Saturday, April 15, 2017

Election Warmup

There was an election in south-central Kansas on Tuesday to fill the House of Representatives seat vacated by CIA Director Mike Pompeo. The Republican candidate, Kansas State Treasurer Ron Estes, won with 52.5% of the vote, beating Democrat James Thompson (45.7%) and Libertarian Chris Rockhold (1.7%). In 2016, Pompeo won with 60.67% of the vote, a margin of 30.06% over Democrat Dan Giroux. (Miranda Allen ran as an independent and took 6.91% of the vote. In 2016, Trump carried the district by 27 points. According to 538, only 19% of all Congressional districts are more Republican than this district (KS-4, see: Harry Enten: Why Republicans Are Worried About Kansas).

Thompson ran 20 points better than the Democratic Party national ticket only six months later (about three months into the Trump presidency). That augurs well for a Democratic rebound in 2018, which is likely for several other reasons: the party not in the White House usually gains in mid-term elections, Trump is already very unpopular (uniquely by historical standards), and there is very little reason to expect that Trump's administration will be more popular once its acts and effects have taken their toll. No doubt some Trump voters have already turned against their hero, but nowhere near enough to affect this election.

Rather, I see four differences this time. The first is that all the awful Trump news has energized part of the Democratic base here in Wichita -- specifically the part that gave Bernie Sanders a 70% victory on the 2016 caucuses. The second is that they nominated a relatively charismatic newcomer in Thompson, narrowly over the party establishment's candidates. The third is that the Republican convention nominated their insider guy, a thoroughly lackluster party hack. And fourth: the candidates started out even in money and name recognition (whereas Pompeo, and before him Todd Tiahrt, rarely entered a reŽlection with less than a million dollar warchest), and until he last week or two Thompson was able to run competitively by raising samll contributions. (In the last week, the national party and their dark money benefactors tilted the balance, although their ads were so tone-deaf I doubt they helped much.)

Conversely, the Democratic Party (both state and national) took little interest in the race -- a source of much debate and friction; e.g., see John Nichols: Coulda Woulda Shoulda -- Democrats Miss a Huge Opportunity in Kansas, vs. Jim Newell: Democrats Didn't Tank Kansas 4th District. The latter piece, ostensibly defending the Party elites, is pretty embarrassing:

The excuse the DCCC -- and the Democratic consulting class at large -- have been peddling is that keeping its involvement below the national radar (i.e., not getting involved) was the only way to win such a red district. A DCCC official told the Huffington Post on Monday that "the party's involvement would have been 'extremely damaging' to Thompson because it would have been used against him by Republicans, who have poured significant money into the race." If the national party had made a big show of the race, per the argument, it would have awoken the traditionally red Kansas electorate to turn out at normal election levels.

Someone should inform the DCCC that no matter how invisible they try to be, grassroots hatred of the Democratic Party elites will be stoked by Republican ads: the main one that ran this time featured a split screen with Thompson and Nancy Pelosi, even though neither (at least as far as I know) ever even acknowledge the other. Still, what the DCCC's lack of interest suggests to me is not tact, but rather disdain, tinged with self-awareness that the national party doesn't have anything to offer people in states like Kansas. This may have started with the pragmatic idea that given the electoral college there's no point in ever running in right-of-center states, but what really locked it in was basic graft. As political parties became ever more in thrall to big business money -- and really, the thing that made Obama and the Clintons stars in the party wasn't their brains or policy skills and especially wasn't their empathy with Democratic voters. Rather, it was their appeal to big money donors. And in order to deliver to their donors they had to win elections -- something they turned into a narrowly technical set of skills and tricks. In that schema, states like Kansas weren't just lost causes -- efforts to win them were just plain inefficient. And making matters much worse, the Clintons and Obama put their own personal needs way above those of the Party, leaving it hollow and ineffective, and the party's loyal supporters unrepresented.

The rationalizations of the national Democratic Party won them a few elections, but they've driven the states they've written off -- both traditionally Republican ones like Kansas and formerly supportive ones like West Virginia -- ever deeper into Republican clutches. To understand why this happened it helps to look at how democracy has evolved (and recently devolved) in America. The key idea is that democracy provides a general method for arbitrating differences between the various stakeholders. Early on those stakeholders were limited to property owners, notably including owners of slaves. Over time, the franchise expanded, although even today there is much pressure (especially from Republicans) to limit who can vote, and therefore to shift the balance of power. For instance, despite the fact that "no taxation without representation" was a founding principle, the US denies the vote to tax-paying resident aliens.

