To get the obvious out of the way: This likely isn't how Steve Israel wanted to close things out.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair is stepping down this week as his party's House caucus finds itself with its smallest minority in almost a century, and Republicans celebrate an incoming majority that leaves most of President Obama’s agenda during his final two years in office dead on arrival.
“I’m not going to sugarcoat the fact that we fell short [on Election Day]. We fell short. And we need to do some serious thinking about some of those factors,” he told The Washington Post this weekend. “We had to make some very tough strategic decisions.”
On Monday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi named New Mexico Rep. Ben Luján to take over the committee after Israel declined staying on for a third term. The outgoing chair is proudly standing behind his tenure: "On the whole, I think that when bombs were bursting in air, and we were in the trenches, we fundamentally made the right decisions, as tough as they were."
Several course corrections in the final months of the election made it clear that Democrats were going on extreme defense, with the DCCC shifting its focus from widening the electoral map to protecting vulnerable incumbent lawmakers. In one instance, that meant shifting millions of dollars from John Foust’s campaign in Virginia’s 10th District in order to bolster incumbent Rep. Ami Bera in California’s 7th District. In another instance, that meant pulling money from star recruit Andrew Romanoff's campaign in Colorado’s 6th District.
“It’s horrible. There’s nothing — in terms of political decision making, there’s nothing worse than having to call someone who you like, who you share anxieties with, who you’ve been emailing at midnight and 6 a.m. and telling them that you can continue to provide moral support but not financial support,” Israel said. (“Most of that [late-night emailing] was the function of being an old guy with an overactive bladder. That might be too much information.”)
Despite the heavy losses, Israel remains a firm champion of the party’s ground game this year, insisting that without investments in that area the GOP wave could have been larger. He touted new investment this cycle in voter registration on the ground which he says contributed to several close wins, including Gwen Graham's victory in Florida’s 2nd District and Rep. Julia Brownley’s reelection in California’s 26th District.
"We knew at the beginning of this cycle that we would be buffeted by very, very strong headwinds,” he said. “I think our ground game at the end of the day cut our losses to half of what they could have been. That’s still much more than we wanted."
The party certainly had a large number of vulnerable incumbents to defend, for whom the president’s sinking favorability posed a constant threat. But it’s also true that the party seemed unable to stick to the economic messaging it touted at the beginning of the 2014 cycle as its road to victory.
Israel says that was the byproduct of the electorate’s unexpected focus on international issues.
“[That] fell by the wayside for several reasons. … For the first time in as long as I can remember international crises dominated the landscape,” he said. “We always knew it was going to be a tough night. I knew it was going to be an even tougher night when the last weekend before Tuesday I saw references to Ebola.
"...It’s hard to talk about refinancing college debt when people are being just saturated with news about how Ebola would sweep the country.”
But some of the losses this cycle weren't strictly about money or messaging; sometimes the messenger bore a share of the blame. For political watchers, lackluster candidates such as Sean Eldridge in New York’s 19th Congressional District and Aaron Woolf in New York’s 21st Congressional District — neither of which managed to break through to voters — raised questions over the committee's candidate recruitment this cycle.
Israel dismissed criticism that the DCCC made any serious strategic miscalculations on recruiting, insisting that the tough electoral map dealt a blow to those efforts early on.
“It’s easy for people who have never recruited to criticize recruitment. In the case of Domenic Recchia, we began a very aggressive recruitment process. We talked to many people and every single one of them with the exception of Domenic Recchia chose not to run,” he said, referring to the Democrat who lost against indicted GOP lawmaker Michael Grimm in New York.
“There are criticisms that people make," he said, "but when one candidate and one candidate only expresses an interest in running, and raises a million dollars and builds out an infrastructure when no one else is willing to run, slamming the door on that one candidate would be rather foolish, wouldn’t it?"
Part of the challenge in recruiting this cycle was the fact that would-be candidates realized the tough electoral map gave Democrats a slim chance of success. Many potential recruits “proactively told us that they didn’t see a path in 2014” but “said that they were extremely interested in running in 2016.”
And Israel says that recruiting for 2016 is already beginning. On election night he began making “several recruitment calls,” and the next day began receiving calls from 2014 recruits interested in jumping in for 2016. (He did not specify who.)
That, however, will be a job for Luján to finish. Speaking before that announcement was made, Israel pointed to several challenges the incoming chair will have to manage in what appears as though it could be a more hospitable cycle for his party than this one -- including the competition for attention with the presidential race and several high profile Senate races which could decide control of the upper chamber.
"The presidential will be a vacuum cleaner sucking up every penny under every couch cushion. And the fact that the Democrats could reclaim the Senate in 2016 will do the same thing," he said.
"Voters have both parties on the shortest leash in history," he added. "That indicates a searing impatience among voters and we have got to tap into that. It would take the same wave that occurred in 2010. But those waves do happen, so I'm not ruling anything out."