By Jerome Armstrong
Jonathan Krasno is right – the “lack of effort” by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in too many congressional districts has got to end. The DCCC has failed to adapt their strategies to the organizing possibilities that have emerged this decade, and they continue to make expenditures that ignore the reality of the changing media landscape. So what should be done?
Krasno noted that in 1992 the “parties invested half of the money they spent in congressional elections in 84 districts,” but by 2004, the number of seats on which half the money was spent had dropped to just 11. At least, given the historical opportunity, the DCCC this cycle has done a good enough job of recruiting that it is targeting more top-tier races than just the amount needed to gain a mere majority in the House.
Yet, for too many contests, the DCCC just hasn’t provided any resources to the Democratic candidates making the challenge. The “why” of this question is something that’s taken up in the “Gravy Train” chapter of Crashing the Gate, the book I wrote with Markos Moulitsas, but what about the “how” of the matter? Let me offer an example that embraces the potential for engaging the millions of partisans that can be reached online and radically changes the political landscape to one in which we can compete everywhere.
Rather than ridiculing efforts made to compete everywhere, imagine if the DCCC leadership had embraced fielding a candidate in all 235 of the Republican congressional districts and then challenged the online netroots and grassroots activists to match their efforts. So, for example, the DCCC would pledge – barring some unusual circumstance – an amount (say $20,000) to every single Democratic congressional nominee challenging a Republican, and that contribution would be contingent upon the challenger/activists matching it with small contributions from 200 individuals from within the congressional district. So, for that investment of about $5 million, the DCCC would have gained about fifty thousand small-dollar donors in every part of the nation. But more than just challenging every Republican, every congressional district would have the beginnings of a progressive infrastructure, and every conservative stronghold would begin to be challenged by progressive ideas. I realize I’d get complaints for the amount of money being proposed, but for an organization that spent $10 million on broadcast television the last week of the 2004 campaign, only to badly lose five congressional districts in Texas, it’d be tough to take their hesitancy seriously.
Instead, we read that the DCCC has reserved time for about $30 million worth of campaign television advertising this fall in about two dozen congressional districts (and probably with a media strategy that continues to eschew cable in favor of broadcast, in a related failure to adapt to the changing media landscape).
Money always seems to be near the root of the resistance, and as Mark Schmitt pointed out in his response, there are consultants that make a lot of money while giving advice to keep the current system in place. It would be foolish to ignore the money, and an exhaustive study of how the Democratic organizations spend their money this cycle is needed—especially regarding media expenditures. Not only do we need to “compete everywhere”, but also we need a strategy to “reach everywhere”. At best, the reach of broadcast television is about 35 percent of the population now, and 2006 Democratic media strategists who deny the ability of niche media to reach the other 65 percent of potential voters do so at the cost of a Democratic majority.
“Competing everywhere” and “reaching everywhere” are not merely requests from the people that make up the Democratic Party—they are demands. A solution is already in place (ActBlue.com) to allow partisan activists to completely bypass the Democratic committees in favor of giving directly to competitive candidates everywhere who operate modern campaigns. As the prominent Democratic contributor Andy Rappaport conceded in Crashing the Gate, “We haven’t created a parallel leadership structure” within the Democratic Party– at least not yet:
For better or worse, there are still people in positions of leadership and visibility that are still either driven by or represent or are on the side of the consultants. Even though people are becoming a little bit more frustrated or a lot more frustrated, we haven’t yet constructed anything else in which they can believe—that’s our most important and medium-term challenge. It is to make this not just an intellectual discussion but really to have a parallel leadership structure.
The benefits of fielding and funding quality candidates in more districts extend beyond the possibility that more districts may be competitive than currently believed. The benefits of a 50-state strategy would be clearer if the discussion were broadened beyond the possibility of retaking the House in this cycle.
For one thing, if the Democrats do retake the House, they will need to govern. By building a base everywhere, pressure can be built everywhere on particularly popular issues (e.g., the minimum wage). Messages can be tested in a variety of districts with different political profiles. Ceding the “red” states to the Republicans demobilizes people there, and contributes to the extreme partisanship that turns people off from politics. A party that competes everywhere is not a party that can be narrowly tagged with a “liberal elitist” label, either symbolically or in actuality. Further, challenging it in its own territory may be one of the most effective ways to blunt the radicalness of the Republican Party. And that’s important for both elections and governing, because for both the drift to the right will need to be halted and reversed.
The question may be less whether targeting more districts has a greater potential to win congressional elections than whether it makes sense as a vital part of a base-building strategy to (1) win at all levels–local (to develop candidates), state (for redistricting and developing “laboratory of democracy” programs, among other reasons), congressional, to presidential (to contribute to a presidential candidate’s winning margin); (2) build a strong party organization; and (3) govern effectively.
Schaller’s point about making some minority districts more competitive is a valuable one, as is his outline of a corresponding deal with the congressional leadership. But the same benefits can be said to have obtained for white Democratic candidates in the South who reached out to black voters, producing winning presidential candidates (Johnson, Carter, Clinton).
Regarding funding: not only does it make sense, as Armstrong said, to fund candidates in “red” districts on a “challenge” basis, but if the fund-raising base nationally is to be expanded, it will need to tap people in “red” states; without support for their fights, they are not going to support ours.
To Armstrong’s “competing everywhere” and “reaching everywhere” I would add the dimension of time: maybe “base building continually,” or, in labor movement parlance, “strategic capacity building.” (Note the word strategic: no one is arguing that equal resources should be put in to marginal as into truly competitive races.) A party that only mobilizes for elections and not all the time is a party doomed to failure–if not electorally, then as a governing party, and thus electorally the next time around.
Strategic capacity building means effectively using the resources available in and for all three kinds of districts: safe seats, competitive seats, and marginal seats. Winning elections isn’t the only thing; this isn’t a sport. Or, to put it another way, there are many ways to win, and that variety needs to be central to a strategy. People are not just voters, consumers of campaigns. To see them that way is to take the small-d democrat out of the Democratic Party.
A gentle reminder: a web site that aspires to influence the direction of the Democratic Party but (so far) does not have women contributors (or minorities?) has built-in limitations.