BALTIMORE, MARYLAND - House Democrats are united against President Donald Trump, but as they wrap up a somewhat painful, inward-looking retreat, they are still trying to figure out how to turn that opposition into a winning strategy.
They agree that they need a stronger message about helping working-class Americans who propelled Trump to a surprising win and a better way to communicate that message, especially amid the daily cacophony that has so far characterized Trump's presidency.
But they are still struggling with how to do that, exactly, and spent much of the three-day conference dissecting 2016's difficult losses that caught them unaware.
“We're still going through the seven stages of something,” says New York Rep. Joe Crowley, the Democratic conference chairman and the organizer of the event. “But we're getting to the point though that we're realizing, look, we have a role to play, and a meaningful one. The American people expect us to stand up and defend what we have accomplished, and express to them when and if we're in power, what will we do to improve the lives of the average American.”
Part of the introspection was some early data from an upcoming report by New York Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, who did an independent analysis looking at 127 races, isolating 350 data points for each race. He says what he found was that Democrats have been looking at some of the wrong things.
“We found in districts where we thought Democrats were strong, they weren't, and in districts where we thought we were weak we were strong,” Maloney said in an interview with The Associated Press.
His analysis found three factors that mattered most for Democrats — percentage of rural population, the percentage of diversity and the number of educated voters. That means, he says, that there are some winnable districts in highly educated suburbs where Republicans haven't faced strong challengers.
“If we can get our act together, we can do very well,” he said.
House Democrats picked up only a half-dozen seats in last year's elections, far fewer than anticipated and well below leadership's predictions. That came after several disappointing election cycles, including the loss of the majority in 2010. They are now at a historic disadvantage and hold 193 seats to Republicans' 240.
The Congressional Black Caucus, which is made up of around 50 members, did its own analysis of the election showing dissatisfaction with Trump but also with fellow Democrats. A release from CBC chairman Cedric Richmond of Louisiana during the retreat said African-Americans feel taken for granted by the party and want more “drastic tactics” to fight policies.
“African-Americans want Democrats to stop using the same old playbook and to make substantive progress on the issues that affect their communities,” Richmond said, calling for Democrats to “re-evaluate the way they are engaging this critical section of its base.”
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party's official campaign arm, is doing its own “deep dive” into what happened in 2016. Before it's complete, New Mexico Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, the committee's chairman, has already launched an early campaign with larger investments in targeted districts to work with local organizers, start recruiting earlier and harness party-led backlash to Republican-led Washington.
The group's recruitment chairman, Washington Rep. Denny Heck, said at the retreat that they are focusing on 23 seats held by Republicans in districts that Democrat Hillary Clinton won in the presidential contest, 10 districts she narrowly lost and nine seats that she lost but that President Barack Obama won in 2012.
“What we're hearing about on the ground is a tremendous amount of energy,” Heck said. “We're going to gain seats in 2018 — it's just a question of how many.”
Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, who unsuccessfully challenged House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi for her post after the election, says Democrats are relying too much on data to figure out how to move ahead. He says they need to better engage working-class voters by appearing in conservative media and telling their story. Democrats need to avoid getting too distracted by Trump, he says, and stay focused on the jobs message in their own districts.
“Just show up, go to where the people are and listen to them and you'll know what they are thinking,” Ryan says.