Lessons From 2006 and the State of Democratic Candidate Recruitment

The possibility of a Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives has become a hot topic of discourse recently, particularly due to the down-ballot implications of a Donald Trump nomination for president. We covered the impact of a Trump nomination in a previous article (see Mar. 24, 2016). Of course, Donald Trump is not the only factor that could lead to a majority-producing Democratic wave in the House. Adequate candidate recruitment is an element with potential implications as well, a topic for which the DCCC has recently received some criticism. While some competitive districts may lack a typically-polished candidate, an analysis of the 2006 election—the last time a wave materialized—shows that in the right circumstances, unconventional candidates can be equally successful. Looking back at the 2006 election could assuage the current controversy.

In 2006, the Democrats captured 30 seats—15 more than needed to regain the majority—for the first time since 1992. While the task is more arduous this year, regaining the same number of seats will generate a majority in 2016. Of the districts where Democrats were successful in 2006, 28 of them fell within the normal parameters of marginality, according to the NCEC’s Democratic Performance Index. Only Pennsylvania’s 19th, where the Democrat was aided by a significant Republican scandal, and Kansas’ 2nd, which was a significant surprise, were outside these typical measurements of marginality. The percentage of the total congressional vote cast for Democrats was a relatively modest 52.7 percent, a 5.8-point increase over the 2004 result, when George W. Bush was reelected.

In 2006, for the first time in almost a century, Democrats retained all incumbent and open seats. The only races Democrats won by less than 1 percent occurred in two Georgia districts, both of which are now held by Republicans.

A deeper look at the 2006 results shows that the wave could have been even larger. Beyond the districts picked up by Democrats, Republicans lost an additional 24 contests by fewer than 10 points, including five seats lost by fewer than 2 points. Indeed, the size of the Democratic wave could have been even bigger; just weeks prior to Election Day, neutral observers thought Democrats might net as many as 40 seats.

With respect to candidate recruitment, the 2006 election offers some interesting reminders that could guide this year’s efforts. In that election, the seats gained were evenly divided between career politicians and political novices:

Career Officeholders Elected in 2006

District Candidate Former Position
AZ-05 Harry Mitchell Mayor, former State Senator
AZ-08 Gabby Giffords Former State Senator
CO-07 Ed Perlmutter State Senator
CT-02 Joe Courtney Former State Representative
CT-05 Chris Murphy State Senator
FL-22 Ron Kline State Senator
IN-02 Joe Donnelly Local Office Holder
IN-08 Brad Ellsworth Elected Sheriff
IN-09 Baron Hill Former Congressman
KS-02 Nancy Boyda Former Congressional Candidate
NH-01 Carol Shea Porter Local Party Operative
NY-19 John Hall Local Office Holder
NY-24 Mike Arcuri Local District Attorney
TX-22 Nick Lampson Former Congressman
TX-23 Ciro Rodriguez Former Congressman

Political Novices Elected in 2006

District Candidate Former Position
CA-11 Jerry McNerney Engineer, Businessman
FL-16 Tim Mahoney Businessman
IA-01 Bruce Braley Attorney
IA-02 Jim Loebsack College Professor
KY-03 John Yarmuth Businessman
MN-01 Tim Walz Teacher
NH-02 Paul Hodes Attorney
NY-20 Kirsten Gillibrand Attorney, Government Official
NC-11 Heath Shuler Businessman, Former Football Player
OH-18 Zack Space Local Law Director
PA-04 Jason Altmire Businessman, Former Football Player
PA-07 Joe Sestak Retired US Navy Admiral
PA-08 Patrick Murphy Gulf War Veteran
PA-10 Chris Carney US Naval Reserve Officer
WI-08 Steve Kagan Physician

Note: At least 5 of the elected Democrats benefited from a scandal engulfing the incumbent, 3 elected Democrats possessed an illustrious military career, 1 elected Democrat had a military background (ending prematurely), 2 were former professional or collegiate football players and 4 had business backgrounds.

These lists show that political newcomers with adequate financing are strong potential candidates. For example, Altmire, Carney, Gillibrand, Hodes (at the time), Kagan, Mahoney, Shuler, Space, and Walz all won districts that, based on past history, favored Republican candidates. It is true, however, that the same can be said about the more experienced political activists and office holders.

The 2006 election was also a harbinger of future political trends. A scant one-fifth of the successful Democratic candidates won in the South—six in all. While these six were evenly split among seasoned campaigners (Kline, Lampson, Rodriguez) and novices (Mahoney, Shuler, Yarmuth), only one was victorious in a district inherently favorable to a Democrat—Kentucky’s 3rd. The remaining five eked out a win in suburban territory that generally poses a challenge to this day. More recent elections have only tightened the Republican grip on Southern congressional districts, and the effect was exacerbated by the most recent round of redistricting.

With regard to current Democratic candidate recruitment, some analysts have been critical of the results to date. While some potential marginal districts still lack a formidable Democratic challenger, the filing deadline has not passed in many states. Furthermore, viable Democrats have already emerged in more than 30 marginal districts. Several of the successful 2006 candidates were considered novices at the time they entered the race. Accordingly, several of the lesser-known recruits today may yet emerge as strong candidates in November.