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10.05.2018

Portrait of a Campaign

First disclaimer: The following is not intended as a roman-a-clef. Everything here is a composite portrait drawn from a dozen or so campaigns in similar circumstances in 2018.

Second disclaimer: I am a political novice and don't know all the fancy things. But I do like structural thinking and have a functioning pair of eyes and ears. I spent the last year traveling and meeting many Democratic Congressional campaigns in red-leaning districts. I look at the same political forecasts you do. Something is not adding up.

The Problem

With a month to go before the midterms, there are more than a dozen districts where a progressive woman is running for office as a first-time candidate against an absentee Republican incumbent, and has polling in hand showing her able to win outright if she can reach independent voters with a short statement along these lines:

I don't take corporate money, and I support universal health care. My opponent takes corporate PAC money, voted against the Affordable Care Act, and has refused to hold a town hall.

These same polls show that the incumbent has less than 50% of the vote, and that a large proportion of voters has never heard of the challenger. Once the large group of undecided respondents hear a two-sentence message about the two candidates, they break decidedly for our challenger.

This polling evidence suggests that reaching independent voters in those districts in time for the election, using any tools available, should be a top priority of the Democratic Party.

And yet, candidates in these districts are struggling to find the means to get their message out, in an environment where marginal candidates and candidates running in completely safe districts are marinating in millions of dollars.

In many cases, the shortfall amounts to something like $100-$200K, the cost of a block of TV ads in a smaller media market.

While I don't believe that every candidate in this situation is guaranteed to win if she can reach independent voters, I believe that they will all lose if they don’t.

Given the relatively small sums at play, a national party flush with money, and the critical importance of winning the House in 2018, it confounds me that these campaigns can't get the resources to win.

Spoiler: at the end of this thing I am going to ask you to donate a hell of a lot of money to thirteen such candidates.

So what gives? In a political environment where we need to win 23 House seats, why are we throwing away a chance at victory in red, rural districts?

The answer comes down to pathologies in the ways Democratic campaigns are funded. The same issue that is galvanizing voters across the country—campaign finance reform—is the one that will prevent many candidates running on it from being able to win.

While claiming to seek victory, the Democratic leadership has instead created a consulting and fundraising complex that incentivizes narrow defeat. The people responsible for losing the 2016 election were promoted, not purged. If we somehow manage to win in spite of them in 2018, we need to bring the whole corrupt edifice down.

The Rules

For people reading this outside the US, or who just feel shaky about their civics, here's how House elections work:

The country is divided into 435 districts of roughly equal population. They are designed to have about 710,000 people, though in practice they vary from 528K (Rhode Island) to 1,024K (Montana). Each has something like half a million voters, so you could meet a thousand new people a day for a year and still be unknown to much of the electorate.

Every two years, all of these districts go up for election.

The districts themselves are drawn by the individual states. In some states, they have reasonable shapes; in other states, they are horribly convoluted in an anti-democratic process called gerrymandering.

You don't need anyone's permission to run for Congress. All you have to do to get on a party ballot is fulfill a basic requirement, either by paying a sum of money ($10,000 for Democrats in Arkansas, for example) or collecting a certain number of signatures (1,000 in Pennsylvania).

To become the Democratic nominee, you have to win a primary election. These take place on different dates, from March to September, again following rules that differ across states.

The winner of the primary goes through to the general election, which is held nationwide on November 6.

The Candidate

Our archetypal candidate in 2018 is a progressive woman running for Federal office for the first time. Some combination of the events on Election Day and the Women's March in 2017 led her to make the most difficult decision of her professional life—to run for Congress.

She's running in a district that voted for Trump, but not overwhelmingly so. It is a district where she has deep roots, and has spent much of her life. She understands the people there.

Our candidate began her run in mid-2017, initially working out of her home, more recently working from a small campaign office tucked away in a strip mall or shared office building. Her paid staff consists of three to six people, most of them also working on their first election, a few of them the kind of young political science addicts who rove from campaign to campaign, never finding succor. The campaign is run mostly by volunteers, a mix of retired people and students.

Campaigning has required our candidate to put her life on hold. She is either retired or has the kind of job (like non-profit public service) that allows her to take a leave of absence, but the decision to run has had a serious impact on her family and her financial well-being.

Very early on, she had to develop the two near-sociopathic skills required of a politician in 2018: the ability to repeatedly tell a truncated version of her life story with unaffected sincerity, and the ability to shake down a list of wealthy strangers on the phone for money.

The Money

The principal activity of any Congressional candidate is call time.

Call time is the period of four to six hours each day the candidate spends phoning potential donors, like it's 1983. All but the most depraved extroverts hate it. Many campaigns have a person whose job it to bully the candidate back onto call time to meet her quota, either while driving between campaign events or locked inside her office.

