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National Politics|By Charlie Cook, March 17, 2017
This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on March 13, 2017

There are three dis­tinct­ive sea­sons in the bi­an­nu­al elec­tion cycle. The first is to fig­ure out what happened in the last elec­tion and why. The second is to re­cruit the strongest can­did­ates you can find. The third is the cam­paign it­self. The Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee’s autopsy of the 2012 elec­tion, un­der the dir­ec­tion of then-party chair­man Re­ince Priebus, was un­pre­ced­en­ted and highly com­mend­able—even if most of its ad­vice was ig­nored.

This year, Demo­crats be­came so con­sumed with the Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee elec­tions that they didn’t really ex­am­ine what happened on a na­tion­al level. One thing that is tak­ing place, though on an ad hoc basis, is look­ing at the vot­ing tapes (though ac­tu­ally no longer on tape) to see who voted in 2016—and who voted in 2008, 2010, 2012, and 2014.

A big ques­tion for Demo­crats is wheth­er Hil­lary Clin­ton was a uniquely prob­lem­at­ic can­did­ate, or wheth­er the party was suf­fer­ing from a more sys­tem­ic prob­lem. No doubt the Demo­crat­ic de­feat was due to a com­bin­a­tion of both, but the deep­er ques­tion is how much of each. Simply blam­ing Clin­ton or her cam­paign for the loss would clear the party’s con­science, but it wouldn’t ex­plain Demo­crats’ dif­fi­culties with cer­tain con­stitu­en­cies. Work­ing-class whites, for ex­ample, once a key con­stitu­ency of Frank­lin Roosevelt’s New Deal Co­ali­tion, can now be more aptly de­scribed as a key ele­ment of the Re­pub­lic­an base.

The second phase, can­did­ate re­cruit­ment, is crit­ic­al. While it is tech­nic­ally true that you can’t beat someone with (lit­er­ally) no one, there are plenty of nobod­ies, fig­ur­at­ively speak­ing, who get elec­ted in wave elec­tions. People on a lark or with de­lu­sions of grandeur file for an of­fice, their party cap­tures na­tion­al mo­mentum, and sud­denly they’re be­ing sworn in­to Con­gress. Just walk down a cor­ridor on Cap­it­ol Hill and you’re sure to see a door with a name of someone who ini­tially ran as a nobody.

But it is ob­vi­ously bet­ter to have more than just hav­ing pot­ted plants on the bal­lot. In a per­fect world, you get someone who is qual­i­fied, ap­peal­ing, and in tune with the pub­lic mood. Some­times ex­per­i­enced can­did­ates are best; at oth­er times, out­siders have a bet­ter chance. An­oth­er rel­ev­ant ques­tion is wheth­er can­did­ates who are strong primary can­did­ates will stand up in the gen­er­al elec­tion. Some mod­er­ates and es­tab­lish­ment-ori­ented Demo­crats are con­cerned that Demo­crats will nom­in­ate a lot of Bernie Sanders and Eliza­beth War­ren de­votees, not just in re­l­at­ively lib­er­al jur­is­dic­tions but also in con­stitu­en­cies that would prefer less-ideo­lo­gic­al can­did­ates.

The House and Sen­ate cam­paign com­mit­tees for both sides, the two gov­ernors’ as­so­ci­ations, and the state-le­gis­lat­ive cam­paign com­mit­tees in each of the 50 states are busy re­cruit­ing now. The first fil­ing dead­lines gen­er­ally be­gin in Decem­ber with Illinois and Texas, the last ones oc­cur dur­ing the sum­mer of 2018. While a lot of can­did­ates are self-starters and don’t need re­cruit­ing, oth­ers have to be found and ca­joled to run. One thing I have learned over four dec­ades of be­ing in this busi­ness is that any­one who has to be con­vinced to run might not have the heart for it, and some big names who are past their primes can turn out to be lousy can­did­ates.

More im­port­ant is the polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment dur­ing the re­cruit­ing sea­son. When the wind ap­pears to be at the back of one party, it tends to have a bet­ter re­cruit­ing year. This is also a con­sid­er­a­tion when in­cum­bents de­cide wheth­er to run again. If the year looks to be tough for an in­cum­bent’s party, it can be an in­cent­ive to re­tire. But not al­ways. I re­call a sen­at­or who had been in of­fice for sev­er­al terms telling me that he would like to re­tire then but was wor­ried that his party would not be able to hold his seat. He de­cided to run again and is still on the Hill after a couple more terms.

Right now, the wind seems to be fa­vor­ing Demo­crats, which should make their re­cruit­ing and in­cum­bent re­ten­tion some­what easi­er. It should be more dif­fi­cult for Re­pub­lic­ans. That may re­main the case, but cur­rents some­times change. In 1981 and 1982, Demo­crats were still re­coil­ing from Ron­ald Re­agan’s land­slide, 10-point vic­tory over Pres­id­ent Carter, an elec­tion in which Re­pub­lic­ans scored a net gain of 34 House and 12 Sen­ate seats, gain­ing a ma­jor­ity in the up­per cham­ber. Demo­crats entered the Re­agan pres­id­ency in a full fetal po­s­i­tion only to have a re­ces­sion turn the tables. They picked up 26 House seats, and the GOP won four Sen­ate races by the nar­row­est of mar­gins, gain­ing a wash and avert­ing a dis­aster.

So watch the polit­ic­al winds now, dur­ing this odd year. They are not de­term­in­at­ive of what will hap­pen in next year’s midterm elec­tions, but they will sup­ply im­port­ant clues.