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How the House Dems Fell Flat

From the HDCC’s anti-Toohil TV ad

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.”

What’s Next

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.

42 Responses

  1. We had excellent Democratic women running for the State House but they got NO attention, let alone support from the HDCC. This is nothing new, it’s been going on for years, but given the issues and the demographics IT MUST CHANGE and that change should start right now, not next year, NOW.

  2. I can tell you now if the Democrats can’t grow a set of balls and walk like a man they won’t win again .Time to saddle up boys or put your guns away and go home

  3. “Frank”-I totally agree with your assessment of the HDCC. There must be changes made to leadership for there to be gains in 2014, especially if Tom Corbett remains unpopular and House candidates can run on the tails of his unpopularity.

  4. I live in Erie and I don’t see where anything was put into Evans’ seat on the Dem side. I don’t recall seeing one Jason White for pa house sign while I saw many Greg Lucas signs. I also talked to a local leader of the party who said much wasn’t being put into the race because the seat is moving to SE PA next term.

  5. Smith was just not ready for the job. Its nice for him that Dermody and Pittsburgh leaders strong-armed his hiring but it hurt the Caucus’ ability. He had never run a committee, he had never run a house race, and heck I don’t think he ever actually managed a race at all. Can’t afford to have someone learn on the fly next time but maybe Smith is ready after learning from this cycle.

  6. It’s time for the HDCC and the PA Dems to quit running boring white male Democratic businessmen against boring white male Republican businessmen. HDCC and the state Democratic Party better start realizing that Pennsylvania needs (and voters want) more women candidates. Women make up about 52% of the electorate, but statistically Pennsylvania has less representation by women in our General Assembly (only about 16-17%) than the legislatures of many third world countries! This is a travesty in 21st Century Pennsylvania. But unfortunately a lot of qualified Democratic women who do step up to run for the PA House are discouraged by the HDCC’s indifference (or outright opposition) to their campaigns. It is a disgrace that out of the 54 candidates ‘featured’ on the HDCC website this year ONLY 12 were women and four of those 12 were incumbents. Other Democratic women who ran were ignored. Wake up PA Democrats; you need to look at the spectacular win of your own Kathleen Kane and realize that smart, qualified Democratic women do very well as candidates!

  7. HDCC has inexperienced managers who run boilerplate campaigns, know nothing about the specific districts, ignore the wishes of the candidates and their team on the ground, recruit and train “campaign managers” who are beholden to HDCC instead of using their good judgement (assuming they have some) because they want a career in politics and they think they will get another job if they do what HDCC tells them to do. We had mailers going out to SUPER DEMS instead of targeting the mailers to persuadable voters-the point of direct mail is to TARGET, instead of throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. Their “consultants” are arrogant and self-impressed. Time to hire professional leaders for this all important responsibility. The State legislature is critical and impacts our lives more than the President. Time for Presidential campaigns to embrace the down ballot candidates and run as a team.

  8. I am glad that so many who commented before me detailed the inexperience and incompetence of the HDCC. Starting from the to,p Dermody and Burns were ineffective in putting a team together who could lead the party to victory. Smith, Santaluccia, and Berringer all too self-important to understand the needs of candidates and the strategy needed to get them elected. Take my race for example. I was a virtual unknown who ran against a powerful wealthy incumbent. I had no name recognition and no money. I lost by ten points. If HDCC had infused a few dollars in my campaign I have no doubt I could have won. I received the endorsement of the newspaper, several unions and the WCF. The 45% who knew who I was were excited about the possibility of change. Too bad my own party had the least confidence in my ability to win. Perhaps they will hire more competent politically savvy people in 2014.

  9. If HDCC had a better way of working with county parties in off years to recruit and train candidates in the art and science of campaigning, they may have a chance of winning again. But as long as HDCC holds the counties in disdain rather than work to develop local resources, they will continue to lose.

  10. Factually HDCC inherited all institutional knowledge for the 2012 cycle. I may be biased but the campaign committe was definitely professionalized in the years 2006-2010, so the argument that nothing was organized or turned over for them won’t work.

  11. Ted, you are absolutely correct, it goes back to the quality of the candidate. Both R’s and D’s run the same old people that can raise money but in the end they lose. Look at the Senate race where Raja(R) spent $2mm ($1.3 of his own money) and lost by 5 in a Republican district. Whether you’re an R or D (with the exception on Philly and Pitts) it all starts with GOOD CANDIDATES!

  12. Give HRCC credit: the smartest thing they did was spend all of that money against Markosek and Dermody in their districts. The House Dems western leaders ended up spending a ton of money to hold their own races instead of spending on the targets.

  13. But you are simply not factoring in that every other state legislature and congressional districts went thru redistricting and reapportionment. You cannot compare the legislative results from other states. If it wasn’t a great Dem year how do we win Atty General for the first time, win Auditor General with a first time candidate from an area that is hard to run from, win Casey’s race by a huge margin factoring in how much money was thrown at him and pick up 3 seats in the state senate. It was an extremely good year for Dems in PA, we swept everything statewide and there were effects down ballot in the Senate. The Congressional lines were gerrymandered to prevent losses and the state house was left untouched.

