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Rove: Clinton Said My 2006 Midterm Strategy Was ‘Sheer Genius’

I’ve got a copy of Karl Rove’s “Courage and Consequence,” which is as chock-full of remembered conversations as a D.C. memoir should be. The first conversation that jumped out at me, from page 467, is Rove’s recollection of a pep talk Bill Clinton gave him at the November 13, 2006 groundbreaking for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial.

Rove had just presided over the GOP’s loss of the House and Senate after bragging that predictions of such a thing happening were ignorant — he had “the math” that would prove them wrong. But only Clinton, said Rove, understood how the GOP’s turnout strategy had staved off greater losses.

Clinton told me that before the election, he and Democratic strategist James Carville had been keeping track of the generic ballot, which measures the relative strength of the two parties. The Democrats had a 13-point advantage just before Election Day. By comparison, Republicans had a 6-point advantage on the generic ballot going into the 1994 House elections and had picked up 54 seats. Clinton and Carville thought the Democratic 13-point lead would translate into a loss of at least 60 House seats for Republicans. Instead, Republicans lost 29. Clinton told me, “no one’s ever going to give you credit, but it was sheer genius what you and [RNC Chairman Ken] Mehlman did with the seventy-two hour task force. We should have won twice as many seats, but we didn’t because of what you all did to get out your vote. No one will give you credit, but I know what you did.”

One fact that makes this ring true — James Carville spent the week after the midterms telling reporters that “Rumsfeldian” incompetence by then-DNC Chairman Howard Dean had let Republicans narrowly hold onto around 20 seats. That’s 10 fewer than even Carville had been hoping for, according to Rove. (Democrats gained an additional seat, taking them to a gain of 30, in a Texas runoff in December.) But even these recollections obscure the fact, well known in late 2006, that gerrymandering gave the Democrats higher hills to climb — congressional district-rich states like Pennsylvania, Florida and Michigan had been gerrymandered after the 2000 census by Republican governors and legislatures who created incredibly safe districts for their party. Only in 2008 did Democrats mop up most of the harder-to-win seats.

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