House Democrats Try to Prevent Exodus

January 22, 2010 · 8:00 AM EST

In the wake of Republican Scott Brown’s upset victory in Massachusetts, House Democratic strategists are trying to reassure their Members that the party is prepared for a tough election.

“House Democrats have been preparing since day one last year for what we knew historically would be a very challenging election cycle,” said a memo, obtained by Roll Call, that went out to Democratic Members on Tuesday night, immediately after Brown’s victory.

Democratic strategists expected a few more House retirements before votes were cast in the Bay State and now are doing their best to get out in front of any of their Members who are sitting on the retirement fence and could be discouraged by Tuesday’s results.

The three-page memo detailed House Democrats’ plans for 2010, including working with vulnerable “Frontline” program Members and staying on the offense in GOP seats. The memo also pointed out the party’s success in recent House special elections, highlighting the takeover in New York’s 23rd district last November as a road map to persuading independent voters.

“We used early opposition research to develop a clear and contrasting message between Bill Owens and his two Republican opponents,” according to the memo. “We ensured that our candidate had the early resources to be the first on TV in order to define the race on our terms: jobs and the economy and standing up for the middle class.”

Democrats are determined to use the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s financial advantage and their individual incumbents’ financial edge to create district-specific “political environments” that set up a choice between the Democratic and Republican candidates.

“Elections are about choices,” according to DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.), who echoed the memo’s main points in his post-election statement. “And this year’s Midterms will be a choice between continuing the economic progress and independent leadership that House Democrats are delivering for their districts versus Republicans who are eager to turn back the clock to the same failed Bush-Cheney policies that brought our economy to the brink of collapse.”

Democratic strategists want to avoid a replay of Massachusetts where Attorney General Martha Coakley (D) allowed Brown to define himself and the race before it was too late to change the dynamic. Later this year, Democrats will try to use their financial muscle to pound GOP nominees as they emerge from competitive primaries with few resources to defend themselves.

By highlighting the special election in New York, Democrats are putting a lot of stock in a race that they won with 48 percent after Republicans devoured each other resulting in the GOP nominee (who still received 6 percent) dropping out and endorsing the Democrat at the last minute, while Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman received 46 percent.

Indeed, Democrats believe the GOP “civil war” and the damaged Republican brand preclude the GOP from regaining the majority. But while Republicans certainly have competitive primaries, the dynamic in New York is tough to replicate. And what Democrats would call the audacity of Brown to shun the GOP label is now a road map for other Republican candidates.

Overall, Democrats won’t be taken by surprise and now have a better idea about the challenges they face in an election that is more likely to be a referendum on the party in power. While it’s unclear whether their strategy will work to save a handful of vulnerable seats or to block an entire wave, at least Democrats appear to have the right strategy.

“Now is the time to be even more aggressive in reminding voters of their choice next November: continue to work toward getting the economy back on track or a choice to turn backwards to the policies that got us into this mess to begin with,” said the memo.