Toward the end of the 2016 presidential election, as polls showed a tighter-than-expected contest in Michigan, the Hillary Clinton campaign faced a dilemma over just how aggressively it needed to act.
While aides worried about the possibility of losing the industrial Midwest stronghold, they also feared that if they moved significant resources into the state it would send a dangerous signal to Republicans that it was actually in play, setting off a political arms race. They ultimately chose to stay away in hopes that Donald Trump would only realize how close he was when it was too late.
Clinton went on to lose Michigan by 12,000 votes.
Months later, the first congressional campaign of the Trump era took place. And once again, the Democratic Party played possum. Instead of investing resources into the special election in Kansas’ 4th District that took place on Tuesday night, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee kept their distance under the assumption they only would have motivated Republican voters had they engaged.
The Democratic candidate James Thompson, an attorney and Army veteran, ended up losing the race by 7 percentage points. And because he was never expected to make it that close, Democrats now are asking not just whether more could have been done, but why the party continues to assume it can’t help out (some of) its own without hurting them.
“I don’t buy that if the race is close, that you can hide it to the other side and they’ll fail to nationalize it the way they could,” said Jeff Hauser, a longtime progressive operative. “The DCCC couldn’t prevent [anti-Thompson] ads from happening by staying out. He’s a Dem. If the best way to attack him is to claim he would support [Nancy] Pelosi, well, it is true. The notion that they can suddenly prevent that is bullshit.”
Above: A former top spokesman for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) seems to jokingly weigh in on the DCCC’s strategy.
The parallels between how Clinton approached Michigan and how the DCCC approached the Kansas special election are limited. It’s not just that Clinton was expected to win and the DCCC was expected to lose (one top Democrat said that internal polling they saw of the Thompson race had him more than 20 points out three weeks before the vote). It’s that presidential elections have dramatically different voter turnout patterns than special elections, and the Michigan electorate is far more amenable to a Democrat than the lower portion of central Kansas.
“You do not get to the single digits in a district like this if you’re a nationalized Democrat,” said Meredith Kelly, the communications director for the committee. “End of story. That’s just the way it is. There are just certain races where it is not helpful to be attached to the national D.C. Democrats. It is the calculation you make in even the most competitive swing district.”
Even within the progressive community, this argument has held sway. Some of Thompson’s proudest backers insisted that he only got as close as he did precisely because he was perceived as a product of the grassroots culture (more associated with Bernie Sanders than Nancy Pelosi) and didn’t have a taint of political careerism.
“I sort of view a race like this as a showdown between a large standing army and a nimble band of guerrillas operating deep in enemy turf,” said David Nir, political director at the liberal site Daily Kos, which helped raise nearly $200,000 for Thompson online. “If the guerrillas engage in a direct firefight, they’re going to get crushed. Instead, they have to catch their opponents unawares and carry out a sneak attack under cover of darkness.”
But in both Michigan and in Kansas, the conclusion was reached by the party that the harder the race was contested the harder it would become. (Clinton only stopped in Michigan the day before the election, and her team left a negligible footprint compared to Democratic candidates of the past; in Kansas, the DCCC did 25,000 live get-out-the-vote calls on behalf of Thompson just one day before the election.)
And in making those calculations, both the Clinton campaign and the DCCC picked at an insecurity that runs through many Democrats: the feeling that top officials often obscure or hide their progressive skin rather than proudly own it.
“A head fake is a good move on a basketball court. But for getting electoral votes in a presidential campaign, head fakes don’t work that well,” said Tad Devine, a longtime party strategist who was Bernie Sanders’ senior adviser in the 2016 campaign. “In this day and age, sneaking anything by anyone is ridiculous. People have Twitter and are online. People share information so quickly. The idea you can sneak something by someone is absurd. You could do it in the ‘80s maybe. That is not the age we live in anymore.”
In the aftermath of Tuesday’s closer-than-expected loss, Thompson’s campaign manager said he did not begrudge the DCCC for its decision to keep strategic distance from their race.
And DCCC officials said they had no second guesses about their approach. Kelly noted that despite a strong fundraising month, the DCCC lagged behind their Republican counterparts, making it even harder to justify a $100,000 investment in a race where they worried it would backfire. But, she said, the committee’s calculations could potentially change based on Thompson’s success ― not just because enthusiasm has heightened after Tuesday’s results but because it’s now clearer that the party can contend in once-unthinkable races.
“We all knew there was amazing grassroots energy out there but we didn’t know how it would translate at the ballot box,” she said. “Now we do. And I think you will see strategies shifting. There are a lot of races ahead of us.”
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