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November 8, 2006

Big Tent, Smart Strategy Led Dems to Victory


The Democrats won big in the election of 2006, recapturing the House by a comfortable margin and coming within striking distance in the Senate as well. History will look at the ’06 race as a referendum on Iraq, Bush administration incompetence and numerous Republican scandals.


All of that is true, of course. But Election ’06 was not only about Republican failure. The Democrats, who did just about nothing right in the last two national elections, handled the campaign brilliantly from start to finish, avoiding all of the major mistakes they had made in 2002 and 2004. Namely, they picked excellent candidates, they appealed to a broad constituency (the old “big tent”) and most of all, they got out of their own way.


Much has been written about the campaign-long feud between the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) and Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean. Emanuel favored targeting of specific districts, while Dean backed a “50-state strategy,” which would build up the party, long-term, all throughout the country.


At some point during the campaign the two men settled their feud; as it turns out, both were right. Dean, Emanuel and Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) targeted Senate and House seats that looked winnable, and as their year looked better and better they targeted more and more. In the meantime, the Democrats set themselves up to compete in areas in which they were not even a factor as recently as 2004 – most notably Indiana, Ohio and various western states.


(Natural demographic trends helped the Democrats as well. Just as the transformation of the South into pure Republican territory was completed during the early Bush wins, the Democrats picked off numerous House seats in the blue Northeast and upper Midwest.)


The belief among those on the party’s activist left that the Dems would have to emulate Karl Rove in order to defeat him turned out to be wrong as well. Sure, much of the campaigning the Democrats did was negative. But it was nothing compared to the hateful, scaremongering advertising missives put out by the GOP, most of which were personal in nature, and based on the idea that Democrats will let your children fall victim to terrorists, pedophiles, immigrants or other minorities.


However, the Democrats borrowed one highly effective move from the Rove playbook: they hand-picked candidates for races who they knew would be strong, effective and electable. Several of their key wins – including that of my new Congressman, Joseph Sestak of Pennsylvania – came from candidates handpicked by the DSCC and DCCC.


Another battle within the Democratic Party, one that has gone back as far as World War I, is the feud between moderate liberals and far leftists. And once again, the Democrats won by having it both ways. A midterm election, of course, does not require a party to coalesce around a single candidate. Therefore, the Democrats put candidates forward running the gamut from Keith Ellison in Minnesota on the left to James Webb in Virginia on the right.


This big tent strategy also served to pull the Democrats toward the middle, and away from the leftward tilt that tempted the party following the 2004 defeat. Ned Lamont’s defeat in Connecticut was huge in this regard, keeping the clowns away from claiming credit for the Democratic victory.


This became even more apparent when John Kerry made his gaffe the week before the election, appearing to insult the intelligence of American troops in Iraq, Republicans predictably attempted to make it appear as though every Democrat in America shared widespread contempt for the soldiers. But Democrats failed to fall into the trap. Almost to a man, they denounced Kerry themselves, both defusing the situation for the short term, and (mercifully) most likely preventing a quixotic 2008 presidential run for the disgraced senator.


And finally, it also helped that at various times, from Abramoff to Mark Foley to different Iraq stories, the Democrats campaigned best by not campaigning at all, and by merely getting out of the way just long enough for the GOP to hang themselves.


The 2006 election was Democratic victory, but not necessarily a left-wing victory. The Democrats did not scream their way to victory, nor were they driven by any type of Rove/Gingrich cult of personality. Instead, they merely followed the underrated leadership of Dean, Schumer, Emanuel and Nancy Pelosi – all of which was, to put it mildly, unproven.


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