Politics

Steve Israel to Democrats: Don’t Be Distracted by 2018 Midterms

Former DCCC chairman wants party to focus on winning governorships

Former New York Rep. Steve Israel is looking beyond 2018. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Steve Israel, former two-time chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, isn’t giving the DCCC his time this year. He’s taking a longer view of House Democratic campaign politics.

He’s been sounding the alarm, urging Democratic activists and donors to look beyond flipping the House in 2018, which he’s still not very bullish about, and focus on controlling the state infrastructure that will allow them to hold whatever gains they make in 2018 and pick up more seats after the next redistricting.

“Republican governors in 2012 built a redistricting firewall for the exact environment they are in,” Israel said in an interview Monday. He can see Democrats making gains near the low 20s, but is not yet confident Democrats will gain the 24 seats necessary to win back the House.

“It gets much harder getting to the mid 20s and the majority,” Israel said. “Why? Because they built this firewall to protect those last remaining districts that they need to keep the majority. It was ingenious and it was prescient.”

As an adviser to the Democratic Governors Association’s “Unrig the Map” initiative, launched in 2015, Israel’s focus is on helping Democrats win governors seats in 2018 and beyond so that Democrats can control redistricting after the next census.

“I decided to wean myself off my addiction to politics with one exception,” Israel said. “And that was the DGA because it’s the most strategic long-term play for Democrats.”

The DGA last month announced a $20 million investment in eight governors races where the governor holds veto power and can play a role in redistricting.

The DGA estimates that if there were what they call “fair” maps in those eight states — Colorado, Florida, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — Democrats would control at least 20 more seats in the House. Those gains would be the same, Israel said, even if Democrats weren’t the ones drawing the maps, and there was some form of nonpartisan redistricting.

Israel is traveling around the country, talking to activists and donors. He said that after many cycles of donors being distracted by presidential and congressional elections right in front of them, they’re starting to understand the importance of a longer-term investment.

“When I explain to them that we lost 1,000 Democratic local officials, including governors between 2008 and 2012, and they say, ‘How did that happen?’ I say, ‘Well you guys let it happen. You guys let it happen. Don’t let it happen again,’” Israel said.

Israel made this a part of his mission after he left Congress in 2017. He said his DCCC experience opened his eyes to the importance of drawing congressional maps.

Israel recalled sitting with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi after the 2012 election — the first under new congressional maps following the 2010 Census. Democrats picked up just eight of the 25 seats they needed to win back the House, despite outraising Republicans, deploying more field staff, and winning more votes overall.

“That was a nightmare,” Israel said.

And Israel wants to make sure that doesn’t happen again ahead of the 2020 Census and a new round of congressional maps.

“Making that mistake once as Democrats was catastrophic. Making that mistake twice means we should resign our commissions as Democratic activists,” Israel said. “Consigning ourselves to another 10-year wilderness is not an option.”

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