PA Congressional Post-Mortem: to progress forward, let’s look back

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Pennsylvania Democrats had a lot of reasons to celebrate on Election Day. The President won the state, Senator Casey was re-elected, our candidates swept the statewide row offices, and by snatching three PA Senate seats we had the biggest pickup in the PA Senate since 1970.

Well done, team!

But behind those great wins was a series of losses. Tough losses. Losses that we should get used to, because we’re going to continue losing most of them for the next decade.  And if we keep doing what we did this year, we will lose all of them for the next decade.

I am speaking, of course, of the Congressional races.

In a state that President Obama won by 5%, Democrats now hold only 5 of the 18 Congressional seats while Republicans control 13.

You may ask yourself, “how did we get here?”

Last week I put out a call for input to the political operative class. I asked staffers to submit anonymously what they thought went wrong for us in the Congressional races. I have taken that input and put it into article form, retaining the anonymity of each submitter.

Self-criticism is not something out party does well.  But it is important to learn from our mistakes and apply them in future elections.  The only way to progress forward is to look backward and ask “why?”

Very Scary Gerrymandering

Virtually every email I received mentioned gerrymandering, and it was almost always mentioned first.  The responses on this subject are best summed up by this operative’s words:

“Win legislative seats in years that end in 0. Control of the redistricting process matters. Big time.”

How much does it matter? Let’s look at some numbers.

With 99.6% of precincts reporting, 2,702,901 Pennsylvanians voted for a Democrat for Congress while 2,627,031 voted for a Republican.  This means that more votes in PA were cast for Congressional Democrats than were cast for Congressional Republicans, yet we retained only 5 out of 18 seats.  Stop and think about that for a second.

We won more than 50% of the Congressional votes cast but control only 28% of the seats.

This scenario is possible because of what Real Clear Politics called “The Gerrymander of the Decade.”

Map via PoliticsPA

Republicans drew a Congressional map (above) that sures-up all 5 vulnerable Republican seats and packed as many Democrats as possible into just a few districts.

And they did it with ease. In fact, more than 30 PA House Democrats voted in favor of the GOP map because their Democratic Congressmen (Jason Altmire, Bob Brady, and Mike Doyle) lobbied them to do so.

Whichever party controls the State Legislature after the census controls the gerrymandering process.  We need to focus on winning races in those years (years that end with “0″) more than any other cycle if we are serious about gaining seats back.

We blew it in 2000 and we blew it again in 2010.

Fortunately, the next census isn’t until 2020, so let’s start a savings account now.

We also need our sitting PA Congressional Democrats to stop being selfish.  Mike Doyle, Bob Brady—I love you both, really I do. But did you really need to lobby your General Assembly delegation to vote for a map in which you won your districts 85-15 and 77-23 respectively? Let’s share the wealth next time around.

Candidate Recruitment

Way back in June, Stu Rothenberg at Roll Call made public the “recruiting failure” chitchat that permeated our party’s gossip circles.  Other than Kathy Boockvar, Manan Trivedi, and Larry Maggi, Rothenberg described a crop of candidates that just weren’t viable.  And of the three above-mentioned candidates, Rothenberg pointed out their respective weaknesses.

Most of the input from the emails I received for this article did a lot of dumping on individual candidates. I’m not going to ridicule those who carried our torch, but I think there are some general trends that we need to appreciate and apply.

First, raising money is important. This is obvious, but we keep ignoring it. As optimistic Democrats, we tend to say something like “Well money won’t matter as much in this district because my candidate has an x-factor.”

No matter what you think that x-factor is, I guarantee you that you are wrong about it overcoming lackluster fundraising.

No Congressional candidate in the coming years will ever have a bigger x-factor than my good friend Gene Stilp. No candidate will have anything near Stilp’s Pignelope (be it the bus or the inflatable version), his Statue of Liberty in the middle of the Susquehanna, and his more than a decade of uniformly positive press for being a crusader against corruption.

