History Says House Dems Are Doomed in 2022. The Top Campaign Dem Thinks Otherwise
"I think that one of the big takeaways from the last cycle was that the battlefield was too big and that we need to be more focused,” said DCCC Chairman Rep. Maloney.
If you’re reading this after the midterm elections, it’s either because Democrats were right that they could buck the historical trends and keep their House majority—or it’s because they were spectacularly wrong.
The man in charge of defending House Democrats is confident it will be the former, thanks to strong economic growth and a competent COVID response. And what’s more, he thinks Republicans are betting everything on a historical trend that isn’t going to play out.
“I got it,” Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told The Daily Beast this week during a phone interview. “There’s a precedent that says you lose a couple of seats. But what is clear to me is that the Republicans think there’s nothing about their brand they need to change in swing districts, and I just think they’re wrong about that.”
But the precedent is much worse than “a couple of seats.” On average, the president’s party has lost 30 House seats in modern midterm elections. The trend is even worse during the president’s first midterm election. In 2018, Republicans lost 41 seats under President Donald Trump. In 2010, Democrats lost 63 seats in what President Barack Obama termed “a shellacking.”
Democrats might also be starting the 2022 cycle from a place of subtraction. While redistricting might not cost Democrats as many seats as they once feared, they still probably begin the midterms by losing two to five seats, depending on how aggressively some states—particularly Texas and New York—choose to gerrymander.
Additionally, some of the Democrats’ strongest House incumbents in vulnerable seats—Conor Lamb (PA), Tim Ryan (OH), Charlie Crist (FL), Cheri Bustos (IL), and Ann Kirkpatrick (AZ)—are either retiring or running for a higher office, potentially opening the door for a Republican to claim their seat.
But Democrats think a booming economy, a popular president, and a competent government response to coronavirus could blunt all of those potential losses, perhaps even cause Democrats to gain seats. And Maloney sees Republicans making some major tactical mistakes.
“Doubling down on Trump without Trump, which is an even more toxic and malignant form of conspiracy theories and white supremacy, is just a dumb strategy in swing districts,” Maloney said. “But I think they’re so confident in the precedent that they forgot to bring a plan and they forgot to bring any policies that might justify winning back the majority.”
In contrast, Maloney and other Democratic strategists say Democrats have a winning message on the economy, which they believe will be humming come the midterm elections. (Maloney theorized that it’d be growing at 7 percent.) And Democratic strategists noted that Republicans may have made a misstep on the $1.9 trillion COVID relief package, allowing it to pass without a single GOP vote.
“While we focus on delivering, they are going to focus on dividing,” Maloney said. “And that’s why you see them trying to exploit issues as important as racial justice for short-term political gain, or issues as silly as children’s books or Mr. Potato Head, because they are a party without ideas in search of pockets of frustration to exploit.”
Maloney added that the GOP’s game plan seemed to be to vote ‘no’ on everything Democrats put forward on the economy, on infrastructure, and on the coronavirus pandemic, sprinkle in a host of culture war items that seem to be motivating Republicans more than ever, “literally root for the president to fail,” and then somehow win.
For the record, the National Republican Congressional Committee sees it going very differently. They think Democrats are putting forth an agenda that Americans will enthusiastically reject. And they suggested that Democrats weren’t taking the historical trends nearly seriously enough, noting that Republicans still lost seats with a relatively strong economy in 2018.
“If the clowns at the DCCC don't see how much trouble they are in, they are just as delusional now as they were last cycle,” NRCC communications director Michael McAdams said in a statement to The Daily Beast. “Sean Patrick Maloney's tenure as DCCC Chairman has been an unmitigated disaster and House Democrats have embraced a toxic socialist agenda that wants to raise taxes, defund the police and open our borders.”
Maloney’s limited tenure has been, to this point, mixed.
Democrats just had their best off-year fundraising for the first quarter ever. The DCCC raised $15.6 million in March alone, and Democratic frontliners—the most vulnerable members—have already raised more than $20 million, ending the first quarter with more than $48 million cash on hand.
And the 54-year-old Maloney said recruiting candidates had been going well, due in part to the frustration some Democrats felt watching the Capitol be sacked by insurrectionists.
But there’s also been missed opportunities.
Their decision not to play in a Texas special election seat last month appeared short-sighted after the top vote-getting Democrat missed second place by 355 votes—resulting in a Republican v. Republican runoff election later this year.
