So take a look at...
the chart from CQ (full size here
You're not going to win every race, and each of the losses in these races where Democrats lost is an individual story. In some cases, the personalities of candidates themselves and local issues may have been decisive factors. But at the same time, Democrats succeeded in nationalizing the election. What failed in these races? Are there any patterns to learn from?
The good news is that in every one of the 18 races the Republicans' margins were trimmed, in several cases very heavily.
The bad news is that in several tight races the Democrat did not trim the margin from 2004 by very much, and in a few others the margin remains quite large. What can we learn from the campaigns in those races? And can these lessons also help to retain the seats that were won?
Clearly, something has got to be fixed in the Delaware AL and Illinois 10 districts. Was there any substantial progress at fixing whatever needs fixing this cycle? Or are the modest gains in those districts going to evaporate by 2008?
One of these races was my own district, PA-15. Since it's the only race I can claim to understand well, I'll limit my comments to it. The rest of you can comment better on the remainder of these races.
PA-15 (Allentown/Bethlehem) is an example of what might have been, a classic demonstration of the arterial schlerosis of the old Democratic Party and above all the need to fight hard in every single disctrict. It has been a slight-majority Democratic district for years. Unions still mean something around here. The district has seen its fair share of bad economic times, and workers have paid a steep price for Republican policies.
Just ask the retirees from the now defunct Bethlehem Steel, whose pension plans were sold out a few years ago in the bankruptcy terms for that industrial giant. There exists a vast well of discontent with the way workers have been treated by corporations and by the federal government.
And our first-term Congressman, Charles Dent, is not wildly popular with working people. He styles himself as a social moderate, but he's a friend of business rather than labor. He's reasonably popular personally; he affects an easy-going air. But he's also slightly dim, and his Congressional office is unresponsive to constituents.
It ought to have been relatively simple to tag Dent with his first-term legislative record. As it became clearer that the Democrats had not found a credible challenger, Dent's voting record become more extremist. His was a classic go-along-to-get-along Republican record. He even travelled to Iraq in 2005 and declared himself satisfied that things were getting better. Dent was, in other words, the typical Republican rubber-stamp.
And yet the local Democrats never bothered to identify a candidate to run in the primary. At the last moment, the County chairman urged one of his acolytes, Charles Dertinger, to run as a write-in candidate in the primary, which he won.
From there, things fell apart in a predictable fashion. Dertinger, a county commissioner with almost no political experience, raised barely any money and could scarcely even get a campaign office open since he had almost no supporters. He received no help from the national Democrats. His campaign was virtually non-existent right up to the end. His positions remained vague. I never got the impression that he was particularly well-liked among Democrats, either.
And yet, very surprisingly, Dent managed to get less than 53% of the vote (a Green candidate garnered several percent). Dent's margin in 2004, against a self-financed candidate from Philadelphia, had been 19%.
It's clear that voters were fed up with Republicans and even with Dent personally. He was highly vulnerable for a range of reasons. In fact, sensing that, Dent had even waged a campaign to win the Democratic nomination as a write-in candidate, hoping to preclude Dertinger's challenge. Talk about tying a bulls-eye to oneself.
You would have thought that local, or state, or national Democrats could have found a way during the last year to nourish a credible, or at least a competent, candidate and have a real go at Dent. Instead, what we ended up with was a protest candidate--who came much closer to winning than I expected.
The Democrats in large areas of Pennsylvania are pretty disfunctional. My wife and I have tried repeatedly to get in touch with our County Democratic party leadership; it doesn't respond, and is in the hands of people who don't want 'help' from the grassroots. The state party has for many years been tied up in knots by the personal agendas of the Democratic leadership in Harrisburg. Gov. Rendell has ameliorated the situation only slightly because he's eager to get his own agenda passed.
So the state in many ways really needs help organizing from the national Democrats. Here in largely urban/suburban PA-15, just north of Philadelphia, in a majority Democratic district, the party machinery is virtually non-existent. A major opportunity was lost here this year.
So what is the story in the other Kerry-Republican districts?
Comments are closed on this story.