Barely a week after the Nov. 2 midterm elections dealt record setbacks for Democrats in Congress, two Dem analysts were ready to face the faithful and assess what happened and what to do about it in Falls Church last Friday.
Michael Gehrke and Mo Elleithee, both well-known within the Democratic brain trust, delivered remarks and took questions at the monthly breakfast meeting of the Northern Virginia Democratic Business Council at the Fairview Marriott.
They agreed that “we’re a 50-50 nation,” and that many of the top races earlier this month were very close, belying the sense of a bloodbath or landslide, but they grounded their analysis in the notion that more and more, the U.S. is becoming a “33-33-33” nation, with population groups on the left and right extremes, and a large group in the middle that can go either way.
Voters are still not happy after the election, they noted, because there was little focus on real solutions in the races. Now, for Democrats, everything needs to be cast through the prism of jobs.
Meanwhile, fresh off his narrow re-election, conceded by his opponent last week, Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly wasted no time jumping into the fray in Washington, casting a vote to streamline intellectual property laws and being one of two Democrats (and two Republicans) invited to address the incoming class of freshmen Congressmen elected Nov. 2 at an orientation session.
He urged them to “reach across the aisle and seek bipartisan solutions,” and called for “more civility among members,” urging them to “acknowledge the sincerity of an adversary’s point of view.” Among his 10 guidelines for them were his top two: “protect and honor your family” against pressures causing families to often be “the first casualties of our public service,” and “to think own self be true.” “Filter advice with your conscience, your values, your constituency,” he said. “Voters look for authenticity and you’ll sleep better at night.”
Elleithee, speaking last Friday morning, said that in the recent election, “the Democratic Party lost its way” by deviating from talking about middle class issues. “We are the party that is in better tune with the middle class,” and he cited how Gov. Tim Kaine was successful in his 2005 election focusing on that.
Kaine targeted suburbs and “ex-burbs” as key areas for Democratic growth in that election, and while his Republican opponent was talking about the death penalty, Kaine focused on traffic issues. Sen. Jim Webb did the same in 2006, and President Obama “mastered it” in 2008.
“There constituencies are not reliably Democratic, however,” he observed, and to have held them in the recent election, there needed to be a greater emphasis on jobs and the economy.
By gaining a majority in the House, the Republicans “now own the problems of unemployment and the economy as well as we do,” he said. “The GOP has a long history of squandering opportunities, and to overreach.” He noted there will likely be a “bloody primary process” in the Republican presidential race for 2012.
In the last election, he noted, by contrast to a “national wave” sweeping the GOP into power, it was more the case that “candidates still matter,” noting how Democrats in Nevada, Delaware and Colorado bucked the national trend and won statewide elections “because their opponents were crazy.”
“Where Democratic candidates ran good campaigns, focused on the right issues, had a strong ground game and contrasted themselves effectively to their opponents, they did well,” he said.
In Virginia, he cited Connolly’s victory and the fact that first-term Democrat Tom Perriello turned what was supposed to be a rout into a very close race as evidence.
“The pendulum swings usually barely, and not by a lot,” he said. “It won’t take a lot to win. We’ve got the voters already, we just have to reconnect with people on the right issues.”
Gehrke noted that while the GOP was able to pry independents from the Democrats in this election, it was not based on solutions but an anti-incumbent anger.
The party, he said, can “regain its brand” in Virginia by offering common sense, simple solutions, including traffic and affordable housing,” while recognizing that “people’s problems have changed in the last two years.”
This is Connolly’s secret to success, he said. “He focused on local issues, while aggressively attacking his opponent for being out of the mainstream.”
This approach will be the key for Sen. Webb as he faces a likely rematch with former Gov. George Allen in 2012, he said.
“We are in the right place on issues, and will face an extreme and confused Republican leadership,” he said.
“We are not an ideological nation, we are a results-oriented, practical nation,” Elleithee reiterated. “We let (current Virginia governor) Bob McDonald get away with casting himself as a pragmatic centrist in the 2008 election. We screwed up.”
He noted that in this month’s elections, 54 percent who waited to decide trended toward the Democrats in the last two weeks of the election. But because people didn’t hear solutions in the election, they’re still not happy after it.
“Everything we do now needs to be seen through the prism of jobs,” he concluded.