BALTIMORE — Twenty-one months out, House Democratic leaders are already promising that they will pick up seats in the 2018 midterm elections.
The lawmakers say it’s well too early to predict whether they have a shot at winning control of the lower chamber, something they've failed to do the past four elections.
But with President Trump in the White House — and national protests popping up on a near-weekly basis against his agenda — the Democrats are feeling bullish about their chances.
“There’s no question that we’re going to pick up seats in 2018,” Rep. Rep. Ben Ray Luján (N.M.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), told reporters during the Democrats’ annual issues conference.
Rep. Denny HeckDenny HeckExclusive: Guccifer 2.0 hacked memos expand on Pennsylvania House races Heck enjoys second political wind Incoming lawmaker feeling a bit overwhelmed MORE (D-Wash.), the DCCC’s recruitment chairman, agreed. While it’s “way too early” to know how many seats the Democrats will gain in 2018, he said there’s no doubt the math will shift in their favor.
“There’s only one thing I’m confident in saying: We’re going to gain seats in 2018, it’s just a question of how many,” he said.
Along with Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.), Heck has been tapped to lead the Democrats’ search for 2018 candidates. The energy emanating from the Trump protest movement, both lawmakers said, has made their task much easier.
“President Trump is a better recruitment tool for us than he is necessarily the central campaign mission,” Heck said.
Democrats have a tough path ahead for taking back control of the lower chamber. While they gained six seats in the 2016 election, Republicans maintain a comfortable majority in the 115th Congress, leaving Democrats with the tall task of picking up 24 additional seats to win back the gavel.
Still, midterm elections for first-term presidents are historically brutal for the party in control of the White House. And unpopular presidents, as Kyle Kondik of Sabato's Crystal Ball noted Thursday, only exacerbate that trend.
“History is on the Democrats’ side,” he wrote. “The president’s party has lost ground in the House in 36 of 39 midterms since the Civil War. The average loss is 33 seats, a shift in seats that would flip the House next year.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has some experience in the matter.
The California liberal was at the helm of her party in 2006, when Republicans, then as now, controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress. Democrats settled on a “Six for ’06” slogan — a set of simple policy prescriptions they vowed to prioritize — and got a boost from the unpopularity of President George W. Bush, whose approval rating was in the tank over the Iraq War and his attempt to privatize Social Security.
“This is how we won in ’05 and ’06: We had to do so with total clarity in contrasting Democrats and Republicans. We had to show why what they were doing was not good for the country,” Pelosi told reporters Thursday.
“The visibility of Donald TrumpDonald TrumpEx-CIA analyst resigns rather than serve Trump administration Matt Schlapp op-ed: Challenges, controversy won't stop CPAC 2017 Anti-Trump protests swell outside Parliament during debate on official visit MORE makes that a little bit easier for us now.”
Democrats were similarly optimistic with Trump on the ballot last year, predicting they’d win the White House, take over the Senate and pick up more than 20 seats in the House — none of which happened. Much of the conversation swirling around the Democrats’ retreat this week is aimed at figuring out how they were so wrong.
Rep. Marcia FudgeMarcia FudgeDems claim unity, but are still in search of a message Dem campaign chief: 'No question' we'll pick up House seats in 2018 CBC to Trump: Keep Richard Cordray, ensure the protection of American consumers MORE (D-Ohio), former head of the Congressional Black Caucus, said part of the problem has been a repeated reliance on consultants who don’t produce results.
“We have to stop listening to the consultants who continue to lose,” she said.
Luján acknowledged Thursday that the pollsters the DCCC had hired “got a lot of information wrong,” vowing “a polling reboot” designed to improve accuracy. Part of that will be weeding out undependable groups.
“We want to make it loud and clear that unreliable pollsters will not be invited back to the DCCC,” Luján said.
Heck said the Democrats’ primary goal will be in protecting their most vulnerable members, particularly the 12 who represent districts won by Trump.
“We cannot add by subtraction,” he said.
Beyond that, Heck outlined three categories of Republican incumbent the DCCC will target: the 23 Republicans in districts won by Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonFive big Trump narratives to watch NBC: Russia setting up dossier on Trump Chelsea Clinton attends Muslim solidarity rally in NYC MORE; the 10 Republicans in districts Clinton lost by less than 4 percentage points; and the nine GOP lawmakers in seats where Clinton lost by a wider margin but President Obama won in both 2008 and 2012.
“We don’t have to bat 1.000,” Heck said. “We just need to do better.”