PA Congressional Post-Mortem: to progress forward, let’s look back
Pennsylvania Democrats had a lot of reasons to celebrate on Election Day. The President won the state, Senator Casey was re-elected, our candidates swept the statewide row offices, and by snatching three PA Senate seats we had the biggest pickup in the PA Senate since 1970.
Well done, team!
But behind those great wins was a series of losses. Tough losses. Losses that we should get used to, because we’re going to continue losing most of them for the next decade. And if we keep doing what we did this year, we will lose all of them for the next decade.
I am speaking, of course, about the Congressional races.
In a state that President Obama won by 5%, Democrats now hold only 5 of the 18 Congressional seats while Republicans control 13.
You may ask yourself, “how did we get here?”
Last week I put out a call for input to the political operative class. I asked staffers to submit anonymously what they thought went wrong for us in the Congressional races. I have taken that input and put it into article form, retaining the anonymity of each submitter.
Self-criticism is not something out party does well. But it is important to learn from our mistakes and apply them in future elections. The only way to progress forward is to look backward and ask “why?”
Virtually every email I received mentioned gerrymandering, and it was almost always mentioned first. The responses on this subject are best summed up by this operative’s words:
“Win legislative seats in years that end in 0. Control of the redistricting process matters. Big time.”
How much does it matter? Let’s look at some numbers.
According to the Philadelphia Weekly, 2,701,820 Pennsylvanians voted for a Democrat for Congress while 2,626,995 voted for a Republican. This means that more votes in PA were cast for Congressional Democrats than were cast for Congressional Republicans, yet we retained only 5 out of 18 seats. Stop and think about that for a second.
We won more than 50% of the Congressional votes cast but control only 28% of the seats.
This scenario is possible because of what Real Clear Politics called “The Gerrymander of the Decade.”
Republicans drew a Congressional map (above) that sure-up all 5 vulnerable Republican seats and packed as many Democrats as possible into just a few districts.
And they did it with ease. In fact, more than 30 PA House Democrats voted in favor of the GOP map because their Democratic Congressmen (Jason Altmire, Bob Brady, and Mike Doyle) lobbied them to do so.
Whichever party controls the State Legislature after the census controls the gerrymandering process. We need to focus on winning races in those years (years that end with “0″) more than any other cycle if we are serious about gaining seats back.
We blew it in 2000 and we blew it again in 2010.
Fortunately, the next census isn’t until 2020, so let’s start a savings account now.
We also need our sitting PA Congressional Democrats to stop being selfish. Mike Doyle, Bob Brady—I love you both, really I do. But did you really need to lobby your General Assembly delegation to vote for a map in which you won your districts 85-15 and 77-23 respectively? Let’s share the wealth next time around.
Way back in June, Stu Rothenberg at Roll Call made public the “recruiting failure” chitchat that permeated our party’s gossip circles. Other than Kathy Boockvar, Manan Trivedi, and Larry Maggi, Rothenberg described a crop of candidates that just weren’t viable. And of the three above-mentioned candidates, Rothenberg pointed out their respective weaknesses.
Most of the input from the emails I received for this article did a lot of dumping on individual candidates. I’m not going to ridicule those who carried our torch, but I think there are some general trends that we need to appreciate and apply.
First, raising money is important. This is obvious, but we keep ignoring it. As optimistic Democrats, we tend to say something like “Well money won’t matter as much in this district because my candidate has an x-factor.”
No matter what you think that x-factor is, I guarantee you that you are wrong about it overcoming lackluster fundraising.
No Congressional candidate in the coming years will ever have a bigger x-factor than my good friend Gene Stilp. No candidate will have anything near Stilp’s Pignelope (be it the bus or the inflatable version), his Statue of Liberty in the middle of the Susquehanna, and his more than a decade of uniformly positive press for being a crusader against corruption.
Gene ran a new, innovative, and sparkplug campaign because he had a gigantic x-factor.
But Gene still lost—by a significant margin.
Gene lost because he didn’t raise any money and Lou Barletta had boatloads.
Money matters. Some sort of x-factor is necessary, but not nearly sufficient.
Another aspect of candidate recruitment that we got wrong this year is picking candidates in losing districts that will actually run a campaign. It sounds cynical, but we know we are going to lose in certain districts. This is certain. Fait accompli.
What we can do, however, is run candidates who will actually campaign. This is helpful because oftentimes there are more competitive State House or Senate seats in that district that can benefit from a campaigner near the top of the ticket.
Kevin Deely’s run for State House is an example of this phenomena of Congressional candidates making a difference (or not) in a local race.
Quoting an email sent in to me by an operative in the 15th Congressional District:
Deely came so close to unseating GOP incumbent Justin Simmons on his own that the votes are still being re-counted. If Daugherty had campaigned — even if he’d lost to Dent — he could easily have drawn out enough additional Democratic votes to put Deely over the top.
We knew Rick Daugherty was not going to win in the 15th district when his campaign showed less than $4,500 in the bank as of April 4. But candidates in positions like Daugherty have a chance to buoy candidates by running a really strong, albeit losing, campaign.
When we are recruiting candidates in losing districts, let’s at least pick campaigners in the future.
One final point about recruiting: despite a vast majority of emails claiming this to be the case, we can’t blame Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz for everything.
Yes, on the face of it, Schwartz does serve as National Chair for Recruiting, and yes, we did a poor job recruiting candidates in Pennsylvania.
PoliticsPA summed up this general sentiment when they gave Congresswoman Schwartz a “down arrow” in late October, saying:
[Schwartz] failed to mount a serious challenge to any of the potentially vulnerable Republican freshmen in her own back yard. She has $3 million on hand but gave none to the DCCC in Q3 despite having a no name challenger (whom she refuses to debate, for good measure). Not really a full court press.
While to some extent I think the criticism is on point, it is also true that Congresswoman Schwartz alone “can’t make interesting, credentialed candidates run if they don’t want to, and it looks as if Keystone Democrats have decided this isn’t the year to run against incumbent Republicans in Pennsylvania,” as put by Stu Rothenberg way back in June.
The Republicans are right–our party needs to come to Jesus. We need to sit down and figure out what we did well, but more importantly what we did wrong. When the Congressional races are up again in 2014, the top of the Republican ticket will have one of the most unpopular Governors in the nation.
Governor Corbett could hang Satan on the Capitol Steps, and we will still win.
Let’s take that opportunity and combine it with the lessons of 2012. Let’s get our Congressional house in order and win back a few seats.
We’re not a swing state anymore—we’re a blue state. We deserve a bluer Congressional delegation.
Now, I yield the floor. Let me know what I missed in the comments section.