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What Really Happened in the House

After an election, the winners often gloat and the losers look for excuses and point their fingers.

Almost inevitably, both sides overreact. Some losers see the sky falling, while too many winners (and their press people) draw exaggerated conclusions about their brilliance and about the voters’ messages.

In the days following the 2012 elections, I received a slew of emails, including from the Republican Party of Sarasota County, Fla., the Democratic Governors Association, a number of political consulting firms and both the Democratic and Republican House campaign committees, bragging about the results or taking credit for the outcomes.

Yes, I know that modesty and humility are not highly valued personal attributes these days, but all of the spinning and self-promotion still makes me nauseated.

I thought it unfortunate that, the morning of Election Day, the National Republican Congressional Committee decided to take a shot at House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel of New York, mocking their admittedly silly assessments that Democrats would, or at least had a good chance to, win back the House.

It was simply bad form for the NRCC to brag about a result before it happened, and NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions of Texas at one point during the cycle said he expected his party would gain an additional 16 seats, an equally silly thing to say.

But whatever disappointment I felt about the NRCC’s gloating was quickly dispelled after I saw press releases from the DCCC and a statement from Pelosi that sounded as if House Democrats had been successful in 2012.

“House Democrats succeeded last night in rolling back the Tea Party wave of 2010,” bragged one odd DCCC press release the day after the elections.

Another DCCC release, titled “NRCC #Fails,” portrayed the NRCC as “shocked” that its “top challengers … fell flat,” clearly implying again that election night was a bad one for the NRCC.

Then, this newspaper reported about a Pelosi email to Democratic members talking about the party’s “success” in the House elections.

Let me set the record straight.

First, Democrats did not “roll back” the tea party wave. They defeated only three members of the Tea Party Caucus: Joe Walsh in Illinois and Roscoe G. Bartlett in Maryland, both because of redistricting by Democrat-controlled state legislatures, and Allen B. West in Florida, who ran in a dramatically new district (and is thus far refusing to concede). Democratic candidates also prevailed over liberal Republicans such as Richard Tisei in Massachusetts and Andrew Roraback in Connecticut, both of whom would have voted relatively often with Democrats. They didn’t defeat tea party conservatives such as Reps. Mike Coffman of Colorado, Steve King of Iowa or Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who were high-priority targets.

Second, 2012 was not a success for House Democrats.

At the same time that President Barack Obama was winning a second term and Senate Democrats were winning 25 of 33 races (for a gain of two seats), House Democrats were falling well short of winning back the House, gaining a modest seven or eight seats — not the 25 seats that they started the cycle hoping to win.

Yes, as one DCCC release noted, House Democrats gained seats by winning a disproportionate number of close races and avoiding the ignominy of a net loss, which seemed possible a week before. (In fact, they may win all eight of the closest races, which shows just how close they were to a disastrous election cycle.)

But unless you think avoiding a worst-case scenario constitutes victory, there is no way to see last week’s results as anything close to a House Democratic success.

One Democratic press release on Nov. 9, “House Election 2012 Victory: by the Numbers,” offered a series of numbers to show how House Democrats allegedly reversed “the Tea Party wave.”

Included in the list were the number of Republican incumbents defeated in 2008 (14) and the number defeated last week (16). The clear intention of the release was to suggest that Democrats did better in 2012 than they did in 2008, a big Democratic year.

In fact, the DCCC did much better in 2008 than it did last week. There is almost no comparison. In 2008, Democrats gained 21 seats, giving them a total of 257 seats. Last week Democrats gained seven or eight seats, or a total of 200 or 201 seats in the House.

Part of the reason that Democrats defeated more Republican incumbents in 2012 than in 2008 was that, after the GOP wave of 2010 (when the party netted 63 seats), there were so many more Republican incumbents seeking re-election. Republican incumbent losses were relatively small in 2008 because so many Republican incumbents had lost two years earlier, in 2006.

Third, while the DCCC mocked the NRCC for the defeats of “top tier” candidates such as Ricky Gill in California, Mia Love in Utah and Tisei, the DCCC apparently forgot about the defeat of its own heavily hyped candidates who lost, including Christie Vilsack in Iowa, Val Demings in Florida and Jose Hernandez in California.

I certainly don’t blame the DCCC for failing to win back the House this year. Democrats never really had a chance to net 25 seats. I thought the committee’s independent expenditure ads were good, and though the Medicare and Ryan budget ads didn’t prove as effective as Democratic strategists hoped, hammering Republicans on those issues was a reasonable strategy.

So how should House Democrats feel about the 2012 elections? Relieved.

They should be relieved that they won most of the close races and that their gains weren’t even smaller. And they should be relieved that most of the attention was on the White House and the terrific night that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee had, netting two more seats and expanding the party’s majority in the Senate.

Feeling relieved isn’t the same thing as feeling as if you were victorious. But it isn’t such a bad thing either.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report (

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