One result of the initial restriction of the franchise was that all political parties catered to elite interests, a practice which with few exceptions has persisted to this day. Republicans not only seek to restrict the franchise; they also seek to expand the influence and importance of money. The effect of this is to shift the balance of power toward the wealthy, so that government is more responsive to their concerns, and becomes less concerned with the poor or merely less affluent. The Republicans, especially after Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980, have been remarkably successful at this, so Democrats have been left with two largely incompatible choices. One is to organize the vastly greater numbers left out and often hurt by Republican policies. The other is to compete with Republicans for the money and influence of the elites.

The Democratic Party establishment, with Obama and the Clintons among its stars, has mostly done the latter. They've had quite a bit of success courting socially liberal donors in knowledge-intensive industries like high tech, communications, and finance, and have tailored their policy initiatives to their benefit. This has let Obama and Clinton raise more money for the last three presidential campaigns than Republicans were able to, but Republicans have done better down ticket, in large part because they've put their money to more effective use in media and organization, and in developing candidates. Meanwhile, Obama and the Clintons have done much to alienate the voters they depend on: partly because they've let their policies become warped by their donors, but mostly because they've neglected (and often undermined) building up a strong party organization. One can only speculate as to why, but one suspects that they fear an organized Democratic rank and file might upset their ability to serve their sponsors -- a prime example being Bill Clinton's decision to favor NAFTA over the unions which had long provided Democratic votes. (Obama made the same choice with TPP, which so unpopular among Democrats Hillary Clinton was forced to reverse course and oppose it.)

As I mentioned above, there is an alternative to the focus on donors that has been so prevalent among the elites of the Democratic Party, which is to try to build a mass organization. That is what Bernie Sanders tried to do in 2016, and his near success, combined with Hillary Clinton's abject failure to beat Donald Trump -- by all measures the most blatantly flawed candidate either party has run since, well, forever -- points toward the alternative: one that makes stronger promises to the voters the Democratic Party courts (and counts on), and which by building a strong organization can finally deliver on those promises. (The main knock on Sanders in 2016 wasn't that he couldn't win but that he had so little backing among elected Democrats that he couldn't govern and/or couldn't follow through on his platform. Something like this happened to Trump, but he's so lazy and unprincipled he just turned the reins over to mainstream Republicans. Sanders at least cares about his platform and the people who voted for him.)

This is the context that explains the DCCC's snub of Thompson and Kansas. Thompson came out of the Sanders campaign, he built a grass roots organization, and wound up doing much better than anyone expected. It didn't appear to me that he ran an especially radical or populist campaign: he avoided negatives, didn't push a lot of policy positions, just promised to fight for people (building on his personal story). I think he should have slammed the Republicans harder, but given how biased the district was I could be wrong. (By contrast, Estes' ads were extremely negative -- so hateful I would have voted against him without knowing anything else, but there can be little doubt that the Republicans know how to push their voters' buttons.) Thompson's organization was very focused on Wichita, and he wound up carrying Sedgwick County by a couple thousand votes (so Wichita by much more). He came real close to a tie in Harvey County, but he lost the other larger counties about 3-to-2, and the outliers badly, some by 4-to-1 or more.

Thompson says he'll run again in 2018, which will bring him much up the learning curve. The obvious downside is that Estes will enter 2018 with a huge funding advantage (unless he gets burned in a primary -- Susan Wagle is talking about a run, and Todd Tiahrt still thinks he's entitled to reclaim his old seat). Also, turnout will be higher -- this election only got 43.52% as many votes as 2016; 2018 will probably split the difference. Hard to say who that will help. The bigger wild card is how much worse off most Kansans will be in 2018 -- as Brownback finishes his second term, with two years of Trump and Ryan doing their worst.

It's still going to be hard for Democrats to win in KS-4. It's not so much that Republicans have a huge natural advantage as that the Republican Party (and affiliates like the Kochs) have put a lot of work and money into building a grass roots organization, and have hooked into the national right-wing propaganda network (especially, but not exclusively, Fox) to all but automatically win elections. Still, their intentionally divisive strategy runs the risk of backfiring. On the one hand, it often promotes weak and often very flawed candidates. On the other, the lies build up, and it's become ever more obvious that too much Republican power causes more harm than good. Still, they win if nobody runs against them, which has more often than not been the case. And that's why James Thompson's run was important: not only is he an impressive candidate, he's not out to wheedle his way in by trying to meet Republican talking points half way. He represents real change, and only that promise has a chance against the GOP machine.

