Democrats are feeling increasingly confident about their chances of winning back the House and Senate in the 2018 midterms.
After a surprising victory in Alabama’s Senate election last month, the party felt like it had momentum. Decisions by a pair of high-profile House GOP incumbents, Reps. Darrell IssaDarrell Edward IssaGOP sues California over Newsom’s vote-by-mail order Conservative group files challenge to California vote-by-mail order New poll shows tight race in key California House race MORE (Calif.) and Ed RoyceEdward (Ed) Randall RoyceGil Cisneros to face Young Kim in rematch of 2018 House race in California The most expensive congressional races of the last decade Mystery surrounds elusive sanctions on Russia MORE (Calif.), to announce their retirements has only left the party feeling more confident.
The Hill asked more than a dozen top officials, strategists and lawmakers in the party how Democrats should work the next ten months in Washington and across the country.
Here’s what they said the party’s top priorities and strategies should be between now and November.
Don’t be in a hurry to compromise
Democrats think Republicans have good reason to be worried about the midterms given President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests MORE’s approval numbers, an endless stream of White House controversies and history: The president’s party typically loses seats in the first midterm of his term.
As a result, Democrats say their congressional leaders should be in no hurry to compromise with Republicans on immigration or Trump’s demands for a wall on the Mexican border, infrastructure or spending matters ahead of a possible shutdown this week.
“The last thing Democrats should be doing is chasing after elusive bipartisan compromises,” said Democratic strategist Jim Manley, a former chief spokesman to then-Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidHarry Reid says he’s cancer free White House gets jolt from strong jobs report Murkowski, Mattis criticism ratchets up pressure on GOP over Trump MORE (D-Nev.).
Former Rep. Steve IsraelSteven (Steve) J. IsraelThe Hill’s Campaign Report: Bad polling data is piling up for Trump Biden faces new hurdle: Winning as front-runner The Hill’s Campaign Report: Biden on the cusp of formally grasping the Democratic nomination MORE (D-N.Y.) said the focus has to be winning in November, even as lawmakers battle for legislative victories this winter.
“Democrats have a responsibility to govern, but they also have an imperative to win,” said Israel, who led the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2014.
“If they can get a deal that reflects their values on certain priorities like DACA, they should,” the former congressman said. “The problem is the lack of a predictable partner or even a manageable outcome. So I wouldn’t let those strategic decisions influence the tactical imperatives of prioritizing the 24 seats they need to win. Which means finishing recruiting, building a ground game, and raising resources to withstand a Republican onslaught.”
None of this means Democrats should reject a legislative deal. Indeed, red-state Democrats up for reelection in the Senate are seen as being nervous about pushing things too far in the spending talks.
And conflicts between the House and Senate may be in play.
Arguably, there is more incentive for Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerOvernight Health Care: US showing signs of retreat in battle against COVID-19 | Regeneron begins clinical trials of potential coronavirus antibody treatment | CMS warns nursing homes against seizing residents’ stimulus checks Schumer requests briefing with White House coronavirus task force as cases rise Schumer on Trump’s tweet about 75-year-old protester: He ‘should go back to hiding in the bunker’ MORE (N.Y.) to compromise as he seeks to protect incumbents such as Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillMissouri county issues travel advisory for Lake of the Ozarks after Memorial Day parties Senate faces protracted floor fight over judges amid pandemic safety concerns Amash on eyeing presidential bid: ‘Millions of Americans’ want someone other than Trump, Biden MORE or Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyEx-Sen. Joe Donnelly endorses Biden Lobbying world 70 former senators propose bipartisan caucus for incumbents MORE in Missouri and Indiana, respectively.
In the House, Democratic Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTrump on collision course with Congress over bases with Confederate names Black lawmakers unveil bill to remove Confederate statues from Capitol Pelosi: Georgia primary ‘disgrace’ could preview an election debacle in November MORE (Calif.) is eyeing a big turnout from the left to deliver a majority to her conference.
Overall, most Democrats are erring on the side of caution when it comes to working with Republicans. They say the administration should have to work hard to win them over.