  14. had – you’re simply wrong. This was not a wave election. Just compare the last two “wave” elections to this year:
    2006: Dems win 52 US House seats and win back the majority
    2010: Republicans win 63 US House seats and win back the majority
    2012: Dems win only 6 US House seats; GOP retains majority

    Same thing for state legislative seats throughout the nation.
    In 2006: Dems won like over 500 state legislative seats nationally.
    In 2010: The Republicans won like 700 state legislative seats.
    But in 2012: There was almost no change nationally. In fact Republicans picked up a few seats.

  15. Alex,I agree with the need for reforms but the state house districts didn’t change. If the congressional districts had stayed the same we would still have Critz, Barletta would have lost and Fitz, Meehan, Gerlach, Kelly and Dent would have had to run serious efforts. As much as I feel bad for a crappy situation as mentioned in the article, you can’t compare those two. It was the best year for row officers Dems ever had, we kicked butt in the state senate, Obama did well despite being outspent and casey did even better. By the definition of a sweep election, its pretty close, aside from the congressional gerrymandering butchering mentioned above and the punt by the state house Dems.

  16. “had” – you make good points. But let’s be clear: this was no “wave” election. It wasn’t a national wave or even in PA.
    I just think the fact congressional Dems didn’t make much progress and state House Dems didn’t either is more than a coincidence. Seems like they go together every cycle (06: great, 10: terrible, 12: little change).
    In PA – only 2 incumbents lost in the entire state this year! If it’s not a wave it’s so hard to beat an incumbent. These insiders really do a good job of creating a system that keeps them in power. Now that should be a bipartisan reform!!

  17. Though I think Alex brings up a number of good points, especially with upstarts, I do disagree with his assessment of this not being a wave or even a near wave in PA. We had our largest gains in the senate in years and won the attorney general position for the first time ever. After the horrendous showing in 2010, there should have been a rubber band effect and some seats should have swung back. In addition, these campaign committees primary role is to provide fire power and air support for their candidates. Sometimes they succeed and sometimes they fail. But the reasons for failure are always different, 2010 was because of the Republican wave and unpopularity of Democrats (2006 from pay raise and dem wave and 2008 because of Dem wave). What explains 2012? There is no plausible explanation that doesn’t end in people not doing the right things. Just my thoughts.

  18. I think when it comes to young, bright, ambitious guys like Boyle, Shapiro, Gerber, etc – you’re always going to have people who resent them and take shots at them. Comes with the territory. Allyson Schwartz is also often unfairly the target of that sort of resentment as well because (while maybe not young) she is smart and does an outstanding job.
    As for this article, I thought it was very interesting. I just wonder how much campaign committees make a difference. Seems like in wave elections the party with the wave wins a lot of seats no matter what. And when there isn’t a wave, then incumbents win most of the time. You can go back over the last 30 years and that rule always holds true, no matter who happens to be in charge at the time.

  19. Agreed… Deelly was a horrible candidate. Look at the clip of their debate on you tube. It looked like 2 frat brothers fighting with one another. Any serious candidate could have pulled a win. Simmons is no prize either. A little too extreme for Lehigh Valley.

  20. Weirdo: Deely was another bad recruit. Dems/PSEA spent close to $500,000 and Simmons still crushed him in the suburbs. (60/40 average 70/30 in Lower Milford) Even with the Obama wave in Allentown it couldn’t carry Deely. The new Hispanic seat in Allentown will remove the hardcore democrat precincts from Simmons district. Simmons is Paul Clymer safe in the new district.

  21. I like how Brendan Boyle projects the image that he could actually have been asked to lead HDCC again. everyone who dealt with him around here could not stand him. i live in a Republican district and I’d rather be represented by a republican than this guy. arrogant beyond arrogant.

    people are making points about losing by one point. i remember when house dems were winning by one point. and that is the difference between having a good team and a bad team. these yahoos clearly did not have the experience or know-how to be at a competitive advantage in a close election. in a close fight a good team can provide the winning difference. but this team was lucky to LOSE by only one point.

    i can’t wait to see what they do for the next cycle and special elections.

  22. Poor recruiting from the start. From Gerber to Boyle. They were weak in the Philly suburbs and then dumped money into no chance candidates like Ransom Young and Chris Dietz. It was a Democrat year and the results should not have been this bad.

  23. Bud,
    The numbers broken even. The Dems beat Quigley and lost George’s seat. Thats a net gain of zero. Allyson lost because of poor recruits and reapportionment. The House Dems didn’t have redistricting and did a poor job with everything else. Nice finger pointing but it isn’t 100% honest.

  24. The thing is, Jeremy, the Democratic surge is now spreading outward. It had been largely confined to the inner suburbs in a tight ring around Philly; now it is spreading outward. The first sign was Matt Bradford winning his seat a couple of cycles ago; now Mark Painter has toppled Tom Quigley. My prediction: next time around, Mike Vereb had better be prepared to run hard.

