Back in the Tea Party wave of 2010, I ran for Congress in a red district in Virginia. (My timing was spectacular!) That was a time of a populist backlash against President Obama and townhall screaming matches over Obamacare. The president’s approval ratings sank accordingly. But it wasn’t the unpopular president my opponent was most eager to tie me to. That distinction belonged to the House Speaker at the time, Nancy Pelosi. I was not alone. In 2010, Republicans spent $65 million on 161,000 TV spots that focused on Nancy Pelosi. The tactic worked like a charm. Republicans swept back into the majority where they have sat comfortably ever since. It worked so well in fact that to this day Democrats in swing districts across the country are forced by the GOP to answer for the nationally unpopular Nancy Pelosi. Don’t take my word for it. You can ask candidates like Nebraska Congressman Brad Ashford who just lost his seat thanks in part to anti-Pelosi ads like this. In district after winnable district, Nancy Pelosi has been tied like a rock around the neck of Democratic hopefuls and incumbents alike.
The Republican Party has gotten a great return on the ad dollars they’ve spent vilifying Pelosi. To many, she is now the living embodiment of everything wrong with Washington. She represents the distant and culturally foreign seeming San Francisco where the average family earns $136K per year. She is the consummate Washington insider hailing from a powerful political family, maneuvering in backrooms and pulling House of Cards power moves. She is the establishment elite whose natural habitat seems to be gilded cocktail party fundraisers. Is this fair? No. But it is the reality of how Leader Pelosi is viewed in swing districts across the country. Times have changed since Pelosi helped Democrats take the majority in 2006 on the strength of an anti-Bush backlash. Back then, a majority of the country didn’t even know enough about Nancy Pelosi to form an opinion. Now a majority of the country has formed a negative opinion and a mere 28 percent hold a favorable view.
So why stick with a leader who is an active obstacle to winning for Democratic hopefuls in swing or red-tinged districts? Well, the argument I keep hearing is that we should stick with Pelosi because she’s a strong fundraiser. I’ve got news folks, if money was enough to win these races we’d be back in the majority and sitting pretty reading news about Hillary Clinton’s cabinet picks. In fact, we just lost 7 of the 10 most expensive congressional races in the country. But I’m not going to pretend that money isn’t an important factor given the realities of our post-Citizens United political system. Money still matters. But reviewing the facts and recent history, there is every reason to believe that Pelosi’s challenger, Youngstown-area Congressman Tim Ryan will be an even more effective fundraiser and without the devastating political baggage.
It would be utterly irresponsible to fail the many who need a strong Democratic party now simply because we were afraid of ruffling feathers and rocking the boat.
I’m old enough to remember that when another guy with the last name of Ryan took over leadership of his party’s caucus, alarms were sounded about whether he would be able to match the fundraising prowess of his notoriously schmoozy predecessor, John Boehner. These concerns were exacerbated by Paul Ryan’s rather admirable demand that the national fundraising circuit not eat all of his weekend time with his young kids. Well as it turns out, not only was Speaker Ryan able to match Boehner’s aggressive fundraising pace, he actually blew by it. In the first three months of his tenure, Ryan raised an eye popping $17.2 million. About $11 million of that went to the National Republican Campaign Committee, easily breaking Boehner’s previous record setting $7 million quarter. Why was Paul Ryan able to shake the trees so effectively? Well first of all, when we speak of a “donor class” we are literally talking about a very specific group of givers who reliably give to their party of choice. These are the type of folks who on the Republican side gave maximum contributions to the GOP year after year whether the House Caucus was led by Hastert or Boehner or Paul Ryan. The same logic applies on the Democratic side. Party donors did not stop giving when the reins were handed from former Leader Dick Gephardt to Nancy Pelosi and they are not going to shut their sizable checkbooks to Tim Ryan. Our non-presidential year fundraising techniques seem to me in need of a tune up anyway. Why not try to get the A-list celebs and athletes involved in mid-term years? We complain about a drop-off in voter and donor enthusiasm in the midterms but don’t seem to do much about it. Perhaps a new younger leader, who by the way is a former star athlete himself, might have a few creative ideas to add to the traditional fundraising slog.
There’s another more important reason though why Tim Ryan could easily surpass Pelosi in the money game. When asked by the Wall Street Journal about Paul Ryan’s fundraising prowess, national finance chairman Spencer Zwick said: “Donors are starving for someone to give them a message and an agenda.” In other words, donors are looking for exactly what Democrats have been lacking now for years. Ask yourself this, if you are a potential donor choosing between a variety of political and philanthropic options, how excited do you feel about giving to a Democratic party that just reinstalled the same leadership that has led us to the smallest House Democratic Caucus since 1929? How confident do you feel investing your dollars in a party that seems more interested in making excuses for why winning is just too hard than figuring out a message that actually excites people and jolts them out of inertia? You’re likely to start sending calls originating from DC’s 202 area code straight to voicemail.
Looking beyond normal party donors, I invite you to consider the case of Bernie Sanders. Before he decided to run a long-shot presidential bid, virtually no one had heard of the guy, and as a senator from Vermont he hardly had a national fundraising network. But Sanders tapped into something a lot more powerful than a coastal cocktail party circuit, he tapped into the national imagination and sketched a vision that made ordinary people want to get involved. Against all odds, he was very nearly able to match the Clinton fundraising juggernaut and that was without the benefit and in many cases with the active enmity of the party establishment. In Tim Ryan you have a chance to craft exactly the kind of national vision with new faces and a commitment to winning that could bring ordinary Americans on board in droves. Isn’t that the party we want to be? The kind that relies on the inspiration of regular folks rather than the generosity of Silicon Valley and the Upper East Side.
We are supposed to be the party that’s appalled by big money’s influence on our politics. So explain to me again how it’s such a great thing that Pelosi is in super tight with the donor class. Go talk to the folks in my old district in Virginia and ask them just how much of a selling point that is for them. What we cannot afford is complacency. People are counting on us to be the party of social justice and economic justice. It would be utterly irresponsible to fail the many who need a strong Democratic party now simply because we were afraid of ruffling feathers and rocking the boat. It is time to thank Nancy Pelosi for her history-making service and pass the baton of leadership to the next generation. The party and the country can’t endure another Democratic party post-mortem in 2018 about why we are still not winning. And with Tim Ryan as our leader in the House, we won’t have to.