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James Clyburn to Democrats: Forget About Holding the Senate!

Focusing on the House is a better strategy. Here's why

In the ensuing fourteen months, Democrats and their assorted allies will spend tens of millions of dollars to protect their razor-thin majority in the United States Senate. The Kentucky race alone—to unseat Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell—could cost the parties in excess of $100 million, according to some estimates. In other competitive contests, outside spending could easily exceed that benchmark.

But come November 2014, Washington will still be left with, in all likelihood, a closely divided Senate. No matter what amount of money is spent, how many ads are run, or how severe the candidates’ gaffes, the winning party will have a feeble majority of a couple seats. And in a body that requires 60 votes to pass anything meaningful, whether it’s Republicans +1 or Democrats +3 won’t be all that consequential.

That’s why Democrats should embrace a new strategy: They should rid themselves of their Senate obsession and turn their full attention to winning back the House. Even if it means letting the upper chamber slip out of Harry Reid’s hands.

“In so many of these states, you've got these senatorial elections that are sucking up money and the air out of the debate,” South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, the third highest-ranking House Democrat, recently told me in his Columbia congressional office. “Because so many people are focused on the United States Senate races, they're not paying a lot of attention, they're not making a lot of investments in these congressional races, which I think is a big mistake. I think its always been a mistake. We have conscious decisions being made by a lot of Democratic funders to concentrate on the Senate. That is just a big, big, big mistake and I've said it so often, I'm just tired of saying it."

It’s not exactly earth-shaking news that a House Democrat would want more resources devoted to the lower chamber. But there’s more to Clyburn’s argument than self-interest. Democrats would need 17 seats to take over the House—a difficult swing for 2014. But doing so would put the Democrats in a much better position to enact important legislation during President Obama’s final two years in office.

Comprehensive immigration reform, for example, netted 68 votes in the Senate—but figures to soon die in the House, where Republicans intend to carve it up. Similarly, 66 senators voted to pass the most recent farm bill. But House Republicans demanded deep cuts to food-stamp programs, and the reliably bipartisan legislation failed to pass.

“The president of the United States is in much better shape with a majority in the House than he is with a majority in the Senate,” Clyburn said. “That's just a fact.”

Senate defenders say there’s plenty of money and resources to spread between the two chambers. Nothing precludes donors from giving money to both sides, and, in fact, they often do.

But House races often don’t garner until it’s almost too late to influence their outcomes. Senate races, by contrast, are viewed as competitive much earlier, and therefore the money flows to them sooner. “It’s easier at this stage to make a case that they should give to Alison Lundergan Grimes or Michelle Nunn or to defend Kay Hagan because these are highly visible races. They’ve already started,” said Democratic strategist Doug Thornell, who has done stints at both the House and Senate campaign committees. “Attention’s never paid on in the House until the end.”

Still, early attention to the House could pay big dividends. Conservative scribe Byron York recently quoted anonymous Republicans fretting that their House majority could be in peril if they fail to put forth an agenda, and John Boehner has given Democrats a one-in-three chance of winning the House.  Even Thornell conceded a Democratic House is preferable to a Democratic Senate. “If I could have my choice, I would prefer to have a House majority, because its easier to get legislation in and out of the House,” he said. “The sort of witch hunts we’re seeing in the House, the phony scandals, that wouldn’t happen. And I think that there is more of an ability to get a decent product out of the Senate even if there were Republicans there because it would be a fairly narrow majority. The reality is the Senate tends to tilt towards the center and the center of the Senate make things work.”

This basic working order is probably another big reason that donors prefer the Senate to the House. It’s no surprise, then, that we’re already hearing more about some Senate races in 2016—when Senators Kelly Ayotte, Rob Portman, and Marco Rubio will all likely be defending seats in precarious political positions—than we are House seats in 2014. Still, if a Democratic presidential candidate in 2016 wants a chance to outperform his or her White House predecessor, then they’d be wise to make extra room on their coattails for candidates in the lower chamber.

David Catanese is a national political reporter who is editor of, a website dedicated to the next presidential race.