As the Democratic Party prepares for an uphill and lengthy effort to hold onto its congressional majorities in the 2010 election, leadership is feeling emboldened by -- of all things -- one of its low points of the past year.
In a briefing with reporters on Wednesday, DNC Chairman Tim Kaine said that both the White House and the committee have learned and institutionalized valuable lessons from the stinging loss it suffered in last January's Massachusetts Senate race.
"The Massachusetts race was the ghost of Christmas future experience for us," the chairman said, in a lunch organized by the Christian Science Monitor. "As painful as it was, better to have it in January 2010 than November. And we did a lot of assessment at the DNC and at the White House too about how we can be better and stronger... What we got in January of 2010 was a ten month advance on what November could be like unless we think very carefully about what we want to do in the midterms."
Asked after the briefing to elaborate on what, exactly, the party would now do differently after having lived through Sen. Scott Brown's victory, Kaine said that the president will be more assertive on the stump and the campaign committees more cautious.
"We were able to push go and, having built up the network over the course of the year, we were able to generate intense activity," Kaine said of the party's late efforts to turn Massachusetts around. "But we didn't push the go button. And that taught us something, which is whatever we hear from a campaign or from a campaign committee, 'This race is good," we're going to have our own sense of it.'
Weeks before Kaine spoke, other prominent Democrats were making similar points about the lessons of Massachusetts. Longtime pollster Stan Greeneberg, for one, said the party might have very well been saved from a more scarring midterm election experience by Brown's win.
"When we look back on this, we [could] say [Scott Brown's election in] Massachusetts is when 1994 happened and after that we have seen a different set of events," he said, in a breakfast that was also organized by the Monitor. "It is still going to be a tough election and it will be marginally better than where it is now. But I don't think we will have a [repeat of] '94."
Kaine wouldn't take that grand a leap. But in a wide-ranging discussion he did predict that the party will remain in control of both houses of Congress once the dust settled.
"I'm not making predictions about numbers," he said. "I am committed to doing this and I believe that we will. We are going to perform in the midterms in such a way that the president will have strong majorities in both houses going into the second half of his term. Exactly what the majorities will be and what those numbers will be, it's a long way between now and November, But that's the goal, we're going to hold on to both houses and make sure that he has got the majorities he needs to work with."
Earlier in his discussion, the DNC chairman outlined exactly how the party planned to blunt the historical political trends that portend major losses at the ballot. Democrats, he stressed, will target the "first-time voters" from the 2008 election, making sure that they came out again two years later. Secondly, candidates will pitch the Democratic Party as the party of results, pointing to successes in Afghanistan and Iraq, on health care reform and in the jobs market. Finally, they will rely on a massive $50 million treasure chest, both to aid individual campaigns and bolster their communications efforts.
Twenty million dollars, Kaine said, would be put "into races or state parties or campaigns or candidates," while "$30 million will be the programs that we will build within the DNC... Things like voter registration, new media voter modeling, voter protection, that's all kind of what's on our end of the pertinent side."
The party, additionally, will benefit from outside factors, chief among them ongoing dissension and infighting within Republican ranks. Tough contests in the Senate Republican primary in Florida and the gubernatorial Republican primary in Texas, Kaine predicted, had given Democrats "opportunities in two very important races." Tea Party-driven angst throughout the country, likewise, has made Republican fields less predictable and more susceptible.
"It's unpredictable," Kaine said of the Tea Party movement. "It's a decentralized movement so I'm not sure it's going to have the same effect everywhere... To the extent that there are fractures on the Republican side after nominating contests because of Tea Party candidates, it's going to help us. Then, the energy there is something that we have to pay attention to. If we don't match it with our own energy, then we're going to be at a disadvantage."
"So I think it could cut a couple of different ways," Kaine added. "But we don't have a civil war going on within the Democratic Party; we know who our leader is, it's the president. The other side has a civil war that is, "Who is our leader, which faction are we going to follow?" And the other side tends to have little bit more of a litmus test, you know, "If you're not with us on this issue we're going to throw you out." That's not who we are."