Gene ran a new, innovative, and sparkplug campaign because he had a gigantic x-factor.

But Gene still lost—by a significant margin.

Gene lost because he didn’t raise any money and Lou Barletta had boatloads.

Money matters. Some sort of x-factor is necessary, but not nearly sufficient.

Pick Campaigners

Another aspect of candidate recruitment that we got wrong this year is picking candidates in losing districts that will actually run a campaign.  It sounds cynical, but we know we are going to lose in certain districts. This is certain. Fait accompli.

What we can do, however, is run candidates who will actually campaign.  This is helpful because oftentimes there are more competitive State House or Senate seats in that district that can benefit from a campaigner near the top of the ticket.

Kevin Deely’s run for State House is an example of this phenomena of Congressional candidates making a difference (or not) in a local race.

Quoting an email sent in to me by an operative in the 15th Congressional District:

Deely came so close to unseating GOP incumbent Justin Simmons on his own that the votes are still being re-counted. If Daugherty had campaigned — even if he’d lost to Dent — he could easily have drawn out enough additional Democratic votes to put Deely over the top.

We knew Rick Daugherty was not going to win in the 15th district when his campaign showed less than $4,500 in the bank as of April 4. But candidates in positions like Daugherty have a chance to buoy candidates by running a really strong, albeit losing, campaign.

When we are recruiting candidates in losing districts, let’s at least pick campaigners in the future.

Use the Schwartz?

One final point about recruiting: despite a vast majority of emails claiming this to be the case, we can’t blame Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz for everything.

Yes, on the face of it, Schwartz does serve as National Chair for Recruiting, and yes, we did a poor job recruiting candidates in Pennsylvania.

PoliticsPA summed up this general sentiment when they gave Congresswoman Schwartz a “down arrow” in late October, saying:

[Schwartz] failed to mount a serious challenge to any of the potentially vulnerable Republican freshmen in her own back yard. She has $3 million on hand but gave none to the DCCC in Q3 despite having a no name challenger (whom she refuses to debate, for good measure). Not really a full court press.

While to some extent I think the criticism is on point, it is also true that Congresswoman Schwartz alone “can’t make interesting, credentialed candidates run if they don’t want to, and it looks as if Keystone Democrats have decided this isn’t the year to run against incumbent Republicans in Pennsylvania,” as put by Stu Rothenberg way back in June.

Adjournment Sine Die

The Republicans are right–our party needs to come to Jesus. We need to sit down and figure out what we did well, but more importantly what we did wrong.  When the Congressional races are up again in 2014, the top of the Republican ticket will have one of the most unpopular Governors in the nation.

Governor Corbett could hang Satan on the Capitol Steps, and we will still win.

Let’s take that opportunity and combine it with the lessons of 2012. Let’s get our Congressional house in order and win back a few seats.

We’re not a swing state anymore—we’re a blue state. We deserve a bluer Congressional delegation.

Now, I yield the floor. Let me know what I missed in the comments section.

About Jake Sternberger

Jake Sternberger is a recovering/relapsing political professional who has been a contributor to Keystone Politics since 2011. Sternberger covers campaigns and elections for KP, drawing from his experience working on local, county, congressional, and statewide PA races doing field, oppo, comms, and as CM. He is currently a law student. Email: jakes@keystonepolitics.com Twitter: @JakeSternberger
This entry was posted in Elections, Ethics, National Politics.

8 Responses to PA Congressional Post-Mortem: to progress forward, let’s look back

  1. Michael Connors says:

    Mr Sternberger, you are right on. If you want party dominance then you must campaign more as a party and less as individuals, particularly those who are going to win anyway.

    A percentage of votes will be cast to equalize the power structure of government. Heck I even cast a few Democratic votes this year. The ones that I cast were both a condemnation of my party’s candidate being weak, a poor campaigner (who?), a mudslinger (no one likes..), or what the idealist really wants… was a better candidate to do the job. Bottom line, no one wins it all,and that IS a good thing.
    As for Mr Stilp, an inflatable pig certainly gets everyone’s attention, helps offset the money factor but really, does it inspire people to donate money? or even worse, does it give you confidence in the candidate to perform the job. I do give credit for keeping the mud slinging aspect close to home.

