To say that the Democrats are "back" — in light of their retaining the House seat last Tuesday of the late John Murtha in southwestern Pennsylvania — assumes two things. One, that before May 18 they were in serious trouble going into the November midterms; and two, the results of PA 12 were a game changer.
The Democrats may still lose a fair share of seats, both in the House and Senate, this fall. That's to be expected of the "in" party. Aside from rare exceptions — such as 1998, when the Republicans mistakenly decided to make the midterm elections a referendum on the Monica Lewinsky scandal, or 2002, when the electorate was rallying behind the GOP in the wake of 9/11, the party in power in the White House loses seats in Congress.
But I am a bit surprised by all those who say that the victory of Mark Critz (D) over Tim Burns (R) signals bad news for the Republicans in November. That seems to be as simplistic as what we heard back in January, when people said Scott Brown's upset win in the Massachusetts Senate race means that no Democrat is safe in 2010.
That was silly in January and what I heard this past week is equally silly.
Of course, the PA 12 result wasn't good news for the GOP. That can't be sugar-coated. But there are some lessons to be learned in it for both parties.
Should the Republicans have won? Yes. The GOP was selling the special as a "Send Obama A Message" kind of election, and it didn't happen. Although the 12th is 2-1 Democratic, it is the kind of culturally conservative district that Republicans thought would go their way if voter antipathy towards All Things Obama is as great as they suggest it is. The 12th is, as many have noted, the only district in the nation that went for John Kerry in 2004 and John McCain in 2008. Some Republicans have said, with some justification, that the competitive Democratic primary between Sen. Arlen Specter and challenger Joe Sestak brought out far more Dems than GOPers last Tuesday, which benefitted Critz. But it was more than that.
If Republicans think the way to a majority in November is by linking every Democratic candidate to President Obama and Nancy Pelosi — as Burns tried to do with Critz — then they are very much mistaken. Such a strategy is lazy and facile. And, in this case, particularly ill-fitting. Critz says he would have voted no on the health-care bill passed by Congress and he opposes gun control and abortion rights. The focus, he said in response to the GOP strategy, should be Washington, Pa., and not Washington, D.C.
We have seen such Blue Dog Democrats give the party leadership fits over the past year or so, but it's these Democrats who made Pelosi speaker after the 2006 elections ... and who are needed to keep her there, regardless of their ideology. It may not please the progressive wing of the Democratic Party — and we've seen their anger come out, be it the 2006 primary in Connecticut where Sen. Joe Lieberman lost, or this year's Senate primary in Arkansas, where incumbent Blanche Lincoln is in big trouble in her June 8 runoff. But when it comes to counting votes, Pelosi & Co. know that the 12th would either elect a Blue Dog Dem or a more conservative Republican. That was the only available choice, and they are happy with the result.
At the same time, to say that if the Republicans can't win in PA 12 they can forget about reclaiming their majority misses one key point. The GOP had a majority in the House for 12 years — from 1995 to 2007 — and that majority didn't include PA 12. In fact, the last time that district was part of a GOP House majority was in 1954. To make John Boehner speaker, what they need to do is win back those House seats they lost in '06 and '08 ... many of which went to moderate or conservative Democrats who didn't have the stain of President Bush or Iraq on their resumes.
In the same breath, if it's simplistic to think that PA 12 is going to tell us precisely what happens in November, I think Saturday's result in Hawaii's 1st District, won by the Republicans, tells us even less. There is little dispute that having two major Democratic candidates on the ballot in Hawaii is what propelled Charles Djou (R) to victory in a district where native-son Obama took 70 percent of the vote in 2008. And the conventional wisdom, that they retake the seat in November when only one Democrat will be on the ballot, is probably correct. But if the two Democratic candidates, ex-Rep. Ed Case and state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, continue their acrimony towards each other as they approach the Sept. 18 primary, a Djou re-election is not out of the cards.
No matter what happens in Hawaii between now and November, the fact is, a win is a win is a win. Would Joseph Cao, a New Orleans Republican, have defeated Rep. William Jefferson (D) had the incumbent not been under indictment (in addition to being a late-night punchline)? Of course not. There is a lot to be said about timing. If nothing else, with Charles Djou's win, the GOP has ended a string of House special election defeats that went back to the Bush era.
A final thought: Just as I think the Republican Party would be foolish to run a boilerplate anti-Obama/Pelosi campaign against the Democrats this year, I think it's equally lazy for Democrats to decide that every GOP candidate needs to be asked if they support Rand Paul's view of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
We'll see which strategy works. Or doesn't.