Texas’s surprise capped a gloomy political month for the Democratic House caucus, whose chances of retaining a majority beyond next year have been affected by a string of high-profile departures and the looming threat of redistribution, which will likely cost Democratic seats. Some party members are already speculating that Democrats could lose the House on these factors alone – a byproduct of their slim majority, which has magnified the importance of each district to an unusual degree in the 435-member chamber.
The latest blow came on Saturday, when Democrats failed to advance a runoff candidate from Texas’ 6th District, whom former President Donald Trump carried by just three points last year. This is exactly the type of place where Democrats jumped on a tide of demographic change and great voter enthusiasm to generate competitive races, if not always electoral victories, during the Trump years. But the results indicated that the days of grassroots turnout were over, and they raised questions about whether or not Democrats can continue to make inroads into Republican-leaning regions that nevertheless wary of Trump.
Privately, campaign officials and Democratic strategists say they faced a no-win situation. Missing the second round is embarrassing, but few thought that the seat, which had not gone Democratic for decades, could be won without a significant investment – and maybe not even then.
Others, including Hispanic Democrats who say the party broke the vote by not supporting Sanchez, say they didn’t try hard enough.
“It’s self-fulfilling. You don’t play, you lose, ”said Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist who worked on the race for an outside group that supported Sanchez. One of the architects of former Democratic Senator Doug Jones’ upset victory in the 2017 Senate special election in Alabama, Trippi called it a painful missed opportunity. “I surely thought there would be more attention from the Democratic side, and there just wasn’t.”
Democratic lawmakers and party officials say it is extremely early in the electoral cycle, with plenty of chances remaining to step up fundraising, attract strong recruits and challenge historic headwinds that would suggest their party will suffer losses next November. They note that many of the most threatened Democrats already have strong campaign flush accounts.
“We are focused on protecting the House majority and defeating the vulnerable Republicans who voted against Covid relief,” said Chris Hayden, spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “Meanwhile, Republican groups poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into a Republican seat to make sure Trump’s candidate wins.”
Yet the early fallout from the Texas special election reveals some of the risks of the first post-Trump campaign cycle, underscoring the pressure on the DCCC to successfully defend its 5-seat majority with virtually no margin for error.
There is the historic challenge: the president’s party loses an average of 26 seats in the House in a midterm election to the first term.
And some of the Democrats’ most tested warriors come out before battle.
Democratic Representative Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.) – who has won two different seats on the Arizona battlefield since taking office in 2008 – was the first to announce her retirement. It was quickly followed by Representative Filemón Vela (D-Texas), whose headquarters in the Rio Grande Valley took a sharp turn towards Trump in 2020.
Another surprising departure came last week when Rep. Cheri Bustos, president of the DCCC in the last election, revealed she would be leaving her district won by Trump in northwest Illinois.
“It’s very early in the game, but dropouts are a concern,” said former Rep Martin Frost (D-Texas), a former DCCC chairman. “And I hope the party takes them very seriously and sets out to recruit strong candidates,” he continued, noting that early retirements at least give the party more time to find replacements.
But the redistribution also changes the calculation of re-election of members, especially in states where the GOP will control the map-drawing process. This gives Republicans the opportunity, noted former Rep.Jason Altmire (D-Pa.), To draw districts “in a way that makes it really difficult for that member to win and keep that seat and to get them to stand. present to another office. “
Indeed, some of the Democrats’ most formidable incumbents are heading for offers for higher positions. Representative Conor Lamb, who first joined Congress winning a district Trump previously carried by 20 points, tells donors he is likely to run for the Senate.
Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), who has long flirted with statewide races to retire, is officially running for the Senate as Ohio loses a House seat. And in Florida, Democratic Representative Charlie Crist kicked off a third gubernatorial campaign this week, with his district on Florida’s west coast almost certainly poised to turn redder next year.
Other competing regions weighing in statewide bids include Reps Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.) And Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), Who represent two states where Republicans control both houses of the state legislature. Murphy, who has long had higher ambitions in Florida, is seen as unlikely to run for the House in the next cycle.
Against this backdrop, the opportunity to go on the offensive in the Texas special election was particularly appealing to some Democrats, even if the numbers looked daunting.
South Texas Representative Henry Cuellar is one of many Democrats who are unsure whether the party could have reclaimed the 6th District, where the GOP incumbent died from coronavirus last fall. But he still believes the DCCC should have asked for more comments from fellow Democrats in Texas, who could have helped with voting efforts or fundraising.
“If some of us had been put in the loop it would have been nice,” Cuellar said.
The North Texas District is one of many rapidly diversifying districts in the state where support for Trump dropped precipitously from 2016 to 2020, although the late incumbent Ron Wright still won by 9 points. . Democrats are eager to prove that they can hold onto or even build on these gains after Trump.
But National Democrats suspected that even though they would be criticized for ruling out the race, the odds were stacked against them even if they ended up in the second round.
“The opportunity cost is simply outrageous,” said a Democratic national strategist overseeing the race. “It’s essential that we don’t spend just to spend, or just to prove a point, or to avoid a few tough hours on Twitter on a Saturday night. We owe it to everyone involved to achieve real returns. “
There were 10 Democrats in the field of 23 candidates and six of them, plus Sanchez, got over 354 votes – the amount by which Sanchez missed the second round. Privately, some Democrats lament that no national group has attempted to gently push some unviable candidates out of the race or make a small expense to increase turnout.
The DCCC and EMILY’s List were in touch with some of the main campaigns throughout the primary. But neither of the two groups passed in the race. Besides Sanchez, two other candidates posted strong fundraising.
A few others did. Nuestro PAC made a minor investment and the new Operation 147 PAC, which worked with Trippi, spent some $ 25,000 on cable ads to help Sanchez, according to AdImpact, a media monitoring company.
At the very least, some Democrats argued, playing in the special election would have provided a space to test the messages and learn more about how to motivate the grassroots now that Trump is no longer in power. Suburban neighborhoods like Texas’ 6th have been brought online for Democrats thanks to the backlash against Trump.
“I don’t think people understand, in a broad sense, how perilous 2022 is to hang on to the House,” Trippi said.