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Defeats in New York and Nevada Demand a Democratic Reset | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Defeats in New York and Nevada Demand a Democratic Reset

A New York Congressional district that has been sending Democrats to Washington since 1922 elects a Republican to the House.

A Nevada district that includes the key battleground counties of what has become a pivotal swing state votes Republican by a twenty-two-point margin—despite the fact that the district has a large population of voters who are unemployed or underemployed, and despite the fact that one of the most critical issues of the contest was the future of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

By any measure, Tuesday’s special elections in New York and Nevada produced the worst set of results for Democrats in such a circumstance since the party lost Ted Kennedy’s US Senate seat in the January 2010 special election in Massachusetts. To suggest otherwise, is comic, and politically dangerous for Democrats.

The danger is that Democrats will not learn from their losses. And make no mistake, these were serious losses.

In New York’s 9th district, Barack Obama ran two points ahead of his national average to take 55 percent of the vote in 2008. Two years later, in 2010, Democratic Congressman Anthony Weiner won re-election with over 60 percent of the vote. On Tuesday, the guy Weiner trounced in 2010 won with 53 percent of the vote. That’s a 13 percent swing from the Democrats to the Republicans from 2010, and a 15 percent swing from 2008.

In Nevada’s 2nd district, Obama essentially tied John McCain in 2008, with 49 percent of the vote each. Obama carried key counties in the district and, following upon a very strong showing for the Democrats in the 2006 US House race, stirred talk that a traditionally red district might be turning blue—or at least purple. Strike that. Tuesday’s results gave Republican Mark Amodel a 58-36 win. Amodel achieved a nine-point Republican to Democrat swing from 2008 and a fourteen-point Republican to Democrat swing from 2006—the last time Democrats seriously competed for the seat. In areas of the district that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid won convincingly in 2010—not a particularly good year for the party—this year’s Democrat trailed by 10 percent or more.

These are devastating numbers. They can be spun with talk about the relative strengths and weaknesses of candidates and “local factors.” But that spin does Democrats a tremendous disservice. The party needs to get its act together. And it won’t do so by explaining away major swings to the Republicans in a district (New York’s 9th) where they should have won easily and in a district (Nevada’s 2nd) where they should have been highly competitive.

Even the Democrats who were spinning the hardest on Tuesday night and Wednesday acknowledged—not for attribution, of course—that voting patterns of the sort seen Tuesday would give Republicans a clean sweep in 2012.

Barack Obama knows this. He and his aides will figure out how to take care of the president’s re-election campaign. He’ll have plenty of money and, more likely than not, an opportunity to compare himself to a frightening Republican challenger.

But Congressional Democrats have to figure out how they will deal with the 2012 cycle.

There are three lessons they should take away from Tuesday night’s debacle: 

1. Get Serious About Candidate Recruitment.

New York Democrat David Weprin was nominated by party bosses because he was a drab, uninspired party apparatchik who could be counted on to accept the elimination of the 9th district seat in the redistricting process. In other words, his appeal to the party was the fact that he was unlikely to make trouble for the bosses and other incumbents, Unfortunately for the Democrats, what made Weprin appealing to the bosses make him unappealing to the voters. Who wants a placeholder representative? And who wants a placeholder representative who does not live in the district?

That’s right, for a high-profile special election, Democrats nominated a candidate who did not live in the district.

Nevada’s Kate Marshall, the sitting state treasurer, was the stronger contender—at least on paper. But like Weprin she was chosen by party insiders as a “safe” candidate. Obviously, Democrats could have used a contender with more of an edge. While turnout for both parties was off in the Nevada special, the Democratic numbers collapsed, especially in Reno’s Washoe County, where they had been trending upward until this year.

While Republicans are thinking about grabbing seats and moving forward politically, Democrats are playing it safe. In a volatile political year, that’s a suicidal approach. Democrats should be running edgy populists who aren’t afraid to say bold, even unsettling things. When the party won the special election in New York’s 26th District in the spring, they did not do so with a placeholder candidate. Democrat Kathy Hochul, who took a lot of advice from the state’s union-allied Working Families Party, ran as a populist defender of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. She attacked her Republican opponent relentlessly on issues related to safety-net programs for the elderly and the disabled. And she did not hesitate to suggest that her sentiments were with working families, as opposed to hedge-fund managers and bankers.

