The executive director of the House Democrats’ campaign arm is making a bullish prediction about the party’s prospects to retake the lower chamber next year.
After a painful rout at the hands of President Trump and the GOP, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is trying new strategies — and reviving some old ones — in a bid to deny Republicans four straight years of unified government.
DCCC Executive Director Dan Sena told The Hill in an interview that the sheer number of competitive districts puts them in the running to pick up dozens of seats in 2018.
“[In 2018] we will be 65 to 80 races deep in terms of viability and folks who are able to fight,” he said.
Democrats need to pick up 24 seats to win back the House.
Sena said the party is at a crossroads in how it fights elections.
“When you look at the history, and this is candidate and electoral agnostic, there have been periods of time throughout history where the Democratic apparatus — and the way we win elections — advances and it changes,” said Sena.
Democratic campaigns have gone through several such eras in modern politics, he said.
These include the time before former President Clinton and the time between Clinton and former President Obama. He called 2016 “the closing of a way in which we viewed how to run elections on the Democratic side.”
Sena credits Trump with one important epochal change: the resurgence of the candidate-centric campaign.
“Trump was obviously able to personify how important candidates are, how important the narrative they bring is, how important their ability to [appear] authentic and honest is, it was a clear contrast between Trump and Clinton. Clear as day,” said Sena.
A Politico analysis of the 2018 battlefield shows 162 Democrats in 82 Republican-held districts have raised at least $100,000 for this cycle.
“We are now given a battlefield [where] the DCCC is in a place where we are the leader right now in a new way of winning elections and a new way of looking at the battlefield. All you have to do is look at the diversity, the field, the veterans.”
According to Sena, the number of veterans signing up to run as Democrats is increasing, allowing the party to appeal more directly to moderate voters.
“Veterans are very simply a proof point of what the larger issue is. And the larger issue is that we have a very moderate battlefield, and we have candidates that fit that battlefield. We have young energetic candidates who fit that battlefield and fit those districts just in a way this building hasn’t had in the past,” he said.
But Sena said 2018 is going to be as much about what Democrats do on the campaign trail as what Republicans do in power.
“The narrative against a House Republican … this cycle is different than it’s been in the past. They own everything. They own the swamp, they own [the Affordable Care Act], they own [the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program], they own everything,” he said.
And the numbers are starting to show encouraging inroads for Democrats.
According to the DCCC’s numbers, they are ahead by 9 points in generic House polls.
“We never had a generic like that in 2016, ever. We never had a plus-nine generic in a year where we started off the year believing we were going to win the presidency,” said Sena.
Among minority voters, the numbers are more quickly moving in the Democrats’ favor.
When Trump took office, Democrats led Republicans among Hispanics by 16 points on the question of who could bring change to Washington. Democrats now lead by 55 points on that question.
Still, Republicans regularly outraise Democrats — although Democrats are having a record fundraising year — and races are more often won from incumbency.
But Sena says Republicans will have their hands full fighting several opponents at once.
Democrats have an axe to grind after 2016 and have every reason to believe 2018 will be as close as a midterm can ever come to an existential race.
Meanwhile, Republicans are fighting a civil war between their governing wing and the conservative base that put Trump in power.
“The fight … on the Republican side is not going to help these folks, regardless of the type of district you’re in,” said Sena.
Some high-profile moderate Republicans, like Reps. Charlie DentCharles (Charlie) Wieder DentThe Hill’s Coronavirus Report: WHO vs. Trump; Bernie’s out The biggest political upsets of the decade Ex-GOP lawmaker: Former colleagues privately say they’re ‘disgusted and exhausted’ by Trump MORE (Pa.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.), have announced their retirement rather than face a potential primary challenge from the right.
Still, Sena said the Democrats are staying away from the Republican primary process.
“We are not encouraging any Republican primary piece of this war. What we are encouraging … is holding House Republicans accountable for current folks,” said Sena.
And Sena argues that the Republicans’ worst enemy — if current patterns continue into 2018 — will be their inability to pass laws while in control of the White House and both chambers of Congress.
“The real question is why can’t they figure out how to put an agenda together and do something. They are in power. I don’t understand that, I truly don’t understand that.”
“There is a problem with the swamp that [Speaker] Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanBush, Romney won’t support Trump reelection: NYT Twitter joins Democrats to boost mail-in voting — here’s why Lobbying world MORE and his colleagues are just really stuck in,” he said.
To be sure, Democrats have divisions of their own.
The protracted 2016 presidential primary between Clinton and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill’s 12:30 Report: Milley apologizes for church photo-op Harris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness MORE (I-Vt.) left deep scars. Those were highlighted by controversy at last week’s Democratic National Committee (DNC) meeting, when progressive-leaning Democrats criticized DNC Chairman Tom PerezThomas Edward PerezClinton’s top five vice presidential picks Government social programs: Triumph of hope over evidence Labor’s ‘wasteful spending and mismanagement” at Workers’ Comp MORE for a slate of at-large delegates they said demoted some key progressives.
Still, alienated from the levers of power, Democrats are taking the “swamp” page from Trump’s playbook.
Despite his cautious optimism, Sena says Democrats could lose the election “if we choose to not tell the story about the swamp, if we choose not to hold House Republicans accountable.”
“If we do not take that opportunity to tell those stories and make it clear where House Republicans are on the values side of this argument, then that will be a mistake,” he said.
Still, the party is preparing for both individual races and the House fight writ large to be very close calls.
That’s where diversity — from Latino-heavy districts in California to white working-class districts in the Midwest — comes in.
“Our path to the majority runs as much through Costa Mesa, Calif., as it does through the entire state of Illinois. It runs through both Miami and rural America,” said Sena.
Sena says the DCCC has shuffled its staff and hired and trained local staff in key districts to better reflect each region’s voters. But while making diverse hires can portray the right image, it won’t lead to better results unless those hires get decision-making abilities.
“It is one thing to say you have a diverse staff, it is another to give them the tools and the ability to spend money,” said Sena.
“Spending money is what matters in this business — 48 percent of people who spend money on my staff are people of color and are diverse,” he added.