2016 has already proven to be a challenging year for Democrats, and they’re not gaining ground anytime soon.
Since early March, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has lost 21 seats in special elections, according to data compiled by the FiveThirtyEight political news site.
That loss in Iowa’s special election should have raised red flags for the DCCC, as it gave the GOP its first win in a federal election in 28 years. The state also has a history of blunting the influence of the national party. This year, the DCCC had sent Rep. David Young, a Washington state congressman, to run for the open seat, which made for a direct match with former Sen. Tom Harkin, who represented Iowa in Congress for 30 years.
A former DCCC staffer revealed that two weeks before the primary, the party had a $12 million fundraising backlog.
“It’s not going very well,” said one top Iowa Democrat, about the Democratic recruitment efforts. “I don’t know what you can do.”
With 23 percent unemployment, the state is a prime target for the national party and Democrats believe they will win over some of the electorate that turned out for Donald Trump in November.
The “war on women” has already been labeled the Democrats’ “blue wave” because Republicans have been chastised for fighting reproductive rights and gay rights, while Democrats have sought to break with the party line and address these issues.
In early May, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she was looking to expand the party’s diversity when she issued a “war on women” tour to promote the party’s push on health care. At a speech in Boston, the House Minority Leader said that the battle between men and women was waged in the workplace when they faced discrimination.
Democrats also find themselves on the defensive on immigration, as half of the immigration arrests this year have been in the District of Columbia. Lawmakers have proposed a so-called Dream Act to provide a path to citizenship for young people in the country illegally, but it has failed to gain traction in the Senate.
The DCCC has bucked a national trend that favors smaller, more centrist parties in special elections. The party’s national organization typically focuses on smaller races in rural states, with small turnout, to retain the party’s base and avoid alienating moderates.
Over the last 10 years, the DCCC has built a reputation for playing “hardball” in political races to ensure that it maintains control of the House majority.
But with House Republican efforts at a repeal of the Affordable Care Act faltering, Democrats have been forced to defend all 45 House seats in states that are expanded by the Medicaid program. That has forced Democrats to scurry to prevent vulnerable Republicans from losing in potentially safe districts.
“Republicans see an Obama legacy on the chopping block and are making any reasonable compromise with President Obama a life-and-death proposition,” said DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Luján. “Voters are frustrated with the GOP’s extreme positions, so they are supporting Democrats across the country.”
In 2016, the party saw historic losses, on both the president’s side and in the House, but President Trump delivered a strong performance in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, which Democratic strategists expected.
Since 2014, the DCCC has failed to convince hundreds of Democratic donors, activists and top campaign staffers to contribute to House committees. Some have focused on backing other races and raising money for long-shot candidates rather than contribute.
But in recent weeks, Democrats have begun to feel alarmed that the margin between the two parties is narrowing in several competitive House districts.
At a meeting for DCCC staff in Washington on Tuesday, Luján issued a warning.
“This is the equivalent of a heavyweight fight, and we’re in the last third of the fight,” he said. “The gap between us and the Republicans is narrowing, but we are not out of the fight yet.”