If the 2010 elections weren’t bad enough for Democrats, here comes the “six-year itch.” With the exception of Bill Clinton’s second term, the party that controls the White House loses seats in congress six years into a presidency. But there’s a gathering sense among Democratic consultants who work on congressional campaigns that their party could buck the trend in 2014 for a number of reasons, not least because Barack Obama is finally fired up and ready to elect Democrats.
For all the criticism he gets from the right for “nonstop campaigning”, Obama has rarely put his back into build the party. In 2009, Ed Espinoza was the Western States Director for the Democratic National Committee and found that all the president’s men and women were unwilling to engage in partisan warfare.
“The president and his team were subscribing to this notion of a post-partisan world,” said Espinoza, who last year managed ex-Rep. Nick Lampson’s comeback attempt. “They would say they don’t want to lower ourselves to their level, we won’t be any better than they are.”
This left the president’s agenda undefended at a precarious time.
“In 2010, frustrations voters felt were squarely directed at Democrats who held the White House and big majorities in both chambers. Whether it was fair or not, voters held Democrats accountable for the lack of improvement in the economy and general dysfunction in Congress. Additionally, the dominant legislative issue of the 2010 cycle was healthcare - an issue on which Democrats lost the message war during the summer and fall of 2009,” said Zac McCrary of Anzalone Liszt, a top Democratic polling firm.
To put it mildly, the political dynamic these days differs slightly from the frothing rage of 2009. One reason is the Tea Party insurgents now run the asylum known as the House of Representatives, and Republican congressional leaders poll worse than Nancy Pelosi’s speakership ever did. The generic congressional ballot has Democrats ahead by 8%, a much bigger lead than Republicans had in 2010 and slightly more than Democrats enjoyed in 2006.
Meanwhile, Obama’s agenda no longer requires complicated explanations about painful solutions, say Democratic consultants.
“In 2013, he’s offering entitlement reform with closing loopholes, a path to citizenship with tougher border security, and even universal background checks without a real move on banning new weapons. It’s an agenda that deflates Tea Party insanity and soothes swing voters. And, most importantly, it shines a light on a useless, lifeless Congress. Advantage Democrats,” said Bob Doyle, a media consultant who frequently advises Democrat campaigns in swing districts.
All of this is true. Republicans are playing defense, Democrats have more popular policies, and voters are in a much better mood. But the biggest change since the last midterm election is that we are not dealing with the same Obama.
The most obvious change is his willingness to highlight differences between himself and Republicans, something he did only implicitly and then grudgingly in 2009. Obama is also raising money for Democrats now, something he never did before as president.
“What I couldn’t do in 2012, I’m in big time in 2014. I am in, and I mean it,” Obama told Democratic members of congress, implicitly acknowledging his previous unwillingness to help those he counted on to pass his agenda.
“But, realistically, I’d get a whole lot more done if Nancy Pelosi is speaker of the House,” Obama said earlier this month at a fundraiser in San Francisco for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the first of 20 such events he has promised to headline for the Democratic Party. Apparently he really does mean it.
No one is predicting that Democrats will win back the House. Thanks to the 2010 elections, Republicans dominated redistricting and drew congressional maps designed to prevent a Democratic takeover. But thanks to a re-engaged Obama, Democrats who work on congressional campaigns are allowing themselves the tempered optimism that they might beat the “six-year itch.”
Jason Stanford is a Democratic consultant who writes columns for the Austin American-Statesman and MSNBC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @JasStanford.