By Mike Lillis - 11-14-16 10:32 AM EST
Shell-shocked Democrats, struggling to pick up the pieces in the aftermath of a dismaying election, return to Washington Monday mulling the party's future -- and what went wrong at the polls.
While Democrats gained at least six seats in the lower chamber, that number fell well short of the double-digit gains they'd expected. Those results led to plenty of finger pointing as to why the party's message failed to resonate more broadly, particularly with the working-class, white voters who propelled Donald Trump into the White House and sustained the GOP's majorities in both congressional chambers.
In the eyes of some lawmakers, the Democrats have no one to blame but themselves.
"I don't think we had any teeth in the message," said Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.). "We failed to understand that white men -- basically labor people, working people -- have to be part of our universe. And if we don't make them a part of our universe, we're going to continue to have a difficult time."
The Democrats have long stressed diversity as among their chief strengths, frequently highlighting their stark numbers advantage among minority and female lawmakers while focusing much of their outreach on African Americans, Hispanics and women. But Pascrell said last Tuesday's elections reveal that those efforts came at the cost of alienating the white, working-class men who have gravitated in higher numbers to the Republicans in recent years.
"We think we can make up for those shrinking numbers over the past 10 years through this group, or that group, and my response to that is: we should be out for everybody," Pascrell said. "We cannot simply think that we're smarter than [everyone] else ... and think that we can do this without white working men. We can't, and the Democratic Party better wake up and understand it."
The Democrats were never expecting to retake the House, which would have required flipping 30 seats from the GOP's historic majority -- a monumental task in the face of a district map that favors the Republicans. But with Trump on top of the ticket, the Democrats were hoping his provocative message -- particularly his frequent attacks on minorities and women -- would alienate independents and moderate Republicans while galvanizing minority and female voters to the boon of down-ballot Democrats. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had predicted her party would gain at least 25 seats.
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) listed several reasons why the Democrats came nowhere near that number. He cited the party's failure to turn out the base and blamed the news media for giving unprecedented attention to Trump's every move -- exposure that added up to billions of dollars in free air time.
But he also echoed Pascrell's critique that the Democrats' overarching economic message simply lacked the punch to break through to working-class voters.
"We didn't really have a really cogent, focused, economic message," Connolly said. "We decided to focus on the foibles and outrages of the other candidate, assuming everybody would have the same reaction we did. And I think we needed more than that. We needed an economic message that discredited his."
As the Democrats weigh the fallout from their disastrous showing, some are urging a change in leadership. Pelosi and her top lieutenants -- Reps. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) -- have been atop the party for roughly a decade, preventing younger members from climbing up the leadership ladder. Previous grumbling about the bottleneck at the top has led nowhere: Pelosi's last challenge came in 2010, and she won an easy victory in the liberal-heavy caucus. But Tuesday's elections have exacerbated frustrations about the Democrats' minority status, leading to some calls for a new slate of fresh faces and new ideas among the party's brass.
"This was supposed to be the Republican Party's time to soul search, and now we are left in the abyss with no House, Sen, [White House]," one Democratic chief of staff lamented in an email. "I just think the party has a lot of thinking to do and that it is time for the old guard -- all of them -- to move on and let new blood in. The Dem message and outreach failed to reach white working class voters."
It's unclear if those frustrations will lead to new challenges this week. The Democrats are scheduled to hold their leadership elections on Thursday -- a timeline that some strategists said is an indication that Democratic leaders want to move quickly to prevent any coups.
Pascrell, for his part, warned that attempted coups would only harm the party at a time when they can least afford it. But he's also advocating a deep heart-to-heart to turn the party's prospects around.
"We don't need any coups. We don't need any shock surprises," he said. "But what we do need is to be honest and look each other in the eye."
Along those same lines, a group of Democrats is urging Pelosi to delay the leadership elections until after the Thanksgiving break. Spearheaded by Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), the lawmakers want the Democrats to leave more time to discuss the party's strategy for defending President Obama's legacy against Trump and boosting their chances at the polls in 2018.
Roughly 25 Democrats have endorsed the letter, which is still circulating in search of more support, Moulton's office said Monday.
Many lawmakers, though, are already lining up behead the current leaders, arguing that the lopsided power landscape in 2017 is a forceful reason for keeping the most experienced political hands in place.
Last week, dozens of female Democrats endorsed Pelosi's return, citing the need for her "strategic, battle-tested leadership" to counter the Republicans in the age of Trump. And others are also adopting that message.
"The initial reaction, of course, was shock and dismay at the results. And that, I think, turned Democrats to the existing leadership for guidance and leadership and counsel and a strategy," said Connolly. "I think that will tamp down the discussion of any changes in leadership for, certainly the immediate future."
Returning to Washington, Pelosi and the Democrats have scheduled a Monday conference call with the full caucus and Hillary Clinton, and the lawmakers will huddle as a group Tuesday morning in the Capitol to strategize a path out of the wilderness.
Meantime, the shock waves from Clinton's loss continue to resonate.
"We're all stunned," said a Democratic aide. "There's gonna be a lot of finger pointing, but it hasn't really kicked in yet."
--Scott Wong contributed to this report, which was updated at 10:42 a.m.