Caucus Resists ‘Permanent Minority’ Mind-Set

While House Democrats acknowledge that their Caucus is unlikely to reverse its eight-year minority status in the immediate term, they are not resigning themselves to becoming a permanent second-tier party.

Democrats say their new leadership, a lagging economy and President Bush’s slipping approval ratings all translate into glimmers of hope for a future majority. If the party were despondent, it would be facing massive retirements, defections on votes and low attendance at party events and meetings, Members and leaders argue.

“In a permanent minority mindset, you don’t fight, you don’t donate, you don’t raise money, you don’t do all the things necessary [to take back the House],” said Democratic Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.).

“We have exhibited absolutely nothing in our legislative efforts, our tactical efforts, our fundraising that would indicate that — even with enormous challenges under the campaign finance law and a Republican Congress and White House,” he added.

While not there yet, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) said House Democrats are concerned about becoming the permanent minority. Because of that, he said, House Democrats are working harder than ever, rallying the troops to stick together on votes and throwing up procedural roadblocks to battle the GOP on the floor. “We don’t have anything to lose,” he said.

“We can’t give in to the perception of being the minority party,” Lewis said. “We cannot resign ourselves to that.”

Members say both publicly and privately they are frustrated and fear the longer they remain in the minority the harder it becomes to convince voters to give them back the gavel.

That’s especially true since House Democrats have been sluggish recruiting star candidates to take on GOP incumbents and run a distant second to Republicans in fundraising this cycle.

In the first six months of the year, the National Republican Congressional Committee raised $44 million, compared to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s $14 million.

Democrats also say that with the GOP in charge of the White House and both chambers of Congress, they face difficulty getting their policies addressed and message out to voters.

“The picture is not bright” for taking back the House, conceded Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), but added that with the right message, strategy and a little bit of luck: “We feel that it can happen.

“The minority is a perpetual frustration,” he continued. “The only way out of it is to keep the faith and don’t let your hope falter.”

Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas), former head of the DCCC, said the House has been closely contested since Democrats fell into the minority following the 1994 elections. In fact, House Democrats were making consistent gains until the 2002 cycle, when they lost six seats to Republicans, falling from 211 Members to 205.

Frost said eight years in the minority isn’t very long, especially compared to Republicans’ four-decade stretch in that role during the second half of the 20th century. But Democrats need some breaks, including a strong presidential candidate, to help carry the party at the polls and turn things around.

“Anything can happen,” he said. “It’s probably going to be two elections, but it could be one.”

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has set out a long-term strategy for taking back and retaining a Democratic majority. Her two- to four-year plan recognizes that overcoming a 12-seat deficit will be difficult this cycle.

DCCC Chairman Robert Matsui (Calif.) admitted a turnaround of 12 seats would be a challenge, but said, “It happens.” Members appear to be believing in the possibility of House gains at least, having given record amounts of money to the DCCC this year.

So far, Democrats have shelled out $4 million to their fundraising committee, compared with $740,000 in 2001 and $500,000 in 1999. Republicans haven’t really begun their push for 2004 Member giving, but in the last cycle brought in $20 million.

Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) said she’s hopeful voters will realize it’s unhealthy for one party to control all branches of government, and Republicans are becoming increasingly more arrogant about their power. She said Pelosi and House Democratic leaders have “launched a very pragmatic” plan for taking back the House.

“I think we will be in the majority in this decade,” she said.

With 14 months until Election Day, House Democrats have some bright spots. They are facing just two retirements in Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.), who is running for president, and Senate hopeful Rep. Joe Hoeffel (Pa.). House Republicans are facing 10 departures so far this cycle.

“We are all in a feisty mood,” Rep. Albert Wynn (D-Md.) said of why Democrats aren’t jumping out. “We are not in an accepting mood.”

In 1995-96, after House Democrats lost their 40-year majority, the Caucus saw a mass exodus of veteran Members. The party faced nearly 20 vacancies that cycle.

Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said House Democrats, while 12 seats down, remain cautiously optimistic about their chances — even in 2004. With a poor economy and questions about Bush’s handling of Iraq, the circumstances are giving Democrats reason to fight, he said.

“The tone in the House is a quiet determination,” Hoyer surmised. “No one is falsely optimistic, but I think we can take back the majority.

“Does that mean I think we are going to win?” Hoyer asked. “We have to wait and see what the context is 12 months from now. We don’t know.”

Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.), a moderate New Democrat, characterized some Members as indifferent and some as frustrated, understanding it will be a “huge challenge” to get the majority back. It is doable, however, if Democrats capitalize on Republicans’ weaknesses and formulate a message that convinces voters the GOP is “running the country into the ground.”

“We have to somehow make government more responsive to get people’s confidence back before we can turn things around,” he said.

But that will take time, making a scenario of winning back the House this cycle slim. For it to happen, both veteran and newer Members concede they will need a tsunami of sorts.

“The opportunities may be there, the timing may be exactly right to take back the House,” said Rep. Max Sandlin (D-Texas). “The timing and message may peak at exactly the right time.”

Copyright 2003 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved.

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