House Democrats plotting strategy at their annual retreat this week see themselves on the rebound. But they have a long, hard road ahead.
As they gathered in Baltimore Wednesday for their three-day conference, congressional Democrats were unusually upbeat. Protests against President Donald Trump have been energetic and ongoing. Incumbent presidents' parties historically lose congressional seats in the mid-term election. And Donald Trump's approval ratings are unusually low for a new president.
“Two years from now we have have our best opportunity yet,” said Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio.
But the path to regaining political relevancy for House Democrats, who have 193 of the House’s 435 seats, remains an uphill climb, with the party’s support increasingly limited to the coasts and big cities.
“Democratic voters aren't where the party needs them right now,” said David Wasserman, who analyzes U.S. House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “You can look at the women's march, which drew gigantic crowds in D.C. Boston, San Francisco, L.A., Chicago. Guess what, Democrats already hold all the seats there.”
The Democrats are trying to win control of the U.S. House for the first time since losing it in the 2010 midterm election that followed Barack Obama’s first presidential win.
There are 23 Republicans who represent districts where 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton beat Trump, such as Darrell Issa in California and Pete Sessions in the Dallas suburbs. But the Democrats need to defend their own members in a dozen districts that favored Trump.
Democrats aren’t going to win control of the House without success in traditionally Republican wealthy suburbs such as the Orange County districts of Issa, Mimi Walters, Ed Royce and Dana Rohrabacher and the suburban Dallas district of Sessions, said Cook Political Report analyst Wasserman.
Even though Sessions’ district favored Clinton, that doesn’t mean the voters are prepared to dump their Republican congressman, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.
“Sessions has too strong a hold on the district,” Rottinghaus said. “He's going to have a lot of money and the fact that he can see them coming from across the horizon gives him a lot of time to plan ahead.”
Democrats are convinced that Trump’s 43 percent approval rating in the Feb. 2-6 Quinnipiac University poll will be a boon to them if it endures.
“Public sentiment is everything and it us up to us to make sure that the public knows what is happening,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Fudge, though, said she isn’t convinced that Pelosi, of San Francisco, has what it takes to win over Trump voters in the Midwest and elsewhere. Fudge supported fellow Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan's November attempt to unseat Pelosi as the Democratic leader and is not impressed with what Pelosi has done since.
“It's kind of business as usual,” said Fudge, who warned that Democrats can't fumble the opportunity to gain power that’s being presented by the 2018 midterm election.
“We should be able to take a lot more seats in the first midterm of a new president,” he said. “Second, I do believe (Trump) is going to alienate a lot of the people who voted for him.”
Some of her concerns could ebb later this month, when the Democratic National Committee will choose a new party chair. Implementing a 50-state strategy has been a recurring theme among the candidates, who will hold a forum in Baltimore Saturday.
At the moment, House leaders are seeing opportunities. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is touting the statistic that the incumbent president's party has lost an average of 28 House seats in the first midterm election of the new administration.
Republicans acknowledge the danger.
“As Republicans we have to prepare for the worst,” said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa. “I tell all my colleagues that you need to develop your own brand in your own district.”
The Democrats have to stick to a single message if they are going to take advantage of the opportunity, said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va. That message should be that Trump was elected on promises to help struggling blue collar workers but is instead favoring Wall Street and the rich with appointees and policies, he said.
“It has to be repeated and repeated some more until it becomes part of the national narrative,” Connolly said.
The danger, he said, is that Democrats will fall back only on personal criticism of Trump or put out many different messages of outrage that get lost in the political noise.
Connolly pointed to protests against Republicans such as those endured by Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., who left a town hall meeting in his home district under police escort last weekend after hundreds of demonstrators showed up. That sort of protest, Democrats said, give the party hope they can make major gains.
“There is an energy that is even larger than when Barack Obama ran the first time,” said Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif. “I believe we have a very good set of circumstances for the midterm elections if this energy continues.”