My first election working in politics was 1994. I was helping on a state senate campaign in rural North Carolina. We had put together a good organization and had a small direct mail program. We were feeling good about our chances when the wave on Election Day knocked us out. Democrats across the country were swept out of office and Newt Gingrich and his Contract for America were swept in.
Few people saw that wave coming, at least not in the magnitude that it hit. We didn’t have the ubiquitous polling that we have today, but a friend who was working at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said that any Democrat who was leading by less than six points lost. In other words, the wave obliterated the margins.
In 2006, Democrats caught a similar wave. While most people knew the year would be good to Democrats, the election turned out to be far better than expected. Democrats picked up 31 seats in the House and six in the Senate, capturing both chambers.
In both 1994 and 2006, motivated constituencies on both the right and left drove the campaign. In lower turnout off-year elections, the Republican base in 1994 and the Democratic base in 2006 surged at a time when their numbers had the largest impact. In 1994, Democrats were also a bit demoralized over the failure of healthcare and Bill Clinton’s difficulty in getting his administration off the ground. In 2006, Republicans were dismayed over the Iraq War, Bush’s response to Katrina, the Abramoff Scandal, and, finally, the Foley Page scandals. Independents broke for the party out of power both years.
In 2016, the wave that might be forming in North Carolina is driven by a rejection of Donald Trump and the damage to the state’s reputation caused by HB2. Trump’s campaign seems to be collapsing. The full impact of that collapse might not show up in polls until closer to Election Day. In 2012, the implosion of Todd Akin’s US Senate campaign in Missouri wasn’t apparent until the week before the election and no polls captured its magnitude.
Democrats would be wise to spend money to get as many down-ballot candidates as possible within five points of their opponents and hope the wave does the rest. This year might offer the opportunity for massive gains instead of narrow ones. The cautious bet is to put money into a few races and hope to pull closer in legislatures and Congress. The bet with the bigger payoff is to spend broadly to help even marginal races get close and hope for a wave. With a year like this, it’s worth the risk.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com