A Democratic strategist who asked to remain anonymous to be more candid about that outcome noted to The Daily Beast that if Democrats knew it would only have taken a little bit of money or help on the ground to turn out the vote, they would of course made a small investment—if only to make sure Republicans had to spend in the runoff itself. And this strategist also said there could be a “chilling effect” for candidate recruitment, as the DCCC looks to entice the best possible candidates to upend their lives and run for Congress.
The NRCC was also more than happy to point to the Texas special election as a failure for Maloney—as well as the legal challenges Democrats funded to the tune of $1.4 million trying to litigate a seat in Iowa that was decided by six votes.
“Democrats have fallen on their face at every turn this cycle,” McAdams, the NRCC spokesman, said.
Maloney, however, vigorously defended the DCCC’s decision not to spend in the Texas special election.
“The point is not to come in second or third; the point is to win,” Maloney said. “So if I thought there was an argument to winning that seat, we would’ve invested in it. Simple as that.”
For one, he said, the DCCC wasn’t prepared to pick a favorite among the Democratic candidates running. But for another, unlike the Republicans, Democrats decided not to spend on a seat that is already tilting in the GOP’s favor—and would likely only get redder as Texas goes through its partisan redistricting process.
“That may disappoint people or cause certain second-guessing,” Maloney said. “But I think that one of the big takeaways from the last cycle was that the battlefield was too big and that we need to be more focused.”
Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson told The Daily Beast that focusing on the Texas special election—while a favorite activity among Beltway reporters and strategists—would really have little impact on the 2022 election. And if Democrats had spent there and gotten a Democrat into the runoff, “then everyone would’ve been lamenting that they chose one candidate over another.”
Just as Maloney did, Ferguson mentioned that the midterms where the party in charge gained seats seemed to come in reaction to major crises—like 9/11 and the Great Depression.
And Ferguson noted that there was a clear narrative developing, on the economy and on COVID, where Republicans were positioning themselves as “part of the problem” and “against the solution.”
“It’s the combination of Trump and the Trump era, the insurrection, and the opposition to the rescue plan that has left them underwater by nearly 20 points,” Ferguson said of the GOP approval rating. “In elections that are more and more nationalized, especially in the House, a lot of voters will be making a choice between two parties as much as they’re making a choice between two candidates.”
Other Democratic strategists noted that they’ve had success tying Republicans to the most extreme factions of the party, such as QAnon, insurrectionists, and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA). And they didn’t see much risk in overplaying their hand by, say, trying to tie those elements of the party to more moderate and vulnerable members like Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA).
As one Democratic strategist noted, even the most moderate Republicans won’t speak out against whatever controversy Taylor Greene is kicking up day-to-day.
And then, of course, there is the latest GOP controversy surrounding No. 3 House Republican Liz Cheney. Strategists said this would further cement the Republican brand and make it easier to show in those suburban, affluent, and educated districts that Democrats turned blue in 2018 that this isn’t your father’s GOP.
“House Republicans are entrenched in their own infighting, choosing to shamelessly oust Liz Cheney for telling the truth about the results of the presidential election while ushering in political opportunist Elise Stefanik, who peddles dangerous conspiracies about the results of the election for her own political gain,” Maloney said.
DCCC spokesperson Helen Kalla further went after Stefanik and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) for showing what Republicans really stand for.
“Elise Stefanik’s evolution from refusing to even say Trump’s name to becoming one of his staunchest defenders shows that pushing the Big Lie is a prerequisite for membership in today’s GOP,” Kalla said. “McCarthy and House Republicans are making their message clear—lie to the American people or get out of the way for someone who will.”
Still, Republicans point to their strong reputation on the economy. And they believe that the potent culture issues, combined with the strong historical trends, will propel Republicans to the majority. Not a single GOP incumbent, after all, lost their House seat in 2020, despite Democrats winning the White House and believing they’d pick up an additional dozen districts.
And yet Maloney has an answer for that, too. He said the smaller battlefield to defend, combined with the historical trend already being bucked in 2020 with Democratic losses, could lead to pickups for his party. But he acknowledges that the game plan does ride on a strong economy.
“If the economy succeeds and people feel it, then just think about it,” Maloney said. “Their argument depends on either deceiving people about the president and the Democrats’ success, or trying to talk it down in a way, and I just think that’s a mistake.”
—This article was updated at 10:28 p.m. May. 10, 2021, to correctly identify Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson.