The Broken Market for Democratic Primaries

by: Matt Stoller

Sat Oct 06, 2007 at 22:13

Congressional approval rating is at historic lows because most Democrats do not like what Congress is doing.  In fact, Republicans approve of Congress more strongly than Democrats do.  The mechanism set up to address a situation like this is a primary campaign for the Democratic nomination.  Democratic leaders represent not only their district or state, but the Democrats in their district or state as well.  This is a formal dual role that Democratic leaders have taken on by winning the party nomination, and it is one that is technically ratified every election cycle during the primary.

I don't have data on how often Democratic incumbents are challenged in primaries, but I think it's pretty obvious at this point that the answer is, not very often.  Let's do a thought experiment to prove this point.  Process reformers often complain about gerrymandering of districts protecting incumbents from challenge, which is why incumbents support drawing strong blue or red districts.  Yet, gerrymandering wouldn't protect these incumbents if there were regular strong primary challenges.  This possible fluidity in the political system - safe seats do have competitive electoral possibilities, only those possibilities exist in the primary system - doesn't really pan out.

Let's go through why primaries are essential vehicles.

One, primaries create tremendous inefficiencies for activists, concerned citizens, and outside groups.  Spending inordinate amounts of time calling and writing Democratic members of Congress or advertising to get their attention, all to get them to do what they should be doing anyway is incredibly costly, and is a direct result of a lack of real political costs to bad faith actions that would be imposed by a healthy series of primary challenges.  The lack of primaries is in effect a tremendous negative feedback loop for activism, dampening all of our focused energy as a piece of insulation does summer heat.

Two, democracy is a core Democratic value.  The right to vote, and have that vote counted, is meaningful because it allows citizens to generate buy-in to their civic structures.  This is as true within a party as it is within a country (and as true within a union, club, corporation, or church).  It's no accident that the Democratic Party gained tens of thousands of new registrants in 2006 in Connecticut.  Democratic structures make our party and our country stronger, whether that's by generating Democratic volunteer or donor lists in a hot primary that can be moved over to a general election or letting a festering intraparty fight get resolved by putting it to the voters.

Three, a lack of primaries disenfranchises Democratic voters.  John Tanner, who has not faced a real race in years, or Lynn Woolsey, simply do not have to represent their constituents.  They may choose to do so, but they do not have to.  And their constituents have no recourse.  Their constituents are cut out.  In that case, why be a Democrat?  Why volunteer for Democrats, or donate if the party itself isn't democratic?

Four, primaries are a check on calcification and corruption within the party.  The only way to keep Congressional representatives responsive to party activists and voters and not corrupted by their control of the party is to have regular mechanisms for feedback by activists and voters.  Joe Biden obviously should be challenged for his Senate seat in 2008, but it's not likely to happen, and this was true for Tom Carper and Dianne Feinstein in 2006.

Now, why aren't there more primaries?  Despite the disdain towards the Democratic Congress, Donna Edwards, Rosemary Palmer and Mark Pera are the only strong primary challengers I know of that are taking on an incumbent (correct me if I'm wrong here).  There may be others, but not very many.  With over 80 Democrats voting for a supplemental war funding bill, and several voting against SCHIP, it's pretty clear that these people, despite the phone calls and letters from voters, don't have to respond to pressure if they don't want to.  This seems to be systemic.  Consider that in 2006, Ned Lamont was the only person who would step up to challenge Lieberman, despite Lieberman's obvious right-wing extremism.  Lamont, a neophyte candidate, was willing to learn on the fly, but it says something that the mayors of the two largest cities in Connecticut fought a vicious primary over who would get crushed by a beloved Republican Governor instead of going up against Lieberman.

Something is very wrong.  Politicians are calculating risk-takers, and that these Connecticut politicians thought going after Rell was a better bet than going after Lieberman suggests that there was a serious market failure here.  And that the weak Democratic Congress has seen very limited primary energy confirms that this market failure may have gotten worse.

I'm going to speculate here on some reasons that the market for primaries is broken.  A primary process can be seen as a dynamic market system, where the buyers and sellers are candidates and activists.  It works like this.  A candidate emerges who represents a certain value system.  A set of activists and voters who want that value system support that candidate.  Activists hated Lieberman, but there was no way to turn that hatred into action until Ned Lamont emerged and activists and eventually Democratic voters 'bought' into his candidacy.  This was similar to a 'draft' campaign, where anyone against Lieberman would do, but the process can work the other way as well.  Donna Edwards sought to challenge Wynn, and sold herself well to activists and voters.

There are three reasons local officials don't challenge Democratic incumbents in Congress or the Senate.

Information Gap:  It's impossible to effectively judge, as a potential candidate, whether there is support for a primary challenge.  It's impossible to effectively judge, as a potential activist, whether there is likely to be a challenger to support.  It's hard to find out there are other activists like you, it's hard to know how to go looking for a candidate, it's hard to know if you could be that candidate.  Just where do you start?  The blogs have partially solved this problem (Lamont's initial staff were motivated by bloggers), but the market failure still exists.  If I dislike John Tanner or Jim Cooper, it's impossible for me to tell a potential challenger that I will send $50 his or her way.

It's also very difficult to do systematic recruiting of possible candidates to challenge incumbents, because there's no map of the country that lays out the possible challengers the way that Progressive Punch clearly lays out voting records.  This can be fixed, but hasn't been fixed yet.

Resource Gap:  Should a challenger emerge, there is still a resource gap.  PAC directors, party committees, lobbyists, labor, members themselves - they will and do support incumbents, from Al Wynn to William Jefferson to Dan Lipinski to Joe Lieberman.  By contrast, there has been no systemic approach from outside groups to counter this gap.  Blogs do a bit, but Winograd for instance got very little blog support.  Moveon has done an email poll of their members without releasing the results (and did a poll last cycle as well).  It's unclear to me where They Work for Us is situated, but I don't think it's doing anything considering the organization's last blog post was written in May.  And large donors, while possibly having the capacity to bankroll a competitive marketplace, have not as of yet done so.

In many ways, it's not a resource gap so much as it is a perceived resource gap.  While it's possible a primary challenger will get support from a variety of liberal sources, it's not always the case that this happens.  And it is the guarantee of resources that matters to a potential candidate looking to give six months of their life and burn bridges with the incumbent, not the possibility.

Institutional Gap:  Perhaps this is the biggest problem of all - party insiders hate primary challenges and have built up a set of cultural arguments against them within donor and activist networks.  There is a strong and valid point to make that primaries cost money and TV time, and time and money that could be better spent on the general.  Party committees want all money raised to go against a Republican, not a fellow Democrat.  From 1974-2004, the limited donor pool and television dominance of politics created the logic for these institutions to dislike primaries.

As a result, local politicians are extremely cautious about challenging higher ups.  Not only will they get no help, but there can be political retribution against the career they do have.  Like the Connecticut mayors who decide to run fruitlessly against Rell instead of Lieberman, the downside to challenging a local machine can be high, and there's no counterbalancing mechanism like the right has (Club for Growth, NRA, etc).

So what do we do?

The only reasonable arguments against primaries is that they waste resources or could potentially weaken an incumbent and 'lose' a seat to a Repubican.  Yet, this is a very linear model of considering politics, one that is probably flawed with the dramatic increase small dollar donors and strengthening activist media networks.  Primaries build donor and volunteer lists and activist networks on the internet, they no longer just not waste money on TV that evaporates.  The tremendous effort to call and write Democrats to get them to do what they should be doing anyway is not without its own tremendous financial, political and psychological costs.  And if you are considering leverage in the political system, and not simply partisan gain, it's undeniable that the Lieberman-Lamont challenge had political consequences far surpassing those of a normal Senate challenge, even though Lamont ultimately failed to win the seat.  Linear and not systemic thinking is dangerous for progressives to adopt, mostly because it's playing the same game we've been losing for thirty years.

Still, the cultural habits against primaries are very powerful, and you can hear these habits echoed quite frequently on the right and the left by people who consider primaries 'threats' instead of democratic mechanisms.  Take conservative Time Magazine blogger Kevin Sullivan, who coined the term 'Stollerism' as a way of discussing my ostensible desire to 'purge' the party.  Perhaps I'm intolerant, but calling for democratic and open elections to ratify or reject political leadership is not the same thing as a Stalinist penchant for murdering one's opponents, or a hostile purge of dissidents in an authoritarian regime.  I don't mind that Sullivan uses terms like purges to describe my goals, since he's not the audience relevant to this discussion of Democratic Party matters.  But disturbingly, this equating of purging with its clearly hostile overtones and democratic structures like primaries is a consistent theme within the party as well.  I'll randomly pick Oliver Willis, who suggested in response to the same line of posts Sullivan discussed that primaries are ideological purges and that the only reason I could think a primary against Kucinich was a positive development is that Kucinich is not progressive enough for me.  When I confronted him and pointed out his illiberal impulses, Willis's rationale changed, and he then returned to the premise that primaries waste time and resources.

The illiberal nature of the anti-primary arguments is a consistent theme among a certain slice of Democratic activists and insiders.  They argue without realizing it that if you live in a swing district or a Republican district, you don't deserve a voice in who runs for the Democratic nomination.  For a party that believes in enfranchisement, that illiberal line of argument needs a strong and consistent rebuttal. 

Fixing this market is a long and slow process that started in 2006.  To reorient the incentive system, we must consider supporting primary challengers wherever they appear, if only to send the message to other potential candidates that there is a guaranteed base of support for people willing to challenge calcified incumbents.  Perhaps at some point in the future we will have the luxury of choosing between ten different qualified challengers to support, but at this point the imbalance in the system is so severe that we must weight the value of an open primary more strongly than other political considerations.

I've been meaning to write this essay for some time, but I'll close by relating a typical conversation I had with a wonderful and experienced strategist.  He and I were debating the antiwar coalition (which I consider myself part of), and I made the argument that primary challenges should be a much larger strategic imperative than they are.  He said, well, the top priority is to get rid of Republicans, and then to work for challenges to Democrats.  What I tried to convey is that these priorities are not in conflict, but are complements.  Doing one without the other creates a structural weakness that we saw during the Iraq Summer project, when Democrats and Republicans came back to DC more intent on funding the war, and in fact did so quietly with a continuing resolution.  Ultimately, I did not convince him, but smart strategists in the Democratic Party ought to begin considering the nonlinear nature of political change, that adaptive change by politicians in the system as a whole can sometimes be more important than any one electoral contest. 

I don't know about you, but I'm tired of writing and calling representatives and feeling they will ignore me.  I don't like that the ACLU is cut out of civil liberties legislative drafting, or that net neutrality is still nowhere in Congress.  All of this is actually wasted energy; it's a negative feedback loop that substantially dampens the effectiveness of liberal activism.  And obviously, I don't think that getting rid of Republicans is the whole answer, any more than electing a Democratic Congress did anything to slow the war.  Politics is complex, but sometimes we can identify a systemic problem and a model to address it.  The broken market for primaries is one such problem, and it's very fixable.  Once Democratic leaders recognize that they represent both the Democratic Party and their district/state, their behavior will shift in important ways, and allow us to focus on other activities.

Primaries are strong positive feedback loops for activists, and a good insurance policy against betrayal.  And I'll point out that we may need such a policy in 2012.

Matt Stoller :: The Broken Market for Democratic Primaries

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And Stoller doesn't even carry an icepick (4.00 / 2)
I was impressed by the hysteria generated by the Bush Dog campaign, which if you look at the nuts and bolts of it didn't have a whole lot of nuts and bolts.  That such a rather modest suggestion raised the fear of Stalin's icepicks means it must have hit a raw nerve among the guilty.

What would it take in money and/or signatures for a progressive to simply register to run in the primaries for EVERY Senate and House seat up for grabs?  Forget whether such a race was realistic, whether it made any sense, whether the candidate filing had any intention of walking out of his or her front door once the filing was done, whether the targeted incumbent even deserved it.

The party pros would look and see that someone had filed.  Would have no idea how much force was behind the filing.  The squeals would echo from Hawaii to the Kremlin, er, I mean the Beltway.

OpenLeft has influence far greater than its numbers would seem to deserve.  What would it take for OpenLeft to create a minimal organizational shell that forces could choose to coalesce around should they choose?  There are a lot of organizations out there already, I know, but none so far fills that particular niche.

Full Court Press!

Power to the Blog (0.00 / 0)
I have often wanted to see more of a direct connection between blogs and activism. For example I think MoveOn needs a blog so that the activists and organizers all over the country do not feel so isolated. Obviously there is Act Blue and Blog PAC and such but I talking about a movement driven by a blog.

I think Jeffroby's suggestion is spot on. OpenLeft is currently my favorite blog-- it is more than a blog, I would say it tips over into a virtual think tank as the posters and readers think through complex and long term issues.

I think we could take to the next level and start a Progressive Primary Coalition. We could test our effectiveness  by going after the Bush Dogs- or event the worst 10 of them.

I don't think anyone has tried anything like that before-- a blog driven movement have they?

We won the Battle. Now the Real Fight for Change Begins. Join and fight for progressive change.  

[ Parent ]
One, Two, Many Spontaneous Eruptions of Primary Challengers (0.00 / 0)
It would be important not to be specifically associated with Open Left or a single blog or oganization. It would have to be endorsed by many different organizations, so that the challengers would erupt spontaneously from all corners of the country.

