Editors' Note: In October, Tim Fernholz reported on the possibility of an increased Democratic majority in the House.
This past summer I asked Rep. Chris Van Hollen, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, how he planned to expand his party's majority in the House. While Democrats had passed some important legislation since taking control of the House in 2006, they had seen progress on key issues -- Iraq, the State Children's Health Insurance Program, and an early economic stimulus -- obstructed or watered down by President Bush and a minority of Republican senators.
"If I was sitting at home," Van Hollen said, "and got a phone call from a pollster who asked, 'are you satisfied with the pace of change in the Congress?' I would say, 'No. I think they've done some good things, but I'm not satisfied.'"
But Van Hollen and his team were ready with a fresh message for voters: Change isn't finished -- send us back a little stronger. And in a change election, House Democrats did extremely well, with a net gain of some 24 seats -- three in special elections and the rest on Nov. 4. To keep that in perspective, recall that in late August, conventional wisdom expected a 12 to 16 seat pick-up. The 2009 Congress will find the Democrats with at least a 256 to 174 majority (five congressional elections are still undecided), and DCCC staffers are hoping to pick up at least one more seat in delayed Louisiana elections. It will be the largest Democratic majority since 1992.
The House Democrats have proved themselves one of the strongest political operations in Washington. But assessing the results of the 2008 elections requires more than looking at the performance of individual candidates; how those candidates have changed the caucus will shape the legislative agenda in 2009 -- and the Democrats' plans for keeping their majority in 2010.
Some commentators have suggested that House Democrats underperformed compared to Barack Obama's impressive top-of-the-ticket win, but that's not quite the case. As political scientist Andrew Gelman has discussed, voter preference for Democratic candidates running for the House increased 5.7 percent from 2004. By comparison, on the presidential ticket the change from John Kerry to Barack Obama was 4.5 percent. Keep in mind also that in 2008 Democrats were frequently seeking to pick up seats in districts previously occupied by a Republican, many of which George W. Bush won in 2004. The Democrats were able to win with locally focused campaigns, while taking advantage of Obama's turnout numbers for wins in bluer states like Connecticut and Ohio.
In a post-election conversation, DCCC executive director and top Nancy Pelosi aide Brian Wolff noted that even the financial crisis -- the one moment of the election where all eyes were focused on the House after the surprising initial failure of the financial-rescue bill -- didn't have a significant effect on the dynamics of congressional races across the country.
"If you look at the rescue package, voters don't have enough information to know if what Congress was doing was the right thing or the wrong thing long-term," he said. "What pierced through those issues, what we held them accountable for was where [Republicans] were and what they've stood for -- privatizing Social Security. People realizing that they may have to work 10 to 15 years longer and they're already 60."
The Democratic caucus has gained a number of moderate members as the DCCC has expanded its electoral map into moderate and traditionally Republican areas, scooping up seats in Alabama, Indiana, and Idaho. The Democrats, in expanding their majority, have won most of the easy, progressive-leaning districts: The unseating of Chris Shays, the last Republican representative in New England, evinces that. The growth of the caucus reflects strenuous efforts among the Democrats to become the big-tent party, and more than one new Democratic representative, such as Alabama's Bobby Bright or Idaho's Walt Minnick, spent time as a Republican or thinking of becoming one. This worries some progressives who don't want to muddy their party's liberal tendencies, especially on social issues, but the DCCC is not concerned.
"What unites a Maxine Waters and a Gene Taylor is a belief that government done the right way can make a difference," Rep. Artur Davis, the DCCC's recruiting chair, said, citing the two representatives known respectively for their liberal and moderate views. "The people who don't get a fair shot are owed something by those of us who've had things go very well in our lives, and it's called a sense of obligation towards your fellow American. Gene Taylor believes that, Maxine Waters believes that. They disagree on a lot of things in between."
In the spring, the House will be focused on President-elect Obama's agenda, and leadership is in close contact with the administration. This is reflected in Obama's tapping of Democratic caucus Chair Rahm Emmanuel as his chief of staff and Phil Schiliro, a former aide to Rep. Henry Waxman, to head up the legislative-affairs transition. Whether an Obama administration will be able to develop far-reaching progressive legislation within the ideologically-varied caucus remains to be seen, though observers remain confident in Speaker Nancy Pelosi's direction and her good relationships with both Obama and the moderate members of her coalition. Indeed, House and Senate leadership have been on the same rhetorical page as Obama, even reaching out to Republicans in election-night victory speeches.
"The House leadership is extremely battle-tested," John Lapp, a political consultant familiar with the DCCC and the Democratic leadership, said. "People are so focused on getting things done, that I don't [worry about conflict]. The good news is the Democratic leadership has a very good rapport with Blue Dog Democrats. There isn't some of this bickering that happens between the various factions of the Democratic caucus."
But an early sign of future tension in the caucus could be Waxman's decision to challenge Rep. John Dingell for the chairmanship of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee. Insiders worry that moderates in the caucus, particularly the most recent member classes, will prevent the younger and more liberal Waxman from taking over the committee from Dingell, who is a reliable servant of the auto industry.
However internal caucus conflicts play out, members and staff realize that their re-election prospects depend upon working together with the Senate and president to produce major policy programs, especially on economic issues and the Iraq War. House Democrats are already planning to defend and, yes, expand their majority again in 2010, having seen the results of an early start -- the DCCC was recruiting for 2008 races before Pelosi was sworn in as speaker after the 2006 midterms. Next time will be even harder, not only because voters often take out their disappointments with a new president on their House and Senate allies, but because of Emanuel's departure for the White House. Emanuel, who led the DCCC's 2006 effort to gain the majority, continued to play a major role in the 2008 races as caucus chair, with the added responsibility of re-electing the new "majority maker" freshman class, as well as being an important political adviser to Pelosi.
The current caucus vice chair, Rep. John Larson, is expected to move into the top caucus role, but he will have a more traditional position than Emanuel, whose continuing work with the DCCC was unprecedented.
"It can't work that way this time, Rahm's not there," a senior Democratic leadership aide said. Instead, Van Hollen, who is remaining as DCCC chair for the 2010 cycle due to Pelosi's lobbying, has also been named assistant to the speaker. With this new title, he will gain the political responsibilities that Emanuel shepherded into the caucus chair job, primarily incumbent retention, as well as a hand in developing policy with the White House. It's a solid perk for the fast-rising fourth-term representative.
The good news for 2010, according to Wolff, is that there's a "narrative" for each of the four Democratic incumbents who lost this year -- Tim Mahoney defeated in Florida following a sex scandal; Don Cazayoux lost in Louisiana because of a third-party candidate; Nancy Boyda in Kansas saw her re-election come apart after asking the DCCC to stay out of her race; and Nick Lampson in Texas failed because voters voted against his opponent, Tom Delay, and not for him during his 2006 victory. In other words, the Democrats don't think incumbent losses predict party-wide disaster in the future.
There's some evidence that Democrats are prepared for incumbent protection. In New Hampshire this year, perennial surprise candidate Carol Shea-Porter won re-election over former incumbent Jeb Bradley. Shea-Porter had been considered a bit liberal for the district, but her hard work at constituent services improved her image and was part of the reason she secured the endorsement of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, key for an anti-war Democrat. That's the granular approach to local representation -- staying in touch with your district -- that Emanuel and Van Hollen have stressed as key to gaining reelection. Incidentally, it's not all that bad a way to conduct yourself as a representative.
But the future of the Democratic congressional majority now depends largely on its party's leader in the executive branch, with whom their fortunes rise and fall.
"It's an Obama world, and we just live in it," Wolff said.