WASHINGTON -- The political climate for Democrats can only get better in 2016, said Rep. Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, on the day after Republicans swept into power in the Senate and expanded their majority in the House.
For one thing, Israel said, 2016 will be less about President Barack Obama and his low approval ratings because the focus will be on another Democrat and the Republican running for the White House.
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There will also be a higher Democratic voter turnout for a presidential election, fewer Democratic incumbents to defend and many more vulnerable Republicans to challenge, he said.
"As soon as the sun came up this morning, Washington pundits turned the page to presidential candidates and the presidential election of 2016," said Israel, of Huntington.
Sleep-deprived and smarting from what he called "an ugly night for Democrats at all levels," Israel said one lesson from the midterms that's essential in 2016 is identifying and contacting voters, early and often.
But Israel won't be preparing the DCCC for that. He said Wednesday he turned down a request by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to return as chairman for a third election.
Instead, he said he is talking with her about staying in House Democratic leadership.
"I've been really clear with leader Pelosi that I would like to continue to have a seat at the leadership table, because it makes me more effective," he said. "I'll stay in Congress for as long as I believe I'm effective, but I'm not going to occupy a seat in Congress for the sake of having a seat in Congress."
Looking back on his tenure at the DCCC, he points out he won eight House seats for Democrats in 2012 and said he prevented losses Tuesday that "could have been a lot worse."
Still, Republicans exceeded their goal of winning a net 12 seats from Democrats by three, giving them their biggest House majority since the 1940s. The DCCC lost 11 of the 24 Democratic seats they spent millions of dollars to defend, and picked up only a few Republican seats.
Even in Israel's backyard, Republicans gained three New York State Democratic seats, including that of Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton), and failed to beat Rep. Michael Grimm (R-Staten Island) despite his federal indictment.
Critics second-guessed DCCC recruitment of some candidates such as former New York City Councilman Domenic Recchia to face Grimm.
And American Enterprise Institute scholar Norm Ornstein and House Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn (D-Md.) questioned the Democrats' failure to defend Obama and the Affordable Care Act.
But Israel said the GOP also recruited "dismal" candidates who lost. He said the Democrats' pitch was sound but got lost in news of unexpected international crises such as Ebola and ISIS.
Ultimately, he said, Democrats had to deal with history -- a president's party loses an average of 29 seats in the second midterm -- and super PAC ads aimed at a sour electorate.
"When you have an angry population in a midterm election, and all [Republicans] do is tell people what you are against, you are able to stoke that anger," Israel said.
Yet GOP control of Congress could benefit Democrats, Israel said, because tea party Republicans such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) already are talking of forcing "extreme" policies that will put them "further out of touch with where the American people are."