How the House Dems Fell Flat
On October 31, the committee charged with electing Democrats to the Pa. state House made a last-minute decision. It would spend $100,000 against Rep. Tarah Toohil (R-Luzerne) in the final week of the campaign: a television ad which highlighted the scandal over an embarrassing YouTube video.
A week later, Toohil defeated her Democratic challenger by 35 points, more than a 2-to-1 margin.
Republicans held their lines almost perfectly in the state House on November 6, losing just one incumbent and maintaining a 111 to 92 majority in the chamber.
Democrats missed 3 potential pickups by an average of about 300 votes each.
It’s easy to second-guess campaign decisions after election day. But in a cycle when Democrats won every statewide race and took 3 open state Senate seats, the House Democratic Campaign Committee didn’t move an inch toward closing the wide gap in the state House.
The debate over what happened is ongoing in Democratic circles. Some say the committee squandered two big advantages: presidential year turnout surge and a nearly unprecedented decision by the Pa. Supreme Court to intervene in redistricting. Others counter that for the first time in several cycles, not a single incumbent Democrat lost his or her seat.
The prevailing sentiment is disappointment. But could it have turned out differently?
The following is based on conversations with over a dozen campaign operatives, House members, representatives of interest groups and more. Many of them declined to go on the record due to their ongoing relationships with HDCC and House Democrats.
Full disclosure: In 2010 I worked for HDCC as a campaign manager. The incumbent in that district was unopposed in 2012.
Why It Was HDCC’s Fault
Poor targeting. In essence, they spent too little where they could win and too much where they couldn’t. In a non-wave year (and even in a wave year), it costs more than $500,000 to oust an incumbent. That’s according to several people who’ve been in and around this process, and it means HDCC could have targeted 5, maybe 6 seats.
Instead, they tried to spread the field and spent money in races like Toohil’s – despite the lack of any polling in that case to suggest that the buy would make a difference. They also played in GOP seats of retiring Reps. John Evans (R-Erie) and Curt Schroder (R-Chester). Leadership spent money against Rep. George Dunbar (R-Westmoreland).
Either HDCC widely overestimated its resources, or underestimated the cost of a winning campaign.
Staff Turnover. Of HDCC’s half dozen Harrisburg staffers from last cycle, exactly zero remained on board as of February 2012. Most had left months before, and there was a four month gap in the Executive Director position. During Summer 2011, former committee chair Rep. Mike Gerber (D-Montco) left and Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Phila) stepped in. All of the committee’s institutional knowledge, recent fundraising connections and recruiting experience were gone. It started 2012 from scratch.
Vendor Turnover. It’s responsible for any organization to review its vendors – media consultants, direct mail designers, pollsters, fundraisers, etc – and make changes. It’s particularly tempting after the shellacking Dems took in 2010. But given the inexperience of the new HDCC team, 2014 may have been a better year to make those changes. Of those firms with a longstanding relationship with the committee – more than a decade in some cases – many saw their roles reduced or eliminated.
Fundraising. As of October 22, HDCC had raised $2.6 million. Republicans had raised $5.2 million. (The final numbers will be reported in Nov. 26). The GOP had enough money to play defense as well as take a serious run at half-a-dozen Democratic seats. Part of that strategy was aimed at locking down Democratic dollars to protect incumbents.
“Our goal was ensuring that our incumbents did not have the entire focus of the election cycle on them,” said Rep. Dave Reed (R-Indiana), the Chairman of the House Republican Campaign Committee. “We learned from experience in 2010, HDCC did not really go after any of our folks early on after Labor Day and allowed us to keep our money up until the last three weeks of the election and spend it against their incumbents. We did not want to make the same mistake.”
Member (non) buy-in. Until the latter half of 2012, the committee fell below historic norms for fundraising from its membership (by dollar amount). And in the latter half of 2012, GOP threats to individual members caused some to hold on to funds they didn’t end up needing. It didn’t help that they have so few members to solicit. Ultimately the Democratic leadership ponied up a significant chunk of dough, but it was not as helpful in the fall as it would have been in the summer.
Their one win. The GOP picked up the trending-red seat of retiring Rep. Bud George (D-Clearfield). In a surprise to both sides, Democrats ousted Rep. Tom Quigley (R-Montco) thanks to an Obama turnout surge in Pottstown. Neither HDCC nor Republicans had expected a turnover there. Ironically, had the HDCC actually targeted Quigley in a concerted effort, Republicans would have made standard defensive moves and he probably would have won.
