The 2018 Midterms present the best opportunity for the Democratic Party to take back the House since they lost it in 2010. Trump is a historically unpopular President, history is on the Democrats’ side as the opposing party in a midterm election, and Democratic grassroots activism has skyrocketed. In theory, taking the 24 seats they need to win the house should be an easy task. However, the party is doing what it does best: campaigning terribly, ignoring their problems, and getting ready to blow a huge electoral opportunity.
At face value, the fact that so many Democrats are stepping up to run for office is a good thing. It proves that there is a strong, rising activism in the party that has liberals fired up. As Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) spokesman Tyler Law put it, “No side has ever lost an election because of [having] too much energy.” And while having a wealth of candidates can be good for building party support, Democrats have found themselves with too many candidates in too many flippable races, which creates the risk of further dividing the Bernie and Hillary wings of the party.
For example, take New Jersey’s 7th congressional district. It’s a district that re-elected Republican Congressman Leonard Lance in 2016, but voted for Hillary Clinton by a 49-48 margin, and is thus a prime target for the Democrats in 2018. So far there are three serious candidates: teacher Lisa Mandelblatt, tech industry executive Linda Weber, and 2016 candidate social worker Peter Jacob. In a seat crucial to Democrats’ chances of taking back the house, there has already been infighting between the candidates that could hurt the party come next November. Jacob, a staunch progressive who was endorsed by Senator Bernie Sanders ahead of the 2016 election, attacked Mandelblatt and Weber for planning to run “centrist” campaigns.
Similarly, in California’s Orange County-based 45th district (another GOP-represented, Clinton-won district), top Democratic candidates Dave Min and Katie Porter have been arguing over their support (or lack thereof) for single-payer healthcare. Continuing to engage in silly debates like these that just rehash the 2016 presidential primary only serves to hurt the Democrats in the general election by dividing their base.
Another problem for the Democrats and their surplus of candidates is that there are simply too many qualified candidates running in the same race. This will lead to nasty primary fights (even if they are not Bernie vs. Hillary proxy wars) that will leave the ultimate Democratic nominee’s campaign weary and cash-strapped. In 10 of the Democrats’ top 43 target races , there are six or more filed candidates, while only four of those races have a single Democratic candidate in the race. Democrats are right that the energy is on their side, but the way things are going, Democrats will be far from ready to take on their well-funded Republican rivals when the dust of the primary battles settles.
Democrats may be the “opposition” party in 2018, but that alone is not enough of a reason for Americans to vote for them. They need a coherent message—something they severely lacked in 2016 (and something other than “We’re not Trump”)—that explains to voters why they should cast their ballots for Democratic House candidates. Recent party takeovers of the House illustrate how making the midterm campaign a referendum on a single issue can be successful. In 2006, Democrats honed in the Iraq War while in 2010 Republicans focused on Obamacare.
As of now, the Democrats have yet to find their issue to take to the ballot box. That speaks to the core of the Democrats’ problem: they still don’t have a message or an issue that could persuade people to vote for them. As Georgetown Professor Michael Kazin noted in a recent interview with POLITICO, “people don’t really know what [Democrats] stand for.” As long as that continues to be true, the GOP will continue to be in the House majority.
The Democrats’ messaging problem is only exacerbated by that fact that their party’s campaign arm, the DCCC, can’t seem to do anything without pissing off half of the party. In July of this year, DCCC Executive Director Dan Sena said that the DCCC “won’t be bashful about engaging [in primaries] with great general election candidates,” a statement that many on the left-wing of the party heard as, “The DCCC will be endorsing moderate candidates over their progressive primary opponents.” And the DCCC did nothing to help themselves defend these accusations, especially when a few weeks later, they said they were planning to back pro-life Democratic candidates.
History may be on the Democrats’ side, and the recent retirements of senior House Republicans in swing districts may help their cause, but if Democrats keep doing what they’re doing, then there’s no way they get close to taking the Speaker’s gavel away from Paul Ryan.
Arik Wolk is a freshman in the College of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.