Giddy Dems’ new strategy: Watch the GOP implode
By: Edward-Isaac Dovere and Carrie Budoff Brown
June 12, 2014 05:00 AM EDT
Democratic operatives were just as surprised as everyone else by Eric Cantor’s defeat — but now they’re trying to figure out how to make the most of it.
The early thinking: Stay out of the GOP’s way.
Virginia’s 7th Congressional District probably isn’t going their way, regardless of the Republican candidate switch. But operatives planning for the midterms believe they can turn Tuesday’s surprising tea party resurgence into something much bigger.
They see the attention to the defeat as another cut at the House Republicans as extremists, a new way to highlight congressional dysfunction, a chance to pump more GOP distrust into the Latino voters Democrats are hoping to turn out in force in November, an argument that Republicans are in much worse shape than they’ve purported to be.
Of course, Democrats have seemed to seize the momentum many times before, only to lose it — though never worse than when the buoyancy of winning on the shutdown immediately disappeared into the Obamacare website launch.
But on this one, they feel like Republicans are doing the work for them.
There wasn’t a Cantor-based strategy session Wednesday with White House political director David Simas, and there isn’t one planned. Staffers at the various Democratic campaign committees spent the day reveling in the results and chattering about it among themselves, but not in any formal way.
Party operatives think they can count on at least two weeks of Republicans languishing, until June 24. That’s when Chris McDaniel will be looking to bring down Sen. Thad Cochran in the Mississippi GOP run-off, while in the Colorado gubernatorial primary, voters will pick between two former House Republicans: Tom Tancredo, the anti-immigration reform leader who’s ahead in the polls and Bob Beauprez, whom Cantor endorsed.
And all the while, House Republicans will be twisting through their own internal fight ahead of the June 19 majority leader election.
“At a certain point, Republicans will need a hand” making problems for themselves, said one Democratic strategist working on the midterms. “That moment is not now.”
Neither Obama nor any House or Senate candidate is likely to say either Cantor’s name or Brat’s much between now and November — the president on Wednesday referred only to “an interesting election” at a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee fundraiser Wednesday night, launching into a defense of what he insisted were the still-alive chances of immigration reform.
“At a certain point issues are important enough to fight for. My argument about yesterday’s election is not that there was too little politics — there was too little conviction about what was right,” Obama said.
After all, strategists don’t expect most voters knew there was a primary in Virginia this week — or will care what the results were by next month, let alone by the fall.
But they do think the conversation Cantor’s loss sparked in the coverage has helped feed a larger sense of Republican extremism and obstructionism.
“Dave Brat is not a brand. The Republican lurch to the right is a brand,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (D-N.Y.). “The Brat win is Exhibit A in our argument, but there are lots of exhibits to our argument. It accelerates the GOP’s move to the right.”
“Cantor lost because he wasn’t extreme enough, and that’s the direction of the Republican Party,” said Stephanie Cutter, Obama’s deputy campaign manager in 2012. “These larger narratives of the party getting pulled to the right is something the Republicans need to be worried about.”
Until about 7:40 p.m. on Tuesday, the conventional wisdom had been that the Republican establishment had gotten the tea party under control, and the focus was on Obama’s problems. The election had been cast as a referendum on the president. Now, Democrats say they think they’ve got fodder to make the argument that November will be a referendum on Washington: The president is still a big part of that — but Cantor’s loss should be a reminder that Republicans are, too.
“From a party perspective, it’s always nice to see infighting from the opposition,” said Colorado Democratic Chairman Rick Palacio, who’s got his eyes on the Beauprez-Tancredo race, as well as Rep. Cory Gardner’s run against Sen. Mark Udall. “Colorado voters look to Washington and they see dysfunction, and they see the Republican Party being obstructionist and then shutting things down when they don’t get what they want.”
And the renewed GOP infighting appears to just be beginning.
“Tonight, liberal establishment politician Eric Cantor was crushed in his Republican Primary because of his vote to fully fund Obamacare,” read an email from Long Island congressional candidate George Demos, pointing out that Cantor was scheduled to head to the swing district Saturday to campaign for Lee Zeldin, not known for being much of a moderate himself.
“Lamar, You’re Next!” read a fundraising email from Tennessee Republican Joe Carr, who’s hoping to knock out Lamar Alexander. “Make no mistake: this isn’t a fluke in Virginia. And it’s not a fluke in Mississippi.”
That will be a major part of the Democratic argument for the House races, and for Senate races too, with six GOP House members running in Montana, West Virginia, Louisiana, Arkansas, Colorado and Georgia (where Rep. Jack Kingston is running strong in the run-off). Polls show voters saying that a Washington Republican is the worst thing a candidate can be: their numbers are lower than they’ve ever been — and far below Obama’s.
Already, people familiar with internal Democratic polling say it shows that whenever Obama rails against “Congress,” people tend to hear “Republicans.”
“The narrative has changed,” said Democratic National Committee communications director Mo Elleithee. “To the extent that this election is a referendum on who has broken Washington and left the middle class twisting in the wind, the spotlight is focused squarely on House Republicans.”
“From the Democratic perspective, it goes to the heart of the contrast between Democrats and Republicans” on economic issues and which party will fight for the middle class, said Obama pollster Joel Benenson. “That is something Democrats in tough districts and swing districts should be able to run on and capitalize on.”
Benenson pointed to the 2012 presidential election, which he described as a contrast of visions and values — and which the Democrat won.
“The fundamental weakness in the Republican brand is their obstructionism, that they’re hellbent on blocking everything. There is a lot of frustration with Washington and Washington politics,” he said. “That is why Republicans have the most tarnished brand.”
That’s exactly what Cantor tried to warn about Wednesday afternoon at the Capitol, in his first public comments since his concession speech.
“There’s a stack of bills sitting in the Senate that shows House Republicans do get things done. We get a lot done. And our priority is building an America that works for the middle-class families who are struggling in this country,” he said, urging Republicans to “put minor differences aside and help elect a Republican House and Senate.”
But the most direct and lasting effects of the Cantor loss, Democrats say, are likely to be on the mechanics behind the campaigns.
Much of the money backing Republican candidates this year is going to come from outside groups. Cantor was his conference’s biggest fundraiser on Wall Street and among the pro-Israel community — and Democrats believe that money will dry up, both because Cantor’s gone, and because those donors will now be more wary of believing that House Republicans aren’t beholden to the tea party.
And for the insider game, Democratic operatives think the people paying the most attention to the campaigns will remember what turned out to be a 44 percent margin of error in the Cantor-Brat polling. And even if they don’t remember, operatives will make sure to remind them of it every time there’s a new GOP poll that shows their candidate ahead, arguing that Republicans either don’t have the data or are lying about what it is.
“The Republican apparatus, which is designed to give people the impression that they are ahead, took a big hit,” said DSCC deputy executive director Matt Canter. “It matters to the chattering class. It matters to the media. It matters to donors. And it matters to press back home, which means it matters to voters.”