Democrat Hochul won an upset victory every bit as striking as Bob Turner’s in New York’s 9th. There’s a lesson here, and it has everything to do replacing placeholders with populists. 

2. Focus on Winning Issues.

The Democratic campaigns in New York and Nevada were unfocused and unsteady. While the Republicans ran against Barack Obama in general and against the president’s economic policies in particular, the Democrats were all over the place—playing defense, going negative, focusing on Social Security, talking about jobs, bringing up Medicare, embracing the president, distancing themselves from the president. At one point, in New York, Democrat David Weprin said he would “probably” back Obama in 2012. Later, he said he certainly would, but then pointed out the issues on which he definitely disagreed with the president.

In Nevada, Marshall actually ran to the right of her conservative Republican opponent—attacking him for backing tax proposals and regulations. Thus, in a low-turnout election, where simply drawing the Democratic base vote from 2010 would have made Marshall a serious contender, she lost some of the most liberal regions of the district and fell 40,000 votes short of last year’s Democratic total.

What a mess.

The winning issues for Democrats are these: (a) an uncompromising defense of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid that offers no ground to Republicans on questions of reform, (b) a deep commitment to pro-jobs policies that includes a promise to oppose President Obama’s advocacy for free-trade pacts and supports aggressive investment in infrastructure, (c) a commitment to fair tax policies that shift the burden from working families to the idle rich. This is not some ideological rant or philosophical rumination: When Democrat Hochul grabbed that historically Republican House seat in upstate New York earlier this year, she did not run against her Republican foe. She ran against House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan and the GOP’s economic policies. And she did not waver, muddy her message or shift from issue to issue.

Much is being made about the fact that US policy toward Israel was an issue in the New York 9th race. Fair enough. Let’s say that the desire to send President Obama a message about Middle East policy was a factor. The things is that every Congressional district has local issues that come into play in a tight race. Farm policy concerns can still swing races in Iowa and western Minnesota. River dredging policies are big issues in districts along the Mississippi. Immigration “plays” as an issue in some border states. The key for Democrats is to be strong enough on core economic issues that they dominate the discourse—not local or national issues that might be exploited by the Republicans.

3. Recognize the Reality of the Citizens United Crisis

Karl Rove’s America Crossroads operation—one of the array of new groups that have taken shape in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling (which freed corporations to direct unlimited amounts of money into political races)—has developed a plan for assuring that Republicans win key House races. They played big in Nevada, implementing an expensive voter-identification and early-voting strategy that proved to be a big success. They will take this strategy national next year, and they will have all the resources they need.

Democrats and their allies need to develop smart grassroots strategies—relying especially on labor and environmental groups—to counter Rove and his crew. And they have to start early, not play catch-up.

4. Figure Out How to Relate to President Obama and Then Be Done With It.

Yes, Obama’s weak poll numbers are a drag on the Democrats. But they can’t run against the guy—as Weprin and Nevada Democrat Kate Marshall both attempted to do at various points in their special-election runs this year. That does not work. What does work is to come up with a simple line on the president—“He’s better than any of the Republicans but he needs a real Democrat to help him figure some of these issues out”—and then shift to the issues.

The way to diminish the damage caused by Obama’s challenges is not to spend time talking about the president. The best defense against the drag caused by a weak party leader is to focus on policy matters. Talk a lot about trade. Talk a lot about job creation. Talk a lot, a lot, a lot about defending Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Talk very little about Obama.

This is what Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders does. Sanders is critical of the president where necessary, supportive where possible. But for the most part he talks about special issues and specific proposals. That’s something every Democrats should do going into 2012. If Obama’s position strengthens—as is likely, once his GOP challenger is no longer “generic”—then Democratic Congressional candidates can reap any benefits that might go with a place on his ticket. If the president remains weak, then Democrats are tied less to him than to ideas and issues that have a broader appeal.

Sanders is running for re-election in 2012. He’ll be doing so in Vermont, a state where Obama is likely to run well. But Sanders is not fretting it one way or another. He is critical of the president where need be—even suggesting that Obama might benefit from a primary challenge; but he does not make a fetish of it. If Obama’s right, Sanders is willing to say it. If Obama’s wrong, Sanders will sat it just as loudly. He’s setting his own course, based on his record and his issues.

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