but are in better shape than Rahall.
The focus on protecting incumbents is fueling anxiety among Democratic challengers that they won’t receive campaign resources from the national party.
It’s not uncommon for the DCCC, the party’s House political arm that assesses Democratic candidates on the strength of their fundraising performance and campaign organization, to weed out underdogs. But in interviews, some of the party’s campaign veterans said they felt the committee was being far more stringent than in past years.
One candidate in a top-tier race, who requested anonymity to discuss internal conversations, said he’d been told by DCCC officials that they intended to devote resources to a sparse number of GOP-held seats and that he’d have to work to make the cut.
“There’s just this knowledge that it’s a shrinking map,” said a campaign manager for another Democratic candidate running in one of the nation’s most closely watched House races. “If you’re not meeting [their] benchmarks, they’re saying you’re not going to be in their pool of candidates.”
DCCC officials have yet to announce its TV ad reservations, but say the committee will have more than enough cash to wage a vigorous offensive in districts across the country. The committee has posted strong fundraising numbers this election, raising $17 million more than its Republican counterpart through the end of February.
Emily Bittner, a DCCC spokeswoman, said, “Democratic challengers and incumbents are primed to take on the Republican Congress that shut down our government, routinely denies women equal pay for equal work and stacks the deck for millionaires while selling out the middle class.”
Bittner declined to say whether the committee was warning candidates that it would be investing in only a small number of races. But she said the DCCC “demands high performance out of our top-tier candidates and measures our candidates against aggressive metrics.”
Lee Rogers, a Democratic candidate who the party recently placed on a list of top prospects, said he was confident the national party would be there for him. But he said it faced hard political choices.
“I think they are probably going to focus on the races that are a real possibility and pull back from some of the more fringe races, and a lot of those are drying up in the current climate,” said Rogers, a podiatrist seeking a vacant congressional seat in Southern California. “They don’t make a lot of promises to anybody.”
Many Democratic operatives, for instance, no longer think it’s possible to unseat freshman Rep. David Joyce, a Republican who occupies a swing district in northeast Ohio. After starting the 2014 election with around three dozen pickup opportunities, some strategists believe that figure is down to between 20 and 24.
On the other side are nervous incumbents who say they, not upstart challengers, should be receiving the bulk of the party’s attention. After badgering the DCCC for months for increased backing, one vulnerable member finally received the committee’s promise of field support following the party’s loss in last month’s special election in Florida’s 13th District.
“It lit a fire under them,” an aide to the vulnerable member said of the special election. ”They should hunker down, minimize their losses, and live to fight another day.”
Democrats stress that they’re still aiming to defeat a number of incumbent Republicans. House Majority PAC, for example, will target several vulnerable GOP incumbents, including New York Rep. Michael Grimm and Colorado Rep. Mike Coffman. The group says its list of offensive targets will expand in the months leading up to the midterms, as it reserves additional ad time in districts across the country.
Many Democrats argue that 2014 is shaping up to be very different from the last midterm election, when the party lost 63 seats and the House majority. While the political environment isn’t favorable, they say, it’s far less bleak than it was in 2010. Unlike that year, they say, when Democrats were totally relegated to playing defense, this year offers them some solid offensive prospects.
“This is a completely different cycle from 2010. In 2010, the map kept expanding [for Republicans] and that’s just not the case this time,” said Robby Mook, a former DCCC executive director. “This is not going to be a wave election.”
Some Democrats say the party is adopting a “hold the line” approach: focus on helping incumbents get reelected, limit losses and look toward 2016, which could be a much more favorable year for Democrats.
“If we can hold the gains from 2012, we can win the House in 2016,” said Steve Murphy, a Democratic strategist who is working on a number of House races. “Holding our 2012 gains would be a huge victory for Democrats this year.”
That most likely means a number of hopefuls will be on their own this fall.
New Jersey Democrat Bill Hughes is running for a Jersey Shore-based congressional seat that might be winnable in a good year for his party. But 2014 isn’t shaping up that way and Hughes, an attorney and son of a former congressman, knows he might be without the national party’s help.
“I have to plan [on] running my campaign on my own,” he said. “And that’s what I was planning on all along.”