Why It Wasn’t HDCC’s Fault
Redistricting. Republicans held all the cards when it came to redrawing the legislative map this year. If a challenger got in before October 2011, that candidate might have found himself or herself in another district under the new map. That froze challengers when they might otherwise have been raising money.
Then, chaos reigned during a critical three-week period early in 2012. The first draft of new state House maps were in place on Oct. 31, 2011. The committees recruited candidates based on the new lines. But on Jan. 25, one day after candidates had begun circulating petitions, the Pa. Supreme Court threw out that new map. All of a sudden, committees had less than a month to interview and help circulate petitions for candidates using district lines that were totally unexpected. Meanwhile Republicans were pushing for another last-second new map and it was unclear what the final outcome would be for weeks. That lead to a massive GOP edge with…
Recruiting. This frenetic mess didn’t seriously affect Republicans because, for most of the competitive races, they already knew who their candidate would be: the incumbent (unlike Senate Rs, the House GOP had no retirements in competitive seats). Of course sitting state Reps lived in their old districts, and the new ones had been drawn around them. So relatively fewer headaches and last-minute frenetic recruiting were required for the GOP, and their candidates were stronger. To wit: on the whole, Republican challengers fared as bad or worse than Democratic challengers did.
Even before the Court’s ruling, redistricting delayed and deterred Democratic efforts to find challengers – a process that typically begins very early. Several incumbents had only token challenges, and many potentially vulnerable GOP incumbents went unopposed this year.
Saved two seats early. Democrats probably saved two seats by encouraging or forcing through legal action the removal of two toxic candidates from the ballot: incarcerated ex-Rep. Bill DeWeese (D-Greene) and Rep. Joe Brennan (D-Lehigh), who allegedly assaulted his wife before driving away drunk. Both men represented districts which are safely Democratic in most cases, but both would have required lots of defense dollars to keep the seats.
Decimated fundraising network. It’s always easier to raise money when you’re in the majority and get to decide which bills go to the floor. Case in point: the thousands that labor groups gave to the HRCC and GOP leaders this cycle. Dems are so far behind in the state House that no serious investor would expect a majority change. That inevitability diverted Dem donors to the Pa. Senate, where the gap is narrower. Add that to the fact that super fundraiser Ed Rendell isn’t in the Governor’s mansion any more, and you’ve got a tough job competing with Republicans.
National climate. Unlike recent elections when incumbents locally and nationally lost, 2012 was a bad year for challengers of both parties. Dems picked up 8 seats in 2006 and the GOP won 13 in 2010. In 2004, the margin in the Pa. House also stayed the same. Just like 2004, there was no wave this year.
HRCC. The mitigating factors couldn’t have hurt the Dems so much without a professional GOP operation to capitalize on them. The HDCC’s counterparts across the aisle had a banner year in 2010, and they kept the band together for 2012. The staffers, consultants and leadership team remained in place and built on their previous success. They stayed on a jobs/economy message where they could, ran against Tom Corbett where they had to, and committed almost no unforced errors.
“We’ve tried to professionalize HRCC. We make it operate from a business context on leaving emotion at the door and making decisions based upon facts and numbers,” said Rep. Reed. He said his response to the Toohil ad was “shocked.”
Boyle says Democrats needed 2012 to rebuild from its historic losses in 2010.
“My overall, honest assessment is that there were positives and negatives from this cycle,” he said. He noted that no House Democrat lost a re-election bid despite being targeted, but called the seats where the committee came within a point of victory “missed opportunities.”
“It was a necessary cycle for use to rebuild for the future. I think we’re now on stable footing to do that.”
But he probably won’t be the one to carry the torch in 2014.
“When I agreed to do it, I said I would do it for one cycle. I plan on sticking to that timetable. I haven’t made any final decisions, but I signed up to do one cycle and I’m sticking with that,” he said.
The 2014 cycle is tough to predict for Democrats. Corbett will be on the ballot and if he faces a credible challenge it would both motivate the Democratic base and provide Democratic candidates with ready-made messaging.
On the other hand, President Obama will be halfway through his second term. If history is a guide it could be a good year for the GOP.
Meanwhile the new, GOP-favoring map – which earned a ‘yes’ vote from Democratic House Minority Leader Frank Dermody – is likely to take effect in time for 2014. It will strengthen most GOP incumbents and, in the meantime, possibly deter recruiting efforts again.
Barring another scandal like the midnight pay raise or Bonusgate, the Democrats are probably looking at 10 years in the minority in the House.