    So take your sure win Governor, build a strong platform large enough for all candidates to get on board beside him and dole out campaign funds to those who work the hardest.

  2. phillydem says:

    Most of the problem was caused by the re-districting. I’d hope we Dems would concentrate the next few years on fixing the process. Let’s face it, the GOP has incentive to do it, too, since I’m sure they see the demographics shifting away from them with the growth of eastern/SE PA and more latino/hispanic voters in the state. It’s why they tried so hard to suppress the voter with the voter ID law. Dems also need to stop chasing the white whale in a few districts, namely Gerlach, Murphy and Dent. The fact is the voters know Gerlach and Dent from their days as moderate state legislators. That image is fixed in their minds; it’s why they continue to win as Gerlach did against Trivedi, a quality opponent. Murphy’s situation is similar. Wait for them to retire, then go for those seats. Look at what happened in Orie’s SD. Once she was out of the way, the seat flipped and by a big margin.

    Let the crazy Repubs continue to be crazy, then target them. Kelly and Rothfus are way out of step with Pennsylvanians. Let them continue to build a record of crazy, then pounce. That’s the way it worked with Melissa Hart. She simply got too crazy and then was voted out. Recruit candidates similar to Bob Casey – that wins in western PA.

    Recognize that Dems aren’t going to win in the districts covering the “T”. Occassionally scandal might yield a seat as it did for Chris Carney a couple years ago, but don’t waste resources on those races otherwise.

  3. I was one of those candidates that you may refer to nonviable. A college professor running, African-American, running in the 5th Congressional District who beat the last Democrat 75-25. But, I self-selected. I would have been more than happy to surrender the position to a viable candidate. But, no one stood up. We felt that it was important to present the President’s position in a rationale manner in the T as much as we could given our limited resources. It was important to present a choice and a chance to those Democrats who live as depressed and disheartened minorities in a Republican controlled district. What we found was that many of the people out here in the T feel abandoned not just by Washington but by the leadership of our Democratic Party. Over 100,000 ,37.5 percent pulled the lever for us and the President. We felt we made a contribution.

  4. Julieann Wozniak says:

    I am not happy that Bill Shuster is now my Congressman. Thanks to gerrymandering, the eastern half of Greene County now shares this guy with Fayette. And I sincerely doubt that he can find Greene County with two hands and a roadmap. Since he supports the Tea Party agenda, I’m pretty sure he’ll do little in the way of serving the needs of his constituents, inasmuch as ours is the poorest county in the Commonwealth and has been rapaciously exploited by big coal and big gas since my late father was a miner from the age of twelve. I remember Shuster’s dad, unfortunately, a notorious segregationist and racist. We are so screwed, as usual.

  5. Roger Lund says:

    I think you are spot on with your observations. As a county chair in a red area I know only too well the problems candidates face.

    There is one other area you miss, however, and that is the lack of trained and effective campaign managers, fundraisers and field people to help these candidates. I have not had a post election discussion with our candidate, but I know his campaign manager also managed several other campaigns while he had a full time job to attend to. Come-on… a real campaign needs dedicated staff.

    It takes great effort to go door to door and constantly ask for money. But, it takes organization to plan a message and effectively deliver it, create an efficient calendar, budget, do opposition research and play offense, and to look hard at yourself so you are ready to play defense. To dress properly.

    It takes true management to have an effective campaign and I see little in the way of good effective campaign management in PA. It’s easy to will the Brady/Doyle seats. Our resources and talent need to be given to not only candidates, but organized county parties who need professional help to get to the next level.

    The good news is the State Party Chairman is ahead of the curve on this one and I would expect 2013 to be a turning point for cooperation with county parties that want the help.

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