Is There a Problem?

I’ve always been resistant to criticisms of the main party committees like the DCCC, DSCC and others. This isn’t because I think they’re right or wrong. It’s because as the ones controlling the main or a main store of money and other resources they are a logical focus of criticism for everyone who isn’t getting maximal support or everyone who thinks if they just got that added burst of support they could win. The same applies to everyone who doesn’t have the same theory of the election – more gun-friendly Democrats in rural midwestern districts, more progressive candidates, more whatever. In other words, it’s not that I think these party committees are always right. Far from it. It’s that I’m aware there are structural factors that make these committees a focus of criticism whether they’re doing solid work or not.

I say all this as a preface to saying something rather different.

In recent days I’ve seen and heard a lot of things that makes me think there are some real problems not simply at the DCCC but in how the institutional Democratic party in Washington and the main channels of money are interacting with the groundswell of activism among Democrats across the country – both activated existing Democrats and less political or less clearly aligned Democrats who have been activated by President Trump.

With that, I wanted to share a note I got this morning from TPM Reader DS, who served as Chief of Staff for a recently retired US Senator for 28 years. I give a sense of the professional background to make the simple point that this isn’t someone who hasn’t worked in campaigns or worked in DC and somehow doesn’t know how things work …

I’ve closely followed the PA-18 special congressional race and find it both astonishing and disturbing that the DCCC has done so little to help Conor Lamb who, against all odds, may well win in a district that Trump won by 20%.

Here is how bad it is: the Koch brothers, the NRCC, the Ricketts family, and others, have spent $9M in negative ads smearing Lamb, as they are panicked that, if he wins, it will be clear evidence that an electoral tidal wave is building, evidence that will generate huge Democratic enthusiasm, and build the wave even bigger.

The DCCC’s pathetic response is two fold, discouraging words and very little money, According to the New York Times: “The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has so far spent only modestly on [behalf of Lamb]. ‘We look at places that have dormant or growing Democratic DNA, and this one has neither,’ said Meredith Kelly, a spokeswoman for the committee. ‘I think people underestimate that this is a tough district.'”

Mind you, this is a race where two separate public polls have shown that Lamb is well within striking range, within 3% in one, and 5% in the other. The highly respected Cook Report has moved it into the “toss-up” category, and yet the DCCC has spent a paltry $300,000 on Lamb’s behalf, and publicly has said it has no plans to spend more.

This makes zero sense, except for one possible/probable reason: Lamb has stated that, if he wins, he will not vote for Nancy Pelosi for Speaker. Think about it–if Lamb wins, the news media will note the fact that one of the key reasons for his victory was his stated opposition to Pelosi’s leadership role, and Democratic candidates all over the country will almost certainly echo it, especially in red and purple districts. Is there any other possible reason why the DCCC–which, of course, is controlled by Pelosi–wouldn’t contribute more to a toss-up race that, if an upset happens and Lamb wins, will explode all over the news?

I can’t think of one. And is another reason why I only contribute money directly to candidates, and not to the DCCC.

A couple additional thoughts from me. Democrats need people giving money to individual candidates and to the DCCC and to the other committees and organizations which are also pooling resources. They each play different, key roles in a larger process. The break out star contender may have all the money they can efficiently use. Party committees are most key mobilizing key funds as the shape of the election becomes clear in the final weeks of the campaign and getting mediocre, unexciting candidates over the hump in key races. (A successful party needs not only aspirational inspiring candidates, but so-so, mediocre candidates too. In many ways, it’s the ability to get the mediocrities elected which makes the biggest difference.) You need all these operations working and working well. Not everybody needs to be supporting the same people. Different kinds of candidates will work better in different districts. Parties are coalitions. While everyone, understandably, wants their vision and their strategy to be dominant, parties almost always go wrong when one faction thinks it needs to destroy the other.

One final point I’ll make. It’s about spending. We tend to think of campaign money as a finite resource, which in some sense of course it is. It certainly is in the final weeks of a campaign when hard critical decisions must be made about who can best use available money. But this far out from election day, the calculus is different. In many ways there’s plenty of money to go around, certainly from small donors on key races. What’s critical to understand is that spending money can create more money. Action sustains morale. Armies often lose edge or morale if they’re not allowed to fight. Campaigns are not so different. In the Pennsylvania race DS writes about, to me there’s very little downside in coming up short. It’s a very GOP district. There is a great utility in showing that you’re going to fight everywhere and get as close as possible. The upsides of winning are vast. But I think there’s much less downside than people imagine in coming up just short. (You all learn things in near-run defeats.) The message isn’t defeat but willingness, determination and ability to fight everywhere and push the envelope as far as possible in every case.

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