It was the morning of June 6 and Democrats were hopeful. That Tuesday there was a special election in San Diego to replace Republican Duke Cunningham–who had pleaded guilty to bribery charges. The district was Republican, but Democrats saw the contest between Democrat Francine Busby and Republican Brian Bilbray as an opportunity to pick up a seat–and gain a boost en route to the November Congressional elections. As voters were heading to the polls in Cunningham’s district, I asked Democratic Party chair Howard Dean about his party’s plan to mobilize voters in the coming mid-term elections. “We’re using it in Busby’s district,” Dean said.
If that was the case, Democrats have reason to worry. And some are–which has led to a bruising fight in Democratic strategy circles between Dean’s Democratic National Committee (DNC) and other key party operatives. Busby lost to Bilbray by four percentage points, and worse, a massive Democratic mobilization never materialized.
Dean says the DNC has two plans, short-term and long-term. His long-term plan is to rebuild the party by hiring full-time field organizers in all fifty states. Dean and his supporters, including recent convert Bill Clinton, contend that Democrats must do that if they hope to command an electoral majority in the years to come.
But the question of the moment is: Where and what is the DNC’s plan for 2006? A number of top party operatives believe the DNC should take the lead in building a strong get-out-the-vote (GOTV) operation for November. That means identifying probable voters, persuading them to care about the election and getting them to the polls November 7. Thus far, the operatives say, the DNC has failed to prepare adequately for the coming ground game, causing concern that Dean’s long-term strategy is squandering the Democrats’ best short-term opportunity in a decade to retake Congress.
Dean’s immediate focus in Busby’s district, as he explained to me, was to target people who voted in 2004 but not in 2002. Yet Republicans out-hustled and out-mobilized Democrats on the ground in Bilbray’s victory, spending twice as much money, making six times as many phone calls to voters and airlifting in 100 staffers from Capitol Hill. “There was dramatically lower turnout than we expected,” said one Democratic operative in the district. Busby got half as many votes as Kerry, and only improved upon Kerry’s 44 percent take by less than 1 percent.
“That was a tough district any way you look at it,” says DNC executive director Tom McMahon. “But the people we targeted turned out.”
Although you can’t read too much into the results of a special election in a heavily Republican area thirty miles from the Mexico border, the Busby race demonstrated that–despite all the current anti-GOP kinks in the electoral environment–Republicans are better at running the machinery of politics: raising money, working together, harnessing new technology, motivating the base, exploiting hot-button issues and getting voters to the polls.
In an off-year election, when voter participation is generally 15 to 20 percent lower than in a presidential year, turnout is critical. For Democrats that means the party has to excite its base, pursue the “dropoff voters” (who voted in 2004 but not in 2002) and court independents and disaffected Republicans. Polling suggests that the public would prefer a Democratic-controlled Congress. But politics has a lot to do with mechanics–especially when control of the House and Senate will turn on a few dozen contests come November.