BALTIMORE — Rep. Sean Maloney has one of the most sensitive jobs in Washington.
The third-term Democrat, representing parts of New York’s Hudson Valley, is leading a review into what House Democrats did wrong in 2016. It’s a bit like working internal affairs of a police force, essentially investigating his own party and trying to explain what needs to be done differently next time around.
What he’s found, so far, in his independent autopsy of the House Democrats’ disappointing performance in the 2016 elections is a mix of optimistic and depressing news. “We can win where we used to struggle, and we’re struggling a bit where we used to win,” Maloney said in an hour-long interview here at the Democratic policy retreat, on the eve of a 90-minute presentation he made Thursday afternoon.
He means that there are House districts that Democrats have competed in, or even represented for a long time, that have moved so sharply away from Democrats that they need to reassess whether to compete there ever again. Yet there is also an emerging set of districts that have long been held by Republicans that are now bending toward Democrats faster than even the most optimistic strategists envisioned.
The ones now on the table? Longtime Republican districts that are becoming more demographically diverse. Off the table may be rural districts with little diversity, the very places where President Trump did well in 2016.
With the help of two aides, Maloney set up shop inside the offices of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and has examined 127 House races from the 2016 cycle, interviewing more than 50 campaign managers and candidates. He’s nothing but complimentary to the DCCC staff and its chairman, Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), who was elected to a second term to run the House campaign operation despite a disappointing 2016. With Trump’s unexpected win, the party gained just six House seats after leaders predicted a gain of more than 20.
The Maloney review is one that rank-and-file lawmakers pushed as an independent check on the campaign, running parallel but separate from the “deep dive” that Luján is overseeing. There’s a natural tension to what Maloney is doing, and as votes finished late Tuesday afternoon, he and Luján could be seen having a long, animated discussion on the House floor. Luján joined Maloney for Thursday’s presentation here.
A lawyer, Maloney is a bit obsessed with data, and he said he believes there are 350 unique characteristics that can be applied to every House race that will indicate which direction it will go.
Some findings are surprising. “Did the unemployment rate matter or not?” he said. “Turns out it doesn’t matter much at all.”
Maloney also wants to abandon the longtime party metric used by operatives known as the Democratic Performance Index, a complicated formula based on presidential and congressional candidate performance in specific House districts. Instead, he said, the three biggest predictors of the partisan bent of a House district are the percentage of it that is rural, how much of its population has received college degrees and how diverse it is.
“We need to get out of the past. Our tools need to get out of the past,” Maloney said.
This means that Democrats made mistakes in places such as Iowa’s 1st Congressional District and Minnesota’s 2nd Congressional District, seats that in the summer of 2016 Democrats expected to win. But both are very rural and are not diverse. Rep. Rod Blum (R-Iowa) won reelection by nearly eight percentage points in a district that swung from twice voting for Barack Obama for president to supporting Donald Trump, and Rep. Jason Lewis (R-Minn.) won his first election despite a long career of controversial statements as a radio talk-show host.
Two highlights for Democrats came in highly educated suburban districts: in northern New Jersey, where Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D) ousted a seven-term Republican; and outside Orlando, where Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D) knocked off a 23-year incumbent.
Some of this won’t be news to Luján and senior DCCC staff, because they have already launched a “Majority Project” in these emerging districts. In private they admit they realized too late that Trump was speeding up the shift of well-educated suburbanites toward the Democrats, leaving too many Republicans facing inferior opponents last year in potentially competitive races.
Still, Luján told reporters he has put pollsters and consultants on notice they might be losing their contracts because they were too far off the mark in some of their assessments, particularly in rural districts.
What’s most disturbing for Democrats is just how badly their candidates did in some places. In Denver’s eastern suburbs, Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) won a fourth term by more than eight percentage points despite a relentless DCCC investment there; Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) won the suburban district north of Philadelphia previously held by his brother by nine percentage points; and in the Twin Cities suburbs, Rep. Erik Paulsen (R) won a fifth term by an astounding 13 percentage points.
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won Coffman’s and Paulsen’s districts by nine percentage points over Trump, and Fitzpatrick’s district was essentially a tie in the presidential race.
Maloney summed up those suburban follies in the most basic terms: “Candidates still matter.”
The question neither Maloney nor Luján will answer is whether they should recruit moderate to conservative candidates in rural districts or just abandon them altogether.
A beta test for 2018 will come in two special elections this spring to replace House members getting elevated to Trump’s Cabinet. Democrats regularly win governors and Senate races in Montana, where Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.) is set to become interior secretary, but it’s unclear whether the DCCC will invest in that mostly rural at-large district.
Instead, Maloney said, “Watch the special election for Tom Price’s seat in suburban Atlanta.”
Rep. Price (R-Ga.), who is expected to win confirmation as Trump’s health secretary, has never faced a difficult race in 12 years in Congress, but his district snapped from favoring Republican Mitt Romney by 14 percentage points over Obama in 2012 to a narrow win for Trump of just two percentage points.
That’s one of 10 seats held by a Republican that Clinton lost by less than four percentage points, and there are another 23 GOP seats that Clinton won.
“We need to see those opportunities, and we need to take advantage of them,” Maloney said.