Local and state elections may be more important than National elections. Remember how the Christian Right was trying to pack school boards and dog catchers?

1,000 campaigns? Maybe 10 or 20 succeed. Maybe 100 or 200 gain name recognition and win the next time.

Maybe the Party establishment wakes up and smells the coffee.

[ Parent ]
Right. (0.00 / 0)
I did not mean Open Left only. But if Open Left were to take the Bush Dog Campaign to the next level, we would then need a central organizing/strategy hub. We could then get multiple organizations to endorse and form a coalition. MoveOn is considering going after conservative Dems as well.

Is there a legal reason it couldn't be done through OpenLeft?
Otherwise it could start here and branch out into a coalition.

We won the Battle. Now the Real Fight for Change Begins. Join and fight for progressive change.  

[ Parent ]
We could wait around, or ... (0.00 / 0)
Campaigns and issues can exist on many levels, and we can find ourselves in very confused discussions when these levels are conflated.  In particular, there are issues (in the 60's, of course, we used to call them demands, and on a good day, non-negotiable demands) that you fight with your dying breath to win, and there are issues that are agitational (a nice lefty word), i.e., that raise contradictions, that educate, that unite progressives.

There was a phase on OpenLeft when a lot of people were basically putting forth what they would do if they were Harry Reid and/or Nancy Pelosi.  For the most part, as winnable demands, they were ridiculous (wouldn't get the votes).  But many of them were agitationally brilliant.

If we were to carry out this minimalist "file-for-every-race" campaign, every filing would include a statement of:  Does the incumbent support the following:  (1) U.S. out of Iraq ASAP; (2) No war with Iran; (3) No compromise on gay rights; (4) Not one step backwards on abortion rights!  Others might have a different list.  We would need a process to come up with a short set of demands.  No Workers World laundry lists, please.

If the incumbent said yes to the above, our filer would withdraw.  Well done, incumbent, we'll be watching you.  If the incumbent said no to any of the above, or remained silent for, say, 2 weeks, we would declare open season on that incumbent.

This is where the understanding of agitation becomes vital.  It might turn out that only, maybe, 10 of these races become serious contests.  Who knows?  But I think the agitational impact would be tremendous.  The likely hysterics of the Beltway bandits to what would initially be a mere pinprick could set in motion -- who knows?

But what would it cost us to find out?

Full Court Press!

[ Parent ]
More local control (0.00 / 0)
I think that rather than make a list that applies nationally to everyone, we should make sure that local community members are deciding what matters to them. I mean, yeah, on some issues like Iraq and Iran and health care, I can't imagine that the local progressives are going to support a Lieberdem. But on many issues, I think you have to allow the locals to decide what matters to them. In general, I think that's the right policy to have.

(And, of course, if the locals aren't pumped about a primary, there won't be one...national attention and fundraising is important, but locals have to be the drivers.)

[ Parent ]
That's why I kept it short (0.00 / 0)
Having someone file for every race means that filing the papers and making a statement is about all that would be expected -- at a minimum -- to be an OpenLeft candidate.  If local people wanted to do more, raise more issues, modify positions, they have every right to do so.  And that would be great.

The context for my proposal is that there are so many seats that aren't contested at all.

Full Court Press!

[ Parent ]
It is an interesting topic. (0.00 / 0)
Between Open Left and a couple other blogs-- DKos, FDLake surely we could find someone who lives in each of those districts to file.

It gets hairy when you think about it. Take Kucinich- fairly progressive, but voted AGAINST SCHIP. Here I am a MoveOn activist rallying 40 people outside Debra Pryce's office to THANK her for voting FOR it, and Kucinich a few miles away voted against it.

Make my blood boil. But is he worth a primary?

Which is why I like your idea of putting them on notice.

You know the RepubliCons manage to drain money and time away from Dems by bombarding them with accusations and threats of this or that.

Now I don't think we should stoop to their level, smearing etc, but we should consider what it would mean to be a burr in Kucinich's side if he is going to play games like this. 

We won the Battle. Now the Real Fight for Change Begins. Join and fight for progressive change.  

[ Parent ]
2006 primaries (0.00 / 0)
Your basically right.  Primaries are somewhat common but they have not successfully challenged (or at least defeated) incumbents much recently.  In 2006, one Democrat (Cynthia McKinney, GA-4) and one Republican (Joe Schwarz, MI-7) lost office due to losing their party primary.  Schwarz was challenged by the Club For Growth because of ideological reasons; McKinney was a liberal replaced by a liberal with her scuffle with the Capital guard being the key incident).

Vigorous primaries were mounted for open seats (IL-6, TN-9, NY-11, and Ed Case's Hawaii seat come to mind.  There were probably others.  CA-11 certainly was a contested run for a Republican seat and NJ-5 had a fairly competitive primary as did NY-19.  Doona Wynn in Maryland and Marcy Winograd in California challenged incumbents on ideological grounds and lost.

The Club For Growth mounted challenges for a Nevada open seat (NV-2, now Heller), basically chased out Sherwood Boehlert to retirement in NY-24, and ran a number of other ideologically based challenges.

Cindy Sheehan is going after Nancy Pelosi next year as well.

Lynn Woolsey (0.00 / 0)
Matt was wrong about Lynn Woolsey, and you also failed to note that she had a primary opponent in 2006. Joe Nation, a State Assemblyman who was being turned out of office by term limits, ran against her. The race was portrayed as "Left vs. Lefter." Nation was the "moderate" who was demanding an 18-month timeline for Iraq withdrawal, while Woolsey was advocating for immediate withdrawal. Woolsey won easily 66.2-33.8%.

I think that, as several other commenters have noted, politicians are reluctant to squander their hard-earned political capital on challenges which, if lost, will leave them without much of a political future. And I suspect that the only reason Nation challenged Woolsey was that his political career was at a virtual standstill. I don't think there was another local office that he could move into, and he was not well-known enough to be competitive in a statewide race -- hence, he had nothing really to lose in challenging Woolsey. But I'm guessing that tends to be a pretty unusual set of circumstances.

[ Parent ]
The charges of 'purging' and the squealing of... (4.00 / 1)
...'local activists' are of no real importance. The first because they come from sources who are , to say the least, without any crediblity. The second as I found with my 'Heath Shuler, Bush Dog Democrat' no 'local activist' had a coherent argument to make other than 'Heath is better than a Republican' which is ludricous on the face of it as Heath's repeated failures when the 'chips were down' actually hurts the Democratic Party far more than have a Republican in his seat doing what Republicans do.

Frankly, at the great distance from 'The Village' that I reside I and my fellow progressives were mystified at the Democratic leadership's failures to...well, lead. That is until I read Matt's post on the House vote on the censuring of MoveOn describing the absolute lack of organization on the floor at the time of the vote...I believe the word chaos was used....


Watching 'Rabbit' Rahm on the Bill Maher clip trying to explain what the leadership wanted to do with their majority. What does 'Rabbit' want?

To me it seemed crystal clear that he has no idea. That he literally doesn't now what to do in terms of policy and that even if he knew that he would have no idea of how to implement said policy in the face of the minority telling him no.

It short it seems to me that the 'incompetence meme' extends across party lines and that the current makeup of the Dem side of the House needs to be thinned out to make room for effective political leadership.

A all here know this is a serious issue not just for us but for the nation as the economy, global warming, energy costs and, yes, terrorism are not problems that 'Rabbit' and his ilk have the ability to deal with. Not based on what we've seen so far.

Primary challenges offer a tool to take out the trash and are....

Good democracy.

No matter what 'some say'.

Peace, Health and Prosperity for Everyone.

It's not just one "Village" (4.00 / 3)
In every city and state, there are "villages" of people who have been active in politics and have a stake in the status quo or at least in not actively biting the hand that feeds them (whether the feeding is a party or government job or just something interesting to do a few times a month by attending local functions or getting to hang out with an elected official when that person goes to DC).  They are just as clubby as the DC Village and in many cases just as hostile to opening up the system to newcomers/outsiders.  They're not bad people, necessarily, but they grow to view challenges to the status quo as attacks on them.  And a lot of outsiders are eager to become part of the in-crowd once they've become successful.  That goes not only for politicians such as the Clintons, but for activists as well.  It's a rare person who stays disaffected once he or she tastes some success.

For a challenge to be successful it has to find enough critical mass in the district to overcome the hostility of not only the DC establishment, but also the hostility of the local insiders as well.

How many people are so interested in politics that they would get involved early in a campaign, but are outside of the local establishment?  In most ordinary years, I would guess there aren't that many.  So it's not surprising that there are few real challenges to incumbents even where the incumbents sell out core Democratic values time after time.

Voter Genome Project

And once again (4.00 / 1)
The right has understood this for years. Primary challenges on the right rarely generate the type of "purge" hysteria as those on from the left, either in the party itself or in traditional media coverage.

Just this week in The Hill was this headline: "Club for Growth sees wealth of opportunities in 2008 cycle".

The article goes on to discuss a handful of GOP incumbents that CFG is considering supporting primary challenges against this year, including Gilchrest, Walter Jones, Jean Schmidt, Doolittle, as well as many of the GOP open seats that are being vacated due to retirements (that's where they do most of their damage).

And the quote from the NRCC? No hyperventilating, but rather:

A spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) said it looks forward to the situations in which its and the Club's aims overlap.

"The NRCC remains committed to picking up seats in the House and will be doing everything possible to make sure that happens," spokeswoman Julie Shutley said. "We welcome the assistance of anyone who can help us achieve that goal."

To compare, here's Van Hollen on progressives who were disappointed with Chris Carney:

"I think that would be shooting ourselves in the foot," said U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "It would be self-defeating for people who helped Chris Carney to turn their backs on him now because the fact of the matter is he's been a very effective member of Congress."

Can we create a market (0.00 / 0)
whereby people can pledge in advance, or somehow express, a willingness to devote financial resources to candidate to be named later in Distric X if a serious primary challenger will emerge?

If ActBlue does not want to take this on, can it be done another way?

This is the right question (0.00 / 0)
And it can be more than a place to commit resources to a challenger. It should be a place for comparing "bad" incumbents, discussing potential challenges, etc.

[ Parent ]
I just bought and (0.00 / 0)
Anyone wanna help figure out how to use them?

[ Parent ]
What if it wasn't just money being pledged? (0.00 / 0)
What if we had an insurgent toolkit to apply into each of those races?  We can develop a profile of people who are likely to support this sort of challenge on principle (people who zig when everyone else zags), modify it by looking at the profile of the potential challenger's early supporters, and then apply that targeted profile into the records of everyone in the district. 

We could then as a starter kit provide a list of the top 20,000 people in any particular district who fit that profile so that the challenger can quickly get to critical mass.  That list could be income-indifferent or it could be filtered to be just those core supporters with income or net worth over a certain amount (for early fundraising). 

And all that can be done for an amount that is consistent with early seed money for a campaign.

Voter Genome Project

[ Parent ]
one could potentially collect (0.00 / 0)
volunteer hours/pledges as well, though there would have to be some ability for people to specify if they wanted some kind of progressive, however defined, or what.  I think such a piece of infrastructure should also allow for people to bid or express demand for moderates, however defined.  This is tricky, but I imagine it could be done. 

There are other online networks that allow people to specify a kind of project they want to have done and open it out for bid, finding a vender.  It's not too far off from the same principle.  You could potentially collect all these "offers" and have primary candidates bid to "claim" them, leaving the initial offering person to execute the offer or not, based on a review of the cadidate.

[ Parent ]
Good starting points (0.00 / 0)
I like these ideas alot.

The question is, can one effectively connect bottom up action from the netroots with bottom up action in the grassroots (e.g. with local state Dem committees, county committees, etc.), and then maybe also get some local 'top-down' pressure via these same types of communities?

I would guess that alot of people around here do most of their organizing online and, as such, are not plugged in to the types of local Dem communities one would really need to create critical mass -- well, that explains me, at least, although I'm planning on getting more involved in these types of communities going forward.

I think this type of approach ought to be considered not just in districts with bad Dems, but also in the districts with super crazy Repubs that are so far off the radar screen that the national party won't even consider funding them -- for me here in VA, that would mean actively contesting the now open seat in VA-1 in a 2008 special election and then regular election, and also finding a way to challenge the lunatic fringe like Virgil Goode and Eric Cantor that otherwise are given free passes.

[ Parent ]
Local activists read blogs and will get involved (0.00 / 0)
Once there's a good tool online for complaining about your officials, talking to people about ideas, asking people if they'd support your candidacy, collecting dollar and volunteer pledges...once all of these things are available, local activists will definitely come.

[ Parent ]
Expand the playing field (0.00 / 0)
I think expanding the playing field into "safe" Republican districts also makes sense.  These starter kits/seed money principles could help make sure there's a challenger in every district.  And in a lot of those rural districts a little money can go a long way.

Speaking of which, there's such a candidate in the 4th District of Texas, Sam Rayburn's old district.  Glenn Melancon is pretty intriguing and talks about issues in a way that I think really stands out.  He posts here from time to time.  If anyone is looking for a way to expand the field and help a challenger in what is considered a deep red district, you should check him out. 

Voter Genome Project

[ Parent ]
It is not just challenging incumbents (0.00 / 0)
  In open seats and competitive seats the Party chooses who will run and if at all possible clears the field. More often than not for all the reasons listed above anyone even thinking of running usually drops out of the race.

it also helps our politicians (0.00 / 0)
It's now well known that Obama -- then an obscure state legislator -- challenged in a primary for Congress and got beat (badly).  All agree it was a learning experience, and in the long term we got a successful Senate run by an African American.  [Not to mention the Presidential run.]

New Jersey politics at Blue Jersey.

Why "local officials don't challenge" congressional incumbents (0.00 / 0)
One more big factor: fear that an unsuccessful challenge will be taken out on ones' local constituence.

8 Wisconsin State legislators have told me privately they'd voted for me in my Primary run vs incumbent Herb Kohl for the US Senate last year. only 1, Frank Boyle, (D- Superior) was brave enough to publicly support me. Others said they couldn't risk Herb getting vindictive. To his credit, there's no sign herb has messed with Frank since.

In the actual event, we had the most polite contested Primary in the country, Herb basically ignoring me (except that he went out of pocket to the tune of $3.2 million for feelgood ads.) I in turn cast the race "I'm not running against Herb, I'm runing for the US Senate. Of course we have policy differences."

This is a Test of the Emergency Free Speech System. This is only a Test. In an actual Free Speech Emergency, I'll be locked up.

The State Party (0.00 / 0)
Not quite evenhanded, but Chair Joe Wineke made all the right gestures at fairness. I was given equal time at the State Convention, if not in as prominent a time slot.

The DSCC was silent.

This is a Test of the Emergency Free Speech System. This is only a Test. In an actual Free Speech Emergency, I'll be locked up.

[ Parent ]
Lots of good reasons to primary (0.00 / 0)
I'm really in favor of primaries, and not just to take-on Conservative Democrats. Notice that the Republican party typcially has a lot of primaries often with multiple challengers. That excitemt probably helps them; Repbulican problems are due to their politics, NOT due to vigorous, even vicious primaries.

Here are a bunch of positive reasons for primaries:

(1) Excitement.
(2) Brand interest.
(3) Ideas and issues get exposure.
(4) Name recognition.
(5) Extends the politcal season.
(6) Insurgent candidates drive registration and involvement.
(6) Diversity (race, sex, age, career) in primary candidates would demonstrate that Democrats represent all the people.

The political environment for activists is a different place than it used to be. The internet provides a way to do cheaper, smarter primaries: fundraising is easier, webpages are cheap, easy advertising, blogs help with early image creation, buzz and name recognition.

Finally, the activist environment has changed since 20 or 30 years ago. The Democratic activist base is much more liberal and vibrant than the Party establishment. We also have blogging networks plus Move On and other membership organizations. Move On does not need to be like the "Club for Growth" or NRA which are higher level, pressure operations. MoveOn's power is also low-level and widespread based on a membership that is spread out across the country. These networks are sources of campaign workers, funding, and even candidates, much as Rotary Clubs and business networks do the same for Republicans.

What about public financing of campaigns? (0.00 / 0)
With regard to the resources issues, I'm wondering about the effect on primary races of the public funding systems in states such as Maine and Arizona. Has there been an increase in competitive primaries in those states after public financing was instituted? Under those systems, candidates can opt to run their campaigns with public funding after they collect a certain number of small donations, to show that they have support. With the increase in small donations seen nationally, I'd think that there would be more candidates in races in these states, because this would equalize the incumbency fund-raising advantage, which intimidates other candidates from running.

If there have been more primary challenges under these systems and more competitive elections, this might be an important element in encouraging more democratic and representative elections. I think that's what you're after. In this regard, I think it's important that the public have more "ownership" of the campaign process, rather than it being strictly the province of the political parties. Public funding is one way to get there.

Thematic, goal-oriented campaigns (0.00 / 0)
I'm concerned about legitimizing the idea of primary challenges, given the institutional, resource, and other disincentives.  I think a question that needs to be asked is, What are the various reasons to conduct a primary challenge? In addition to trying to defeat incumbents or to move an incumbent in a progressive direction on certain issues, more in line with their constituents, maybe another goal is to bring issues into the arena nationally, to set the agenda. Granted that Lamont was trying to unseat Lieberman, but the effect of his campaign was to force withdrawal from Iraq onto the agenda of the Democratic Party.

I'm thinking of thematic, goal-oriented campaigns that would target a particular progressive goal that has public support, not only in the district but nationally, that the Democrats are not really on board with in a strong enough way. Withdrawal from Iraq is one. Others are national health insurance, restoration of civil liberties, an alternative to the war on terror, and strong union organizing rights and the importance of unions to economic policy. For example, although Larry LaRocco in Idaho is certainly trying to win, I can imagine another case where that seems quite unlikely with a candidate copying his strategy of working various jobs, but as a way to highlight the dignity of labor and the importance of support for working people and for union rights.

