All Together Now

On election night 2002, TV-watching Democrats across America let out a collective groan as then–Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairman Terry McAuliffe told CNN's Larry King, “I think it's going to be a very good night for the Democrats.” At that point in the evening, it was pretty clear that the elections were not breaking the Democrats' way. In an environment with few competitive races, the party would have needed a pickup of seven House seats to regain control of Congress. Democrats lost six House seats and another two in the Senate, flipping them into the minority in that chamber as well. In 2004, they slipped even further behind.

The GOP still holds a solid 29-seat majority in the House and a six-seat advantage in the Senate. But just lately -- after the Hurricane Katrina mess and Tom DeLay's indictment -- Democrats have begun to think they have the political winds at their backs (as Republicans did in 1994, when they picked up 52 House seats and swept into power). “The key for the party that's got that little breeze at the end is putting enough races in play to win all those toss-ups,” political analyst Chuck Todd, who edits the inside-Washington tip sheet The Hotline, wrote in October. “It's hard to foresee a neutral 2006 environment.”

Just how many of the 435 House seats will be competitive in 2006 is a matter of debate. Charlie Cook, editor of The Cook Political Report, puts the number at only 28, including 11 Democratic seats and 17 Republicans ones. Stuart Rothenberg, political analyst for Roll Call, pushes the number to 37, which is also the figure accepted by National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) Chairman Tom Reynolds. To win back control of the House, Democrats would have to keep all 11 of their contested seats and win 15 of the Republican ones, for a virtually impossible 96-percent win rate under the Cook scenario (Republicans retook the House in 1994 with a 75-percent win rate). Yet the political environment has also changed so radically over the summer and fall that Cook says he now thinks that there are “literally dozens of Republican-held seats, that, based on presidential voting patterns, credible Democratic candidates in a pro-Democratic year might win.”

Enter Congressman Rahm Emanuel, the Chicago Democrat and energetic chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). He's planning to make sure the Democrats field candidates in at least 50 races. Actually, he told the Prospect in mid-October, “My goal is to exceed that.”

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With approval of the Republican-led Congress below 30 percent, natural-gas prices up 150 percent (in a country where 60 percent of homes are heated by it), the ongoing war in Iraq, and major scandals and investigations of GOP leaders in the House, Senate, and White House (not to mention the shock of Katrina), Democrats could scarcely have asked for a more favorable political environment. An NBC/Wall Street Journal survey found 48 percent of voters would prefer a Democratic Congress to 39 percent who want the Republicans to stay in charge -- the largest pro-Democratic gap in the survey's 11-year history.

To capitalize on that growing sentiment, the DCCC is working off a three-pronged recruitment plan. First, Emanuel explains, “Every open seat gets a challenger.” With the recruitment season only half over, all the open slots in GOP-leaning districts are filled. Second, Emanuel says, “Every member of the Republican caucus who has an issue that's specific to them gets a challenger.” That means that Ohio's Bob Ney and California's Richard Pombo, linked as they are to House scandals involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff and indicted former Majority Leader DeLay, will face well-funded opponents and months of interest-group ads softening them up. Pombo, according to one internal DCCC poll, garnered only a 32-percent re-elect rate.

“Third,” Emanuel continues, “every district where John Kerry got 50 percent or more gets a challenger.” The districts Kerry won that aren't in Democratic hands are small in number -- 18, to be exact. A candidate has been found in two-thirds of the seats in this third category, Emanuel says. That means that GOP representatives, such as Florida's Mark Foley, who have never had serious opponents will. Tim Mahoney, a high-tech CEO, has just entered the race against him after months of discussion. Another Florida Republican, Clay Shaw, who has gone four cycles without a notable challenger, will face a state senator who has already raised $840,000. New Mexico Democratic Attorney General Patricia Madrid will challenge previously unopposed GOP incumbent Heather Wilson. Elsewhere, six Democratic Iraq War veterans will take on Republican incumbents. And all three Connecticut Republicans will be targeted, the first time that has ever been done.

Message unity across the notoriously fractious Democratic Party is also a realistic possibility. But unlike the consultant-crafted blandness that dominated the national message in 2002 (prescription drugs, anyone?), the new Democratic agenda, to be unveiled sometime in November, has been in development for months by party leaders in the House and Senate, in governors' mansions, in mayor's offices, at think tanks, and at the Democratic National Committee (DNC). The preliminary version leaders have been outlining calls for making college universal in the 21st century, getting the federal budget under control, achieving energy independence, creating a new national institute for science and technology, and providing health care to all working Americans.

A host of players pitched in: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi; Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid; Senators Maria Cantwell, Edward Kennedy, and Max Baucus; DNC Chairman Howard Dean; pollster Cornell Belcher; and staff from the Center for American Progress, along with many others. “It's an unprecedented level of coordination working together on this effort,” says DNC communications director Karen Finney.

If, however, you noticed that a certain four-letter word starting with “I” is missing from the issue list, you're right. Given that Democrats lost the last two elections based, in large measure, on national-security issues, coming up with a coherent, unified national-security agenda and stance on America's involvement in Iraq would seem to be job one for Democratic agenda setters.

When asked about this, Emanuel ripped into Bush administration failures there and pointed to Michigan Senator Carl Levin's call for performance benchmarks as a model approach. The Iraq part of the national Democratic message, at press time, was still under construction. This is one issue on which Democratic unanimity will be awfully difficult to achieve.

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Will this new message be enough, even when combined with the broadened playing field and changed political environment? “I think it's a pipe dream,” says Ed Patru, a spokesman for the NRCC. “It's one thing to say you have 50 competitive races; but if you don't have 50 competitive candidates, it's a tough sell to make those races truly competitive.” Patru argues that “over the last two to four years, all the really weak incumbents have been sort of culled.” The ones left are strong, he says, and the NRCC has a 3-to-1 financial advantage over the Democrats.

On the Senate side, reclaiming the mantle of leadership would require winning six of the seven contested Republican seats. One Democratic bright spot, though, is that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, under the leadership of master fund-raiser Chuck Schumer, has far outpaced its counterpart, Elizabeth Dole's National Republican Senatorial Committee. Senate recruiting, which is largely already done, has also been highly attuned to the shifting fortunes of the GOP. After first declining to challenge Ohio's Mike DeWine, Sherrod Brown, the populist congressman from Columbus, threw his hat in the ring in October. He'll likely face Iraq War veteran Paul Hackett, who nearly won a special election for Congress earlier this year in a deep-red district. High-profile GOP recruitment failures in West Virginia, North Dakota, and Michigan have also cheered Democratic hearts.

Contesting more than twice as many Republican House seats as in 2002 and '04 will at least make the GOP spend money in places where it hasn't had to lately. And message development is much further along than in recent elections -- with the glaring exceptions of Iraq and national security. Those have been Democratic Achilles' heels in the past; think 2002, when George W. Bush and the GOP campaigned solely on terrorism and homeland security. But even that's different now: If the Democrats don't develop a persuasive argument on these issues, it's pretty clear that the Republicans are losing theirs.

Garance Franke-Ruta is a Prospect senior editor.