In his third-floor office in the Capitol, Steny Hoyer is plunked down in a big red armchair, his left leg crossed over his right. He is wearing a dazzlingly white shirt and a red patterned tie. There are two pens in his breast pockets and visions of grandeur dancing in his head.
Hoyer is the Democratic whip in the House of Representatives, the man responsible for keeping tabs on his party in that chamber of Congress -- what they are thinking, how they are feeling, what they need, and what it’ll take to get their vote when the party needs it. So he is not a bad measure of the Democratic mood.
The gist of what he has to say in his weekly meeting with reporters? John Kerry is going to be president, Nancy Pelosi is going to be speaker, and Tom DeLay is going to have to deal with a Majority Leader Hoyer. Those are not Hoyer’s exact words -- “My own view is that John Kerry is going to win this election” is all he’ll say -- but they are the true sentiments among Hill Democrats who are beginning to feel invincible, like they have just hopped up on the mother of all political waves and that it is going to take them all the way to victory in November.
They are, for now, fighting off euphoria, but the confidence is hard to hide. “No president has been at 42-percent approval level in May and won the election, as I understand,” says Hoyer. “Clearly [with] Bill Clinton in ’96, everyone knew he was going to win in November at this point in time.”
In the last few months, it has been possible to gauge how Democrats perceive their chances by watching Hoyer week to week. These days he’s just having more fun, and the chair has begun to look more like a throne. The optimism has moved beyond cautious and is approaching a kind of brimming confidence. And that, surely, is a strange thing to behold. After 10 years in the minority, optimism and confidence were hard planks to find on the party platform. Now Democrats are laying claim to the same kind of momentum that brought the Republicans to power in 1994. With Pelosi’s harsh attacks on Bush lately, it’s not difficult to imagine her in the Newt Gingrich role.
But the sure proof of their imminent deliverance, they say, lies in the victory Stephanie Herseth pulled off in South Dakota this week. In a special election to replace former Representative Bill Janklow, who resigned after his criminal conviction in the vehicular death of a motorcyclist, the 33-year-old Herseth won by a narrow 2,000-vote margin. South Dakota has only one representative, but it would be hard to judge the state’s importance by its political size. To hear Democrats tell it, the Herseth victory is the road map to their New Jerusalem.
Hoyer characterized it as “another indication that there is, even in Republican seats, strong sentiment to elect Democrats.”
The Democrats had more than 800 people on the ground for Tuesday’s special election in South Dakota. More than 300 flew out from Washington. Individual House members -- 120 to be exact -- donated $222,400 to the Herseth campaign. “I think that is another indication of the enthusiasm and optimism and unity in the Democratic caucus,” says Hoyer.
Tuesday’s was the second special election that Democrats have won this year, and they are not shy about what they think it means. “They are harbingers of things to come this November,” Hoyer says. And the Democratic message is that South Dakota means bad news for the White House. “Stephanie Herseth’s win … sends a clear message to President Bush and congressional Republicans: Americans are ready for change,” declared House Minority Leader Pelosi.
The other much-ballyhooed win was in Kentucky in February, when Democrat Ben Chandler stomped his GOP opponent by 12 points in what is, like South Dakota, a decidedly red state. “We have taken two Republican seats back to back. That is a big deal. It is a big deal in that both of these seats were generically Republican seats,” says Hoyer.
Following the Herseth win, Democrats now need to gain 11 seats to take control of the House, and while no one is completely ruling that out anymore, only those with the rosiest of outlooks think it is an easy goal. But it is clear whom they are counting on for help.
Says Hoyer, “I think the policies of this administration are failing -- lost jobs, created huge deficits, haven't funded No Child Left Behind, empty rhetoric on education, and, to this point, failed execution of the policies in Iraq.”
The Democrats are hopeful that that litany of sins will continue to hurt the president and the GOP, even in rural and southern districts, and therefore help their chances. “If we can win in South Dakota and Kentucky, we can win anywhere,” says Kori Bernards, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s communications director.
Republicans, of course, point out that the math for a Democratic majority is still an unproven theorem.
What the two special elections do prove, though, and beyond any doubt, is that political pedigree matters. Both Herseth and Chandler come from impressive political lineages. Both had grandfathers who served as Democratic governors of their states. That should make the candidate recruiting pretty easy from here on out.
Terence Samuel is the chief congressional correspondent for U.S. News & World Report. His column about politics appears each week in the online edition of The American Prospect.