House Democrats are calling for a major reassessment of how the party runs and attempts to win campaigns after Tuesday’s stunning setbacks that left them at least four seats farther away from the majority.
Throughout the Caucus Wednesday, Members were shaking their heads at the results, which left them at a 201-231 disadvantage to majority Republicans. The losses included five incumbents, four of whom were casualties of the GOP-drawn Texas redistricting map.
Democrats said no one is to blame for the outcome, nor did they believe their leadership should be replaced as a result. But they added that changes must be made in how they approach and win elections.
“We have to do some serious evaluation,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. “We all have to sit down as Democrats and evaluate very carefully what went right and what went wrong.
“We need to have a come-to-Jesus meeting.”
A Democratic leadership aide said that in the coming days, leaders will likely sit down to take stock of the election and figure out how to proceed in the next cycle. That conversation will be followed up by discussions with the Caucus as a whole, this staffer noted.
“Clearly we need to do a damage assessment,” said the aide. “We need to look at where we did poorly, but also where we did well and assess and identify our weaknesses and strengths.”
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), who barnstormed the country and raised record amounts of money for Democratic candidates this cycle, conceded Wednesday that the party did not fare as she had expected. But she added, “We held our own given what else was going on out there.”
Pelosi, who spoke with reporters later and on a conference call with about 100 Democratic Members, said the House losses did not come down to differences between the parties on key issues. Rather, she pointed to the uphill battle of Texas redistricting, the overshadowing of the presidential race on the House message and the GOP’s exploitation of cultural “wedge” issues such as gay rights in key races in conservative districts.
“We were in a tough playing field — you knew that, we knew that,” she said.
Pelosi said no party “soul searching” is necessary in the wake of the election, but Democrats will be looking at how better to educate and inform voters about their priorities next cycle.
She said that with a party message in place, no presidential election in play and the Texas redistricting battle behind it, the party will “be in better shape” for the upcoming midterm election, which comes at a time when, historically, the party out of the White House tends to make gains.
Pelosi also acknowledged the next cycle may hold greater responsibilities for her personally, as she wrestles with the idea of becoming the leading Congressional Democrat. Minority Leader Tom Daschle (S.D.) failed to win his re-election bid on Tuesday, meaning that Pelosi is likely to be called on to lead the party message both nationally and in Washington.
“I’m ready for that,” Pelosi said.
Pelosi, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.), Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) and Vice Chairman Jim Clyburn (S.C.) have all said they would stand for a second term in their current leadership posts, regardless of the Nov. 2 outcome. Members and aides said Wednesday that the leadership did the best it could under the circumstances, and they do not expect anyone to be thrown out based on the outcome of the election.
“I don’t think they can be blamed,” insisted Rep. Albert Wynn (D-Md.). “I don’t think Democrats should get involved in the blame game. But we do need to look at changes we need to make as a party.”
“It was not a banner day for us,” he continued. “What we have to do is have a top-to-bottom reassessment of what went wrong. We need to look at everything from the mechanics to the message — everything — to see how we can improve.”
Democratic sources said Wednesday that while they believe the party has the right approach on many of the issues, they are not doing an effective job reaching out across the country and communicating to voters in rural and conservative regions of America. The party, they suggested, is too focused on what happens in the halls of Congress, rather than what resonates in the rest of the country.
“We have to do this tactically,” said a senior Democratic staffer. “We have to do it by going into those competitive districts with what is happening on the ground there, and not by what we think are important issues, based on what is happening here in Washington.”
Another Democratic leadership aide said that if Democrats don’t start penetrating the “red” states, they will never win back the House. In this cycle, the aide said, the leadership had to spend its resources to protect its incumbents, many of whom are in the blue states.
“We can’t win anymore by just focusing on the blues,” said the staffer. “There’s no way.”
Beyond that, some party insiders said the Democrats simply didn’t compete in the money game, noting that the Republican Party spent significantly more than the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee on independent expenditures to help candidates this cycle.
Overall the DCCC raised $80 million this cycle, $30 million of which Pelosi collected. Of that, Members contributed $23 million — short of the $25 million party goal and a level that was disappointing to House leaders.
“Money is the critical component here,” said a knowledgeable Democratic aide. “Without money, you cannot fight back, you can’t go on the offense. We did raise record numbers of money, but we also need to look at how Members contributed from their own campaign accounts.”
While Democrats’ views vary on the specific course to take next cycle, one Democratic strategist noted: “Pelosi would be crazy to just do more of the same.”
Members and staffers agreed that the changes are likely to begin with the DCCC and its next chairman. Current Chairman Robert Matsui (Calif.) has all but said publicly he plans to step down after this cycle, and likely replacements could be Reps. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), Mike Thompson (Calif.) or Jan Schakowsky (Ill.).
Cummings said whatever approach the party takes, it “has got to be done with precision. We got to look at this like we are doing surgery on a heart — the heart of the Democratic Party. We got to see where the blockage is and clear it up.”