DCCC chairman: Environment was too neutral to win the majority

November 7, 2012

Democrats grabbed huge victories in the 2012 election, retaining the presidency and somehow expanding their Senate majority despite a very tough map.


Steve Israel (Associated Press)

As for the House, success is in the eye of the beholder.

It's pretty clear that Democrats are going to gain seats in the House. We don't yet know how many thanks to races that have yet to be called. But if things shake out the way they look at present, Democrats will gain about seven seats, narrowing the GOP's majority from 49 seats to about 35 seats (235 Republican seats to 200 Democratic seats).

In other words, Republicans will still have a sizable majority in the House.

For a Democratic party that had spent almost the entire cycle talking about winning back the majority, it was not the resounding win it had hoped for.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) did his best to put a good face on it Wednesday.

"Everything that was in our control, we exceeded expectations," Israel said in an interview with The Fix. "The one thing that we didn’t have control over was a very tight presidential election."

Israel pointed out that Democrats gained only a few seats when Bill Clinton was reelected in 1996 and Republicans gained only a couple when President Bush was reelected in 2004. 

That's a fair argument. If anything, history shows us that it's hard for the incumbent president's party to pick up a huge amount of seats when he's up for reelection.

But Republicans under Ronald Reagan (16 seats) and Richard Nixon (12 seats) both gained more than Democrats under Obama. And perhaps most importantly, Democrats went into the 2012 election with their smallest minority in 60 years and had lots of ground to gain, given all the tea party-backed freshman Republicans who won in 2010.

In the end, Democrats beat only a few of those tea party Republicans, and the vast majority of the 2010 GOP freshman class remains intact, building on its incumbency and hoping to cement itself in Congress.

Republicans say the election was a clear repudiation of House Democrats.

"Democrats fundamentally ignored the message of 2010," the National Republican Congressional Committee said in a statement. "Republicans, meanwhile, kept our promise to the voters who elected us."

Israel said the neutral environment simply wasn't conducive to bigger gains.

"I’ve said if we have a wind at our back like we did in September … we’d get 25 seats," Israel said. "If we had a still wind, it would be uncertain."

The wind was pretty still, with the national presidential vote splitting 50-48 for President Obama and the generic congressional ballot about even.

But given how little progress Democrats made toward evening the score in the House, it begs the question of just what Democrats will need to reclaim the majority. After all, Senate Democrats just expanded their majority to as much as 10 seats.

Much of the reason Democrats had such a tough time gaining more seats this year is that Republicans were able to shore up their vulnerable incumbents and add winnable seats in redistricting. The map now clearly favors Republicans, with a recent Fair Vote analysis showing 196 House seats clearly lean Republican, while just 166 clearly lean Democrat. (A party needs 218 seats to effect control.)

Because of that skewed playing field, it's going to be tough for House Democrats to even the score unless they have significantly more momentum than they did Tuesday.

Israel said the map and the involvement of GOP outside groups do represent hurdles.

"I’ve never met a manager of a team who opens the season by saying we don’t have a shot at the World Series; we know how to compete," Israel said. "Quite honestly, I’m more concerned about Republican super PACs than I am about redistricting."

As for who will lead the effort at the DCCC next cycle, Israel said he's focused on the looming recounts in several House races.

But he wouldn't rule out giving it another shot.

"I wouldn’t rule anything in or out," he said.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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