International House of Dan: Thanks For Voting

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Thanks For Voting

I have never been the sort to derive pleasure from crossing things off lists, and as far as killing multiple birds with one stone... well, I'm just not that much into hunting. Still I have to think it would be silly not to (belatedly) make good on my promised electoral review, while at the same time spreading some Thanksgiving cheer.

The November election went off as I had said it would (some of you doubted me when I did not hesitate to call a bicameral takeover... you know who you are), though by a narrower margin than I had anticipated. This places me in the camp of Democrats who are critical of DNC Chairman Howard Dean for our failure to capitalize on races that, frankly, we should have won. I disagree with some of those critics, though, that the way to win those close races would have been to spend more money. I am also less optimistic about the takeover than many, because if we look at the policy positions of a lot of the incoming Democrats... well, a lot of them might as well be Republicans. So without further ado, a paragraph on the overall outcome and what it means, some thoughts on my disagreement with some campaign strategies, and finally, a paragraph on right-of-center Democrats and what their ascendancy means.

The votes have been counted:

This election provided a number of notable items to explore. Tom Delay and Mark Foley remained on the ballot, Lieberman finally got his "Joementum", Nancy Pelosi has become the first female Speaker of the House, and Democrat wins at various levels of state government (especially governors) may have altered the field for a number of future national races, but since I write too much as it is (when I get around to writing), I will focus on the overall Congressional picture. In terms of net gains, the Democrats were able to retake both chambers of Congress by unseating 18 Republicans in the House and 6 in the Senate, while also taking open seats in each chamber. The end result: Democrats have re-taken control of Congress for the first time in 12 years. They lack the supermajorities needed to hamstring the Executive, but by Bush standards, they most definitely have a mandate.

Show me the money:

In every political campaign money is a good barometer of support, priorities, and voter mood. A candidate who cannot meet a fundraising threshold will be deemed unviable and fade to irrelevance, national spending shifts from race to race in response to changing polls and strategies, and as candidates lose traction with voters, so will their ability to raise funds. As usual, the Republicans generally started with more money than the Democrats, but going into the final weeks of the campaign, Democrats climbed the ranks in terms of cash on hand. Through October 18th, only 15 Democrats ranked in the top 50 House races in terms of receipts (5 incumbents, 7 challengers and 3 open races), and this number dropped to 13 in terms of disbursements (5 incumbents, 5 challengers, and 3 open races). 22 Democratic incumbents and 1 challenger ranked in the top 50 cash on hand House campaigns. In the Senate, 25 Democrats (14 incumbents, 8 challengers, and 3 open races) were in the top 50 in receipts (Republicans had 24, there was one Independent), and 23 were in the top 50 in disbursements (12 incumbents, 8 challengers, and 3 open races). 15 Democratic incumbents, 8 challengers and 3 open races (26 total) ranked in the top 50 cash on hand Senate campaigns. In the closing weeks of the campaign, Republicans had still raised more money, but Democrats saw a late surge and reversed many existing trends.

So what? Carville's criticism of Dean hinges on the unspent millions in the Democrats' coffers. My disagreement with that critique is related to my assessment of the overall races: it does not take money to get conservative voters to elect conservative Democrats. What I criticize the DCCC and the DNC's strategy and spending for is linking contributions to Democratic headliners (such as Clinton and Obama) nationally but focusing disbursements on local "Blue Dogs". It's great if a letter from Hillary can get a hefty donation from a California liberal, but its value is diminished when the funds go to conservative Southerner who just happens to be backed by the teachers' union. What troubles me is the consistent failure of the party to inspire: the young outnumber the old, the poor outnumber the rich, shareholders are outnumbered by the people whose pensions depend on their shares, and yet we were only able to eke out Congressional gains by fielding candidates who could assure Republicans that it was safe to stay home on November 7th without worrying about gay marriage being legalized on the 8th. It bothers me that it took a page from the Republican playbook (stressing irrelevant issues) to get concerns over Iraq to amount to wins at the county zoning board.

I fault the party leadership, not for not spending enough, but for spending unwisely. I believe that more seats could have been won if we did not continue to stick to old voter turnout formulas. I blame some unsuccessful races on a failure by the party to recognize that when conservative suburban voters are sick of phone calls (because of dirty Republican tricks*), the problem is not name recognition, and the answer is not more door hangers and volunteer visits.

What exactly is a "Blue Dog"?:

Prior to 1994, most of us would have probably associated the term "Blue Dog" with Louisiana artist George Rodrigue (who, incidentally, was commissioned by the Republican party to paint a portrait of President Ronald Reagan in 1986). It makes sense to think of Rodrigue, since it was his art that inspired the name of the coalition formed by conservative Democrats in the 104th Congress. It appears to me that the term has since expanded to include newcomers such as Joe Donnelly (IN-02), Heath Schuler (NC-11), and Sen. Bob Casey (PA), who while contributing to the Democrats' majorities on paper would probably vote to overturn Roe. The problem with having these people around our new majorities, is that unlike the Republicans in 1994, Democrats in 2006 do not have a "Contract With America" spelling out a policy agenda that they pledge to advance. The Democrats of this month have the added disadvantage of having campaigned as independents, in contrast to the Republicans' willingness to act in lockstep as a rubber stamp for the administration. This has placed some of these newcomers in a position to enhance their standing before conservative constituents by refusing to help their party on key votes. In other words, voters' may have shown their dissatisfaction with Republicans on Iraq and corruption, but they only did so to the extent that the alternative would not require them to risk a change in social policy. They may have let Democrats take the cake, but only because they knew we couldn't eat it.

Happy turkey to you all. Gobble gobble (go Chiefs).

* It is my understanding that Republican claims of similar practices by Democrats involve calls in violation of specific laws, and not misleading calls that comply with the law. Frankly, I think the former is worse, as it cannot be explained by mistakes, just by bad intentions.


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