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House Democrats Begin Long Soul-Searching Process

Party is optimistic about making gains in 2018

Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., center, talks with Mark Froemke, right, and Wayne Fleischhacker, of the AFL-CIO, during a fish fry and fundraiser at the Northland Arboretum in Baxter, Minn., last month. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., center, talks with Mark Froemke, right, and Wayne Fleischhacker, of the AFL-CIO, during a fish fry and fundraiser at the Northland Arboretum in Baxter, Minn., last month. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

After President-elect Donald Trump’s surprising victory, congressional Democrats are now beginning what’s likely to be a long process of soul-searching about what didn’t work this year — and what they need to do better to pick up seats in 2018. 

The diagnosis was apparent even before Hillary Clinton had conceded last week: She didn’t do well enough in competitive districts to lift Democratic recruits. And members have begun to internalize the fact that anti-Trump messaging didn’t work in as many places as they thought it might. 

“There is that old adage that I think is still true: All politics is local,” Massachusetts Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III said on his way out of a caucus meeting at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee on Wednesday.

Along with members-elect, Democratic lawmakers gathered with DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Luján and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for a post-election assessment. It was partially a listening and learning session, with leadership opening up most of the time for questions and comments. 

Minnesota Rep. Rick Nolan’s been hearing the same question a lot these days: “How did you do that?” His campaign estimates that 58,000 voters in Minnesota’s 8th District split their ticket between him and Trump. That allowed Nolan to win the district by less than a point, while Trump won by an estimated 16 points. 

The Democratic-Farmer-Labor congressman spoke up in Wednesday’s meeting about the economic anxiety many white, middle-class Americans are feeling for the first time and how that may have driven them from the party.

“Democrats need to acknowledge that anxiety that is out there and then put together a message that gets us back to where we were. But in a way that’s inclusive for everybody,” Nolan said. “And if we do that, we’ll win.”

Nolan’s was the most expensive House race in the country, attracting millions of dollars in outside spending. He doesn’t fault House Democratic leadership for this year’s failures in other districts. “It was at the top of the ticket,” he said.

Fixing trade

“To just run an anti-Trump campaign as opposed to, ‘Here we are, here’s our fix to these trade deals,’” Nolan said.

Trade is an especially important issue in Nolan’s district, which is home to the mining region known as the Iron Range, and many of the working-class Rust-Belt regions in which Democrats underperformed.

“I’m for trade, but not this free trade. It’s gotta be fair trade. And Trump seems to have gotten that. And the American people got that,” said Nolan, who backed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries. He thinks Clinton’s about-face on the Trans-Pacific Partnership had a lasting impact.

“People didn’t just fall off the turnip truck. They understood what was going on there,” he said.

What Nolan did — pick and choose the parts of the national party message that resonated in his district — is what more candidates need to do, some members said Wednesday.

It comes down to where seats are won and lost.

“A lot of the messaging that comes out of the DCCC — some of the members and I’ve said years ago — is that you can’t use that in your district,” said Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar.

“My question to them is, ‘Hey, I’ll work with liberals, but again, keep in mind, that there are not liberal-leaning seats out there that Republicans hold that we need to win to win the majority,’” he said.

The Trump factor

The DCCC went into the election believing that Trump’s presumed toxicity would help them pick off swing and red districts, and they tailored anti-Trump messages to salient policy issues in specific districts.

In at least eight districts Lujan cited as examples, tying down-ballot Republicans to Trump helped move the race in Democrats’ direction, Luján said. Several members in Wednesday’s briefing pointed to California Republican Darrell Issa’s close race (which had not been called at press time) as an additional indication that the strategy worked.

And yet, Democrats lost six of the eight races Luján cited. The ones they did win were Illinois’ heavily Democratic 10th District and Florida’s 7th District, where longtime GOP Rep. John L. Mica was caught unprepared in a redrawn district. 

In Virginia’s 10th District, a moderate suburban seat that’s swung between the parties during the last two presidential elections, Luján argued they had no other option than to nationalize the race — and it looked like it was working.

Leadership told members Wednesday that GOP freshman Rep. Barbara Comstock and Democratic challenger LuAnn Bennett were tied a week after the release of the 2005 “Access Hollywood” recording. Comstock regained her advantage after FBI Director James Comey wrote to Congress about the discovery of new emails potentially related to the investigation of Clinton’s private server, and the national environment tightened again.

Democrats were never going to pick up the 30 seats needed for a House majority. Even the most optimistic projections heading into Election Day had them picking up less than half that amount. But the DCCC maintains that in at least eight districts, like Maine’s 2nd District and Nebraska’s 2nd, Comey’s letter had an effect. 

In some places, House races were nationalized — just not in the direction Democrats had expected. As Speaker Paul D. Ryan said the day after the election, Trump pushed many Republicans over the finish line.

House Democrats are optimistic that historical tradition will be on their side in 2018. The party that controls the White House typically loses seats in the midterms. And that means Democrats will again be linking House Republicans to Trump, as they already did this week, using Tuesday’s distribution of “Make America Great Again” caps to the GOP conference to try to hold them accountable for Trump’s transition hires. 

Lindsey McPherson and Rema Rahman contributed to this report.