Call time kills the soul.

It requires raising something like a million dollars to run a House race. Unless you are wealthy enough to fund your own campaign (which the Democratic Party encourages!), you must collect this money in pieces of up to $2,700 from individuals, or $5,000 from political action committees.

Call time puts strong constraints the kind of people who can seek office. Without a list of wealthy donors, or the ability to procure such a list, it is difficult to get a candidacy off the ground.

In Democratic primaries, you find people running campaigns who happen to be well connected because they went to an ivy league law school, or worked at a major nonprofit, or otherwise have strong ties in the corporate/philanthropy complex. You will also find very wealthy people (the DCCC avidly recruits self-funders), business owners, and people whose personal story is so compelling that it can serve as a fundraising prop in its own right.

People who are good at schmoozing with the rich, and who can take eighteen months off of work, do well running for Congress. People who are bad at going hat-in-hand to the wealthy do not.

This is why you will rarely find teachers, office workers, tradespeople, union reps, farmers, scientists, or anyone in the service professions running in a party that claims to represent the working class. Nobody who must work a day job can sustain the pressures of running for Congress.

The process selects for candidates who are good at raising money, not winning votes.

Fundraising consumes an inordinate amount of our candidate's time. A campaign that was supposed to be about the voters is instead focused entirely on a class of fickle donors. Going through the slog of perpetual fundraising convinces our candidate that there has to be a better way.

There is! And her opponent has found it.

The Incumbent

The incumbent is a middle-aged Republican man who haunts his district like a ghost, appearing once or twice a year for just long enough to frighten children, though never long enough for witnesses to gather. He got elected a few terms ago and has coasted through re-election ever since, often with over 60% of the vote. His comfortable victory margins are less a reflection of his political prowess, and more a symptom of the fact that he has never faced a strong opponent. Every two years, a political novice appears, fails to raise significant money, loses to him by 80,000 votes, and exits the political stage.

With every such victory, the incumbent cements the impression that his is a safely Republican district, which discourages serious candidates from running against him the next time around, in a vicious circle. The spreadsheets that matter begin to list this district, where most people don't vote, as "solid red".

Unlike our candidate, the incumbent doesn't have to worry about fundraising. The money comes to him. Most of his donations come from corporations, who donate through political action committees (PACs) that are allowed to give individual candidates up to $10,000.

As the incumbent climbs the seniority ladder in Congress, the list of corporations interested in giving him money grows, making his financial position stronger.

The incumbent also gets large contributions from the network of rich donors mobilized by the Republican party. In 2018, in the kinds of districts I'm talking about, it's normal for the incumbent to have a 5:1 advantage in cash on hand.

If the race should threaten to become competitive despite this cash advantage, the incumbent can count on one of the large outside spending groups to come bail him out. These are the “dark money” groups you hear about in connection with people like the Mercers, or the Koch brohters. An active example in 2018 is the Congressional Leadership Fund, Paul Ryan's PAC.

Unlike campaigns, outside groups can collect and spend unlimited money. The only rule they have to follow is to not coordinate with the campaign they are supporting, a fig leaf that leads to ridiculous charades of independence. (The Democratic Party, for example, demands that all candidates post public ‘B-roll’ footage on their websites so that outside spending groups can use it to create ads without technically violating the restriction on coordinating with campaigns.)

With his financial position secure, and the safety of knowing that heavy artillery will fire if the race gets tight, there are only two things our incumbent fears—antagonizing Trump and holding public town halls.

The risk of antagonizing the President is obvious. The way to avoid it is to vote with him on all legislation, including ACA repeal, tax cuts, tariffs, immigration bills—whatever the President wants.

The problem with this voting record is that it makes voters angry, because Republicans made a concerted effort to take away their health insurance. And no Republican incumbent wants to hold an open mike night for angry constituents to talk about how their representative tried to kill them.

What to do? Holding town halls means getting yelled at by people whose health care you tried to strip. Not holding them is a political liability. Some incumbents just brazen it out and take the political heat. Others hold staged events with pre-screened attendees who won’t cause trouble. Many have found it expedient to hold 'town halls' only by phone.

One enterprising gentleman hit on the idea of using the buddy system—he invited a colleague from another district to the event and then had him field all the questions, presumably returning the favor later. This is a man destined for higher office.

The Voters

The voters are so unhappy!

Part of the challenge of winning a Congressional election is convincing people they should bother to vote. They’re disenchanted with a political system that has done little to help them, and many are also disengaged—they don’t know there’s an election, don’t plan to vote, don’t want to hear more, and don't want you knocking on their door again.

