Opinion writer

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) in 2016. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

Next year, Democrats are going to have the kind of opportunity they haven’t had in 12 years: an unpopular president (assuming President Trump doesn’t have some kind of miraculous recovery), an angry and mobilized base, and a chance to take back the House of Representatives.

The Democratic Party apparatus, particularly the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, hasn’t done a great deal of late to inspire confidence in its ability to take full advantage of that opportunity. But will this time be different? Or can they win in spite of themselves?

Thursday, I got on a conference call with Rep. Ben Ray Luján, the chairman of the DCCC, and Dan Sena, the organization’s executive director. Calls like this one always involve the unloading of a truckfull of spin, as the pols tell you how fantastic they’re doing and how great everything will turn out for them.

In this case though, they stand a good chance of being right — even if it’s not completely their doing.

The basic case they made is that the House is in play for Democrats. “History is on our side,” Luján said, and in that it’s hard to argue. The president’s party usually loses a significant number of seats in his first midterm election, and when you have a president as unpopular as Trump — the latest polls show his approval in the 30s — it would be a shock if Republicans didn’t lose big in 2018.

The question is how big. Democrats need a net gain of 24 seats to regain control. As Luján pointed out, there are more than 70 seats currently held by Republicans that are more Democratic-leaning than the one they just narrowly lost in Georgia. Luján also touted a set of polls in 24 of their targeted districts where Trump’s approval is under water and even many GOP incumbents who won in 2016 by double digits look to be in extremely tough races.

And as you’d expect, they characterized the results in the Georgia 6th District as, if not quite a victory, then not a total loss. “One of the big things we learned is how closely the Republicans’ favorability is tied to Donald Trump,” Sena said, noting that Democrat Jon Ossoff was viewed as more independent than Republican Karen Handel. If that’s the case, though, it suggests that Ossoff’s strategy of not trying very hard to tie Handel to Trump may have been a mistake.

That brings us to the forces that are most likely to determine the outcome of next year’s elections. The kind of wave that Democrats are hoping for — the kind we saw in 2014, 2010, and 2006 — is a product of one factor above all others: the anger and mobilization of the opposition’s base voters. When they’re mad about the president, they turn out to vote, and since turnout overall in midterm elections is low — in 2014 it was only 36 percent, the lowest since 1940 — every vote counts even more.

Of course, turnout is affected by the parties’ mobilization efforts, and the DCCC says they already have staff on the ground in 20 of their targeted districts (we also shouldn’t ignore the fact that their efforts will likely be dwarfed by those of Indivisible and other outside groups). But the key factor is what’s happening in the nation’s politics. Take, for example, health care. What’s most important about the abominable Republican bill now making its way through the Senate is the catastrophic impact it will have on Americans’ lives if it passes, but it will have a political effect, too. If it fails, the Republican base will be more dissatisfied and dispirited, while if it passes, the Democratic base will be madder than ever. Either way that increases the potential for a wave election.

And while the DCCC touts their recruiting efforts, there is a huge number of liberals around the country lining up to run for office — no matter what the DCCC does. There will be lots of competitive Democratic primaries, which in theory will produce better candidates for the general election.

All of that can lead to the conclusion that the DCCC could be as incompetent as its leftist critics allege, and Democrats could still take back the House. But there’s another perspective, which is essentially that while the party can help on the margins, it’s greatest power is to actively screw things up. When I asked Jeff Hauser, the director of the Revolving Door Project and a former Democratic operative who has been critical of the DCCC, to lay out this case for me, he argued that the organization shapes how individual races play out, especially in their early stages. Here’s part of the email he sent in reply:

  • The DCCC recruits candidates and influences primaries by signaling who is viable or not to donors and state and local party actors.
  • Mega-donors and independent expenditure groups take cues about which races matter and which messages work from the DCCC.
  • Young but experienced political staff are often directed to campaigns by the DCCC — there are a lot of arranged staffing marriages where candidates and staff, even campaign managers, barely know each other.
  • And candidates pick and choose messages with an eye toward being in line with the DCCC’s thinking, as they know direct contributions and independent expenditures go to campaigns in line with the DCCC.
  • When Ossoff went wholly bland and didn’t run on Trump, Russia, or almost anything else readily identifiable as an issue, that represented a campaign following DCCC directions.
  • If you are a Democrat and think Ossoff blew an opportunity and fear more of the same in 2018, you need the DCCC’s theory of the electorate to improve.

Hauser said that as important as those broad national factors are, “the difference between a great and poor DCCC could easily be 20 seats won or lost.” If that’s true, it’s the difference between not taking the House and taking the House. Which would decide whether Democrats are able to stop the Republican legislative agenda cold, mount multiple investigations of Trump administration misdeeds (subpoena power is an extraordinary thing), and set the stage for a larger Democratic victory in 2020. Democrats had better hope they know what they’re doing.