  25. Funny to me that some people are complaining after the House Dems WON a net 1-seat pick-up. It may not be the 3 or 4 they were hoping for, but that’s a hell of a lot better than the DCCC which LOST a seat in PA. Allyson Schwartz did a terrible job. You see even Stu Rothenberg singled her out for such a lousy job? This was a couple weeks ago. Said the recruiting of congressional Dem candidates in PA was worst in the country.

  26. MontCo PA Dem…. the trend you refer to is part of a larger state-wide trend of Philly and its suburbs becoming blue while Western PA becoming more red. Another sign of polarization in America.

  27. No discussion here about what should be sending a loud warning signal to House Republicans over the one seat that they did lose: Tom Quigley’s 146th in central Montgomery County. Nobody saw this coming. It’s being attributed to coattails and to general dissatisfaction with incumbents, but it’s also a sign that Democrats are making inroads in previously rock-solid Republican districts in the outer reaches of Montco after overtaking the county courthouse with their now firmly entrenched power in the eastern half of the county. It may take a few more years, but this will spread outward north and south from Montgomery County in Chester and Bucks. Quigley’s fall is a warning sign that Republicans should take very seriously.

  28. HDCC lost 13 seats back in 2010 under Eachus and Gerber – that had ramifications that continue to last through today and will continue to last for a long time (until the next wave election).

  29. HDCC ineffective because of weak political leadership. Dermody is horrible as a leader. Boyle can’t get the job done. And State Chairman Burn is wholly ineffective. Throw them all out and start over…again.

  30. To KM: Critz won in 2010, but lost this time.
    From a Republican perspective, I thought we would beat a couple state House Democrats here in the west and was disappointed we didn’t. This year was just as good for us as 2010 was out here. So I give the House Dems credit for winning these seats. Just like I give the House R’s credit for holding on (barely) to some of those Philly suburbs seats.

  31. Over the last few election cycles, the HDCC has been seen by a startling amount of candidates as ineffective and incompetent. The standard response to HDCC inquiries is to treat them like mushrooms: feed them shit and keep them in the dark.

  32. What is the story with Kevin Deely? He was another one point loss in a heavy Democratic district. HDCC better be recruiting someone to run for that spot. Simmons is a sitting duck.

  33. In the end, it comes down to the candidates. The big misses were in the Levdansky and Drucker seats. Both were 1 point losses. HDCC didn’t want either retreads to run but got stuck with them. HDCC had recruited a great young candidate, Dan Connolly, to run in the Levdansky seat. They even had Fitzgerald and Cong Doyle call to get Levdansky not to run. But once Dave jumped in their recruited candidate dropped out.
    Same story in the Drucker seat. HDCC had recruited a young lawyer for that seat and tried for months to get Drucker out.
    IF HDCC had gotten the candidates they wanted, then both of those 1-pt losses are wins. Then we’re talking about the 3-seat pick up for House Dems instead of just 1 seat.

  34. Here’s an idea: the House Dems can put Jesse White in charge of fundraising. He will put his “cash for votes” program into high gear!
    By the way, why isn’t he under investigation? His hitting up Range for donations in exchange for his vote certainly seems more serious than the stuff they convicted Orie or DeWeese on!

  35. How can Boyle brag about not losing any Democratic incumbents? 2010 was a high water mark for Republicans. If a Democrat won against the wave in 2010, they are pretty safe for 2012.

  36. You had Ethan who was a bit of a mess. Then Martin who is 24 (fresh out of college) and Andrea (part timer who was more worried about herself than anyone else).

    In saying that, I hope they learn from their mistakes and move forward. They are all very young and experience will only help them

    Also, incumbents r’s and d’s will work together to preserve their seats. That is the worst kept secret in Harrisburg. It about self-preservation.

  37. Ask any candidate who ran this cycle and they will tell you how awful it was to deal with Ethan. He clearly doesn’t know what he’s doing. So I agree 100% with that comment.

  38. Capitolwire already reported Dermody and Eachus were behind the Toohill ad decision. They are both idiots.
    First Gerber quit working for Dermody. Now Boyle doesn’t want to continue either. What does that tell you about Dermody?
    Worst Dem leader in years! And the worst part: voting yes on that map just to get a better district for himself!!!

  39. HDCC’s new Exec Dir, Ethan Smith, did a terrible job. He was the one who kept telling donors they were going to win the open Evans and Schroeder seats. The guy was in way over his head and it showed in the results!

  40. I did name Cross to that list. The targeting she and others in the field do has to do with targeting voters for GOTV efforts. The targeting I’m talking about in this story has to do with choices about where to spend money on TV & mail, etc. Same word, but different things.

  41. Didn’t you name Elena Cross, targeting director for the PADC as one of your 30 under 30 and yet you say that targeting for the house races was bad? I agree with your assertion here that it was. Don’t understand why you would reward someone who failed at her job though.

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