When our candidate holds town halls, the voters rarely mention Trump. But they do ask pointed questions about 'partisan bickering in Washington', and how she plans to move past it.

To an outside observer, this can sound like an infuriating kind of both-sides-ism, but I have come to perceive it as an expression of anger. The voters see paralysis in the political system and ascribe it to a political class, not a party. They want assurances that the candidate will not become part of the problem.

There are three issues in particular that seem to get voters riled up at campaign events.

The first is campaign finance reform. This might sound oddly technical, but it cuts to the heart of why people hate Congress. While people don't understand the arcana of election law, they can recognize that the political incumbent class across both parties has become financially dependent on Wall Street, both while in office and after they depart for lucrative jobs in the private sector.

When our candidate talks about not taking corporate money, she gets applause but also challenging questions: how do you plan to win without it?

The second animating issue is health care. While the language differs across districts—Medicare for all, universal health care, single-payer—the idea that health care in a developed country should not be a privilege but a right, and that the current system is set up to serve the interests of pharmaceutical and insurance companies, is universally popular and also cuts across party lines.

The third issue that gets voters worked up, somewhat surprisingly, is internet access. The state of rural broadband in the United States is dismal, and in places outside major cities everyone has stories of poor cell phone coverage, kids being unable to get homework done, the need to park outside the McDonald’s or the library to get online, people who can't get state and Federal services because they lack access to a public computer. Even those voters who have decent connectivity are angry about the extortionate charges levied by monopoly carriers.

Poor internet access ties into deeper concerns about jobs, education and health care in the district. How can young people stay in the district and get a viable job with a living wage? Like rural electricity, broadband is a basic need for a modern economy. Lack of broadband means lack of economic opportunity for any kind of remote work, telemedicine and education. It means becoming a permanent backwater.

Voters bring up many other issues, but these are the ones that get them mad. And these same three issues are ones where the national party has been a burden, not a help.

On health care, the DCCC has simply told candidates to not talk in specifics, and to never use the words ‘single payer’, which in the mind of Washington party types is considered divisive. A charitable reading of this is that the party wants to present a united front on health care (some kind of handwaving promise to shore up the ACA). A cynical reading is that the party does not want to antagonize powerful corporate interests, including the pharmaceutical and insurance lobby, that pay its bills.

On campaign finance, the Democratic Party is just a pure liability. Instead of rejecting corporate money, the Democratic leadership depends on it. The party's response to the emerging power of dark money donors like the Mercers and Koch brothers has been to try to cultivate a rival crop of billionaires on the left, not to reconsider its participation in a system of organized bribery that will always favor the right.

The whole campaign finance system needs to burn with cleansing fire. But the Democratic Party’s surrender to legalized corruption makes it unable to run on one of the great motivating issues in 2018. Instead, our candidate has to spend time promising she won't be a tool in the hands of her own party's hated leadership.

The Internet issue, which could similarly form part of an ambitious national platform, is another one where Democrats are hamstrung by their addiction to corporate largess. Just like rural electrification did in the 1930s, rural broadband has mobilized the opposition of powerful interests (the telecommunications industry and big tech companies that fear any form of regulation) that bankroll the political class. Making the Internet available to all Americans in the name of universal access—a kind of “net neutrality plus”—is a promising policy idea the national party can't run on.

The Party

So what does the Democratic Party offer our candidate? Not a lot!

The entity responsible for coordinating between the national party and Democratic campaigns is the DCCC, or Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

In principle, the DCCC is supposed to recruit strong candidates, teach them the fundamentals of how to run a campaign, help them with field organizing, guide them to good outside specialists in polling, media production, and advertising, and help solicit donations and national support.

In practice, the DCCC is just a waste of carbon. Many campaigns they won't even deign to talk to.

After winning the primary in Utah's second district, Shireen Ghorbani's campaign manager received a single cryptic text from the DCCC: "Hi—can we talk tomorrow?", followed by silence. They weren't able to get their emails returned for months.

That's still more attention than the national party gave Ian Todd, their nominee in Minnesota's 6th district. Running for Michelle Bachmann's old seat outside Minneapolis, the official nominee for Federal office has never heard from his party at all.

Like Dante's Hell, the DCCC is organized in concentric rings. At the heart of it are a few senior staff who are experienced and competent. The focus of this inner sanctum is protecting the seats of high-profile incumbents. Candidates of the kind I’m describing will never meet them.

The next layer out is the one that protects lower-profile incumbents, followed by the DCCC's "Red to Blue" program—the official list of districts where the Democratic Party thinks it can beat a Republican. Internally, the Red to Blue program is segmented into at least two subgroups. A small portion of Red to Blue races receives financial and other support. The rest of the list is ‘Red to Blue in name only’; candidates are added to the Red to Blue website and then expected to fend for themselves.