As you probably know, the first post-election effort to move the national Democratic Party focus toward the voters instead of the donors was Keith Ellison's campaign for DNC chairman. He barely lost to Tom Perez, after the latter made all sorts of conciliatory promises like a return to Howard Dean's "50 state strategy." However, consider this Perez quote from Jamie Peck: The Democratic party is undermining Bernie Sanders-style candidates:

In an interview with The Washington Post, Perez confirmed the DNC would not be giving Thompson a dime. "We can make progress in Kansas," he said. "There are thousands of elections every year, though. Can we invest in all of them? That would require a major increase in funds." Fact check: the DNC has a fund just for Congressional elections, of which there are just ten this year. . . .

One person the party does not think will be hurt by their help is Jon Ossoff, who is running in a similarly red, but much wealthier, district in Georgia. To date, the DNC has raised some $8.3m for him and has committed to sending nine field staffers to organize on-the-ground efforts.

Although he is young, he's an acolyte of the Democratic establishment, having worked for Representatives John Lewis and Hank Johnson, and he endorsed Hillary Clinton in the primary. He went to Georgetown followed by the London School of Economics and speaks fluent French. He has the support of several Hollywood celebrities.

Democrats think Ossoff is just the guy to bring his affluent suburban district back into the fold. (Clearly, losing a national election was not enough to reverse course on that most doomed of 2016 strategies: trading blue collar whites for wealthy, suburban ones.)

I hope Ossoff wins, but if he does it won't have nearly as much impact as a Thompson win would have had in Kansas. The fact is that Kansans have suffered as much under Republican rule as anyone in the country. Democrats should be able to make their case here as pointedly as anywhere, but they can't unless they try, and they won't as long as they remain dedicated to chasing the donor bucks of the upscale urban liberals they've courted ever since they let the unions go bust and manufacturing jobs move to ever cheaper labor markets abroad. And make no mistake: no matter how much Republicans wanted those changes, Democrats let them happen. Letting districts like KS-4 rot is one way they do that.

Also see Harry Enten's post-election piece, Is Trump or Brownback to Blame for the Surprisingly Close Race in Kansas 4?:

Still, Estes's underperformance in Kansas 4 should worry Republicans because special elections as a group have done a decent job of predicting midterm results over the past few cycles. Kansas's result comes on top of Democrats' doing 18 points better than the past presidential vote suggested in California's 34th special election last week. In no midterm cycle since 2002, except for 2006 when Democrats took back the House, did Democrats outperform the past presidential vote in at least two districts as much as they did in California 34 and Kansas 4. Those outcomes are potentially indicative of a wave large enough for Democrats to take back the House in 2018.

I wouldn't get too excited here, although I'm pretty sure Trump will be even more extensively despised by 2018. The California race is pretty atypical -- it was an open primary, with two Democrats nominated for the runoff, and few (if any) serious Republicans ran. And while anti-Trump feeling motivated some Thompson volunteers, it's too soon for many Trump fans to feel betrayed. (For one thing, they're not exactly "high info" voters.) Georgia-6 next week is probably a better test, and a race in Montana is coming up soon, too -- both have serious candidates, which wasn't exactly a given here in Kansas.

One big hole the Democrats have dug for themselves is that they've lost sight of the notion of a public interest as they've pursued special interest donors. They need people to understand that there are large aggregates of people whose interests are being trampled on in the mad rush to satisfy the big lobbies. Secondly, they need to bring back the notion of countervailing power: the idea that government can level the playing field so that people who don't have power bases (like businesses) can get a fair shake. One can argue that the Republicans have far too much power, so it would be only prudent to tilt back toward Democracy.

Of course, it would be terrific to get rid of the exalted role of money in politics, but as long as the Republicans think that works to their favor, and as long as they have any substantial power, that won't happen. The next best thing is to make people constantly aware of the tinge of political corruption, and that would be an easier task for Democrats if they'd stop indulging in it so conspicuously. (And yes, that means stop nominating Clintons and their cronies.) What Democrats need more than anything is to re-establish a bond of trust among the voters. Republicans do this by exploiting the prejudices and rage of their target audience. Democrats are hard pressed to compete on that level. The only real chance they have to succeed is to become trustworthy. To do this they need to recruit plain-spoken candidates who understand what it means and takes to fight for the underprivileged. James Thompson is just that, and if he can make KS-4 competitive, think what more candidates like him can do all across the nation.