“It’s gotta be a good deal,” Manley said of any legislative compromise. “If not, it’s not worth it.”
Follow the Rahm Emanuel 2006 model
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the former White House chief of staff, was the campaign czar for House Democrats the last time they won the House majority in 2006.
While a part of Emanuel’s game plan was to recruit top candidates across the country, he also focused on the suburbs, a hotbed for moderate voters that Dems say will be the key to victory in 2018.
“Many of the key races that determine control of the House will be won or lost in suburban districts,” said William Galston, a senior fellow of governance studies at the Brookings Institution who served as a policy adviser to Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonWill the ‘law and order’ president pardon Roger Stone? Five ways America would take a hard left under Joe Biden The sad spectacle of Trump’s enablers MORE during his administration.
Emanuel benefited from the political climate of 2006.
The election was driven by opposition to an unpopular President George W. Bush, who was drowning in headlines about the Iraq war and his handling of Hurricane Katrina. Congressional Republicans — including former House Majority Leader Tom Delay (R-Texas) and Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) — were also rocked by scandal in the months leading up to the election.
Democrats say the political climate is even more poisonous for Republicans now. For one thing, Trump’s White House is shrouded in the Russia investigation. And Republican incumbents “are dropping like flies,” in the words of one Democratic strategist helping to win back the House.
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“They’re imploding,” the Democrat said. “All we need to do is let them unravel while holding firm to our issues.”
Find the right candidates
Call this the Doug Jones rule.
Democrats think Jones won in Alabama because he was the right candidate to have in the race when things opened up for the party — first with Republican Roy MooreRoy Stewart MooreSessions goes after Tuberville’s coaching record in challenging him to debate The 10 Senate seats most likely to flip Sessions fires back at Trump over recusal: ‘I did my duty & you’re damn fortunate I did” MORE’s win in a primary over the GOP establishment favorite Luther StrangeLuther Johnson StrangeThe biggest political upsets of the decade State ‘certificate of need’ laws need to go GOP frets over nightmare scenario for Senate primaries MORE, and then when Moore’s campaign imploded over allegations he had had sexual relationships decades ago with young teens.
Jones had deep roots in the community and connected particularly well with black voters. During his time as a lawyer, he helped secure a conviction for two Ku Klux Klan members who bombed a Baptist church in Birmingham in 1963.
“One of the things we’ve got to do is recruit candidates who are compatible with the districts they represent,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.). “If we’re ever going to win again in the south we’ve got to put candidates up that people in the south will vote for.”
Make the politics local
While voters are attuned to what’s happening nationally, what they care most about is what happens in their backyards.
“The research we have done … shows that each of these races will be won by focusing on local issues that matter to the day-to-day lives of voters,” said former Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), who launched the super PAC Fight Back California, aimed at winning seven congressional seats in the Golden State.
“Voters in these districts are tired of polarizing partisan arguments at the national level. They want members of Congress to focus on the issues that matter most in their daily lives,” she said.
In Rep. Jeff DenhamJeffrey (Jeff) John DenhamBottom line Bottom line Lobbying world MORE’s district, which covers Modesto and parts of California’s central valley, for example, the group plans to focus on water issues along with jobs, the economy and homelessness.
None of this is to say that Trump won’t be a big part of the story in November.
Every midterm election in history has had something to do with the president, and Trump’s unconventional presidency will be the biggest overriding issue in November.
But as Democrats talk about the midterms, expect them to try to talk about specific issues in their districts in addition to Trump.
Cleaver puts it this way: Let Trump demonize himself. Don’t do it for him.
“I don’t like the man but I think we make a terrible, terrible mistake if our priority is to demonize President Trump in new ways,” he said. “I think President Trump has done a good job of demonizing himself.”
Cleaver is speaking to the fears many Democrats hold that if their attacks are on Trump are too aggressive, it could backfire. Impeachment votes, which Democratic leaders have sought to contain but which the grass roots loves, is an example of the push-pull going on in the party.
“We have to tell people what we want and what we believe in,” Cleaver said.