Beyond this circle is the outer darkness—campaigns that the DCCC has written off entirely.

In these outermost layers of the onion, the employees are very junior. It is rare for DCCC staff to stay beyond four years, or two election cycles. Their work is the political equivalent of being a McKinsey consultant—a place for young people to make their bones before moving on to lucrative private sector work in media strategy.

And lucrative work there is! One of the jobs of the DCCC is to keep lists of recommended consultants and staff. Campaigns that sign up for DCCC help commit to only hiring from those lists. These consultants roam the country like political ronin, wandering from campaign to campaign, bringing a ‘West Wing’ sensibility and tall Starbucks frappucino to every campaign they bless with their presence. They cost thousands of dollars a month, and spend tens of thousands of dollars a month on even more expensive agencies and the machinery of advertising.

The DCCC has a fundamentally timid vision of how to win in rural places. Their ideal candidate doesn’t look like our progressive woman at all—he looks like the Marlboro Man. The ideal red-district candidate is a self-funding millionaire former prosecutor who is also a combat veteran, with a mildly ethnic background, unburdened by substantive policy positions, serious ideas, or a record.

The DCCC hates our candidate, and our candidate can't stand the DCCC.

The Next Four Weeks

So what do we do? The election is imminent!

The Democratic Party does not want to back candidates it sees as radical in districts it cannot win. In their eyes, the 2018 election is a tug of war between left and right, and the way to win that tug of war to get as far to the right as possible at the outset, leaving less room for the other side. The last thing they want is a bunch of progressives in vanity races pulling Team Blue to the left.

In the few rural districts it considers winnable, the Democratic Party is backing telegenic embodiments of its fantasy about what appeals to rural voters—a vague sense of heartland values and a military record, with no mention of policy. This ideal candidate motivates no one, and speaks to a profound lack of self-confidence in the Democratic Party about their basic beliefs.

From the point of view of progressive candidates, the national party is a punishment inflicted by a vengeful God. They have to expend energy distancing themselves from Nancy Pelosi, of all people, a superannuated figure emblematic of the party’s close embrace of Wall Street interests and geriatric leadership. They get no money, bad advice, and endless hassle from the central committee in DC.

We have four weeks left to cut the bullshit and win this election.

The thing to do, right now, is to throw money at the kind of candidate I'm describing. If the DCCC is right, these races were lost anyway. If they are wrong, then we are about to throw away winnable seats, and possibly our majority. Prudence suggests we flood the zone with money and figure out later who was right.

Unlike Senate races, with astronomical budgets, a few thousand dollars can make a difference in red-district House seats where media costs are cheap. Not all of these seats can win, but it would be political malpractice to lose a House race in 2018 for lack of funding.

In our chaotic political climate, we need to be more humble about what constitutes a winnable seat. Let people swing for the fences, and give them the means to do it.

In the longer term, we need to rethink how to run in rural America. Democrats need to be more aggressive and learn to use red districts as a cheap laboratory for honing a winning platform that can persuade voters in other districts, too.

They need to establish infrastructure that survives past any individual campaign, so that successive Congressional campaigns operate as a ratchet, each time organizing and mobilizing a little more of the electorate.

They need to embrace radical campaign finance reform, and then bludgeon their Republican opponents to death with this issue.

And they need a plan for making the large swathes of deindustrialized America look like a first-world country, not East Germany.

Right now, though, we need to win. If we fail to secure the House, we lose the ability to keep the 2020 census fair, and that will lock in a Republican majority for ten years. We embolden everyone who has thrown in with Trump and his style of politics. We abandon the vulnerable people we have promised to protect. And we betray the millions of people who have worked so hard to get us here, to the threshold of winning a Congressional majority.

If you find my argument persuasive, here is a list of thirteen House candidates, most of whom fit the profile I have given above, to whom you can give money today with the assurance that it will be spent wisely tomorrow. If you are an American citizen or green card holder, and not a Federal contractor, you can give Federal candidates up to $2,700 each.

Given a boost of a couple of hundred thousand dollars in the coming two weeks, all of these candidats stand a chance to win in November, even though they don’t appear (with the exception of ME-2) on anyone’s list of competitive districts.

We have the polling to back this up. We have the volunteers, the staff, the candidate, the message, and the fired-up electorate.

Unfortunately, we also have the Democratic Party.

We learned the hard way in 2016 that we can't take comfort in rosy forecasts of a likely victory. Every pollster who predicted a blue wave in 2016 still has their job.

It will take a green wave to make the blue wave happen next month. We can't wait for the cavalry here—no one else is coming. Please help!

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