The Dems’ Plan to Hold Congress

Democrats and Republicans don’t agree on much these days. But lately it seems that they’ve been willing to set aside their vast, irreconcilable differences and publicly concur on at least one thing: that the Democrats are going to do really, really badly in November’s midterm elections.

In April, for example, House Minority Leader John Boehner, Republican of Ohio, told National Public Radio’s Morning Edition that the 2010 “playing field” is wider than “anything we’ve seen around here during my 20 years,” with “at least 100 seats” up for grabs. “There isn’t a seat in America that Republicans can’t win,” Boehner boasted. (No word yet on whether he beat his chest with his fists King Kong–style while doing it.)

The Democrats, meanwhile, have made it their duty to match the GOP’s grandiosity with an equal measure of glumness. Reached separately this week in Washington, officials from the Democratic National Committee, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee repeated the same robotic talking points. Historically, the president almost always loses seats in the first midterm elections after he enters office, they said. Add in the sagging economy and the anti-incumbent sentiment out there, and it’s going to be an extremely tough year for Democrats.

(The press, for what it’s worth, agrees as well. Charlie Cook, Washington’s wizard of electoral predictions, puts 62 Democratic House seats and nine Democratic Senate seats in the “lean” or “toss-up” columns—that is, just enough to flip control of both chambers of Congress to the Republicans, provided everything breaks their way.)

Case closed, right? The Democrats are “going down.” Well, not quite. In politics, winning may the most important thing, but managing expectations is a close second. What’s really happening here is that the Dems are downplaying their chances in November for the same reason Barack Obama’s campaign team compared Sarah Palin to every orator short of Cicero in the run-up to her 2008 debate against Joe Biden: political results are only as useful as they are unexpected. Dig a little deeper at the DNC, DSCC, and DCCC, and you’ll find that the Democrats in charge are actually rather confident about getting their fellow Dems elected this year. The reason? They have a plan—a plan that they believe will produce much better results on Election Day than anyone expects.  

So what’s the plan? And will it work?

The first part of the scheme involves the man at the top, whom readers might remember as the (somewhat successful) manager of Obama’s improbable 2008 campaign: Mr. David Plouffe. A boyish, buzzcut logistical whiz, Plouffe departed Obamaland after the election in order to write books, give speeches, and make money. But after Martha Coakley lost to Republican Scott Brown in January’s Massachusetts Senate special election, Obama asked Plouffe—who was always to supposed to assist with the 2010 midterm effort—to take on an expanded role. Since then, he’s been communicating “daily” with the DNC about campaign strategy. Plouffe isn’t on the DNC’s payroll, nor does he work at the White House. He doesn’t answer to anyone but Obama. As such, he’s the only person on the Democratic side with the power to “make the gears move more efficiently,” as Marc Ambinder has put it—to sharpen the message, to tweak the field operation, to decide where best to deploy the president. All from 35,000 feet.

Plouffe’s main goal, though, is to focus on turning out the 15 million people who voted for the first time in 2008—an effort that Democrats believe could wind up affecting the outcome of many of this year’s 70-odd contested races. After the 2008 election, the Obama field operation, Obama for America, was renamed Organizing for America and folded into the DNC. All of its electoral assets—the 13 million–name e-mail list, the hundreds of thousands of volunteers and “community organizers,” the precision Internet tools—came along with it. Now Plouffe & Co. plan to bring those resources to bear on getting 2008’s newbies back to the polls.

The math is pretty simple. Typically, only hard-core base voters and committed partisans vote in the midterms. But in the special and general elections held since 2008, the DNC has overseen an 8 point jump in the number of new voters casting ballots for Democrats (as compared with the last midterm elections in 2006). In a state like, say, Ohio, where there were 763,000 first-time voters in 2008, this increase would translate to a boost of 2 or 3 percentage points in November. “Given how close many of the races are going to be, we think it will be a very late election night,” says OFA executive director Mitch Stewart. “We’re not going to generate 10 or 15 points for our candidates. But in races where we’re at 47, 48 percent, OFA’s efforts could make the difference.

Still, the Democrats face a sizable enthusiasm gap heading into November, with Republicans leading Dems 43 percent to 33 percent among “very enthusiastic” voters in the latest polls. That’s where messaging comes in. According to the House and Senate campaign committees, the 2010 mantra for Democrats will be “keep it local.” While Republicans hammer away at national themes targeted at right-wing activists—Obama’s “socialist” insurance reforms or the size of the stimulus—Democrats plan to focus on bread-and-butter regional concerns like jobs and … well, jobs.

In the only general election of 2010—that is, last month’s House special in Pennsylvania’s  swingy 12th Congressional District—Republican Tim Burns framed the contest as a “referendum on the Obama-Pelosi agenda.” Democrat Mark Critz, meanwhile, took the opposite tack, slamming his businessman rival for outsourcing jobs and telling voters that as “a local guy that's running for a seat” he couldn’t “really concern [him]self with national issues.” Critz won 53 percent to 45 percent—surprising everyone except for the DCCC.

Dems are also relying on luck to play a part on Election Day. They see the sudden prevalence of Tea Party challengers in Republican primaries around the country as something that will ultimately help their candidates win over moderates. The thinking goes like this: if a Tea Partier captures the nomination (as Rand Paul did in Kentucky), it will drive centrists toward the Democrat in the general; if a Tea Partier loses (as J. D. Hayworth is likely to do in Arizona), it still will have forced the winner (i.e., John McCain) further right than he wanted to go.

Moreover, Dems believe that their poll numbers will continue to improve along with the economy. A recent New York Times/CBS News survey, for example, showed that 84 percent of voters think the economy is “getting better” or “staying the same”—up from 53 percent in February—versus only 15 percent who think it’s getting worse. Meanwhile, Democrats lead by 6 points (42–36) on the generic congressional ballot, reversing a 5 point Republican lead (44–39) from March, and 44 percent of voters now approve of how the president is handling the economy (up 5 percent over the same period). If the current trends continue, convincing first-time voters to return to the polls might not be as much of a chore as everyone anticipates.

None of which is to say that Democrats will avoid losing seats in November. The lines of authority (and responsibility) between the White House, the DNC, and the campaign committees are strangely convoluted; the BP oil spill might drag Obama down; the economy could easily stall out. But the last time the GOP rode a wave election back to power—that is, in 1994—the Dems were blindsided and largely unprepared. That, at least, won’t happen in 2010. This year, careful planning, internal GOP conflict, an improving economic climate, and yet-to-be-introduced technologies have the potential to limit Democratic losses to less-than-catastrophic proportions. Anyone who believes the “Dems are doomed” hype—whether it’s coming from the GOP, the press, or the Democratic Party itself—may very well be disappointed on election night. 

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