Imagine candidates in fifty districts nationally who are running primarily to support a particular goal. In a few instances, they would be attempting to unseat an incumbent, but in most cases they would be running to get the goal onto the agenda. In each of the goals I listed, there is an existing organizational base that could support the campaign and from which candidates could be drawn. A strong showing on the issue in many districts should push Congress and the president to act. Such campaigns would leave behind a core of committed people who could push the goal legislatively as well as monitor its implementation if it was signed into law. (As a side benefit for the supporting organizations, it would increase their visibility, membership, and donations, an organizational incentive to run such campaigns).

To be effective, and not be dismissed simply as issue campaigns, it would help if the candidates were strong ones and had other issues they were concerned with, of course. The limitations of this kind of campaign would be minimized by the fact that they were part of a national effort, however. 

If effective, these campaigns would legitimize the idea of primary challenges, and would probably lead to more candidate-centered primary races whose purpose was to defeat an incumbent who was out of step with their district.

Does anyone know of cases in which this has been tried? What are the pluses and minuses of such a strategy?

An issue campaign ... (0.00 / 0)
... is better than no campaign.

Sure, it's better to run a "serious" campaign (see Greenwald for a critique of "serious"), but I think the point of Stoller's post is that the primary process is hideously under-utilized.  In other words, run so-called serious campaigns where we've got the troops, run issue campaigns, where we don't, and I would add that even the mere act of filing would strike fear into the hearts of evildoers who aren't used to having to answer to anybody.

Full Court Press!

[ Parent ]
Works (0.00 / 0)
In discussing Drug Policy bills with Democratic State legislators, it helps when I can point to "2317 Primary votes in your District in my Senate race last fall."

I haven't seen any minuses.

This is a Test of the Emergency Free Speech System. This is only a Test. In an actual Free Speech Emergency, I'll be locked up.

[ Parent ]
Every campaign (0.00 / 0)
is essentially an issue campaign. 

Increased frequency of primary challenges would result in increased frequency in actual resolution of issues.

It's simply focusing on re-energizing a cumbersome political system bleeding itself dry with ineffectiveness, rather than focusing only on the winning elections.  The idea that these two are mutually exclusive has crept up on our political strategists and candidates since the 60's until today we often have to accept them standing in front of us after capitulation with arms outstretched, as if to say "what can I do?"

In a longer term solution model, primary challenges are not only a good idea, but inevitably necessary as the driving forces behind winning elections (activists, fundraisers, and potential candidates) become disenfranchised immediate return on their investment. 

Shifting our political energy to the earlier challenge of the primary, we build a stronger progressive foundation to feed into the system, while giving the existing establishment a much needed jolt, effecting the existing system from bottom up, and top down, consecutively. 

Reasonable insecurity is a driving force behind progress, innovation, and most aspects of positive change, without the primary challenges, we're, quite simply, left in a rut with the same issues we campaigned for or against in the previous cycle, and still very few candidates to get behind.

Shameless Blog Plug: The SideTrack

FEAR. (0.00 / 0)

This has a lot to do with your first reason - not having a reliable ruler to gauge support - but I don't think the thought completes the circle.

Unless you know you can carry a significant chunk of the Democratic electorate with you - the way Lamont did - well...  the super-aggressive insubordination that a primary challenge entails could be a career ender.  When you do it, you are asking people to really go out on a limb for you.  Unless the person you are primarying has already made enough enemies to sustain your challenge with some critical mass that the incumbent - if he were to win - could not afford to hold in contempt in perpetuity...  well...

I'm not sure I've explained myself well enough...  But I suspect that even in Democratic circles, politics is more of a machine/patronage game in which the players are ultra-aware of the fault lines and pressure points within each power structure.  Move too far astray, and risk the functional equivalent of banishment.

Challenging the Status Quo (0.00 / 0)
Someone who runs against the Party (both parties are the same) win or lose is in danger of ending their career.  Money can and will be withheld for not only that run but any attempted run afterwards.  The person will be labeled as not a "team player'
  Ned Lamont is not being embraced by the Democratic Party.  He was able to make this run because he could self finance. How many activists do you know can come up with significant money and then are willing to be shut out of the political process?
  Money is really the issue.  It is hard to raise significant funds to challenge an incumbent or party chosen candidte.  The PACs will not usually go out on limb to finance someone that the Party has not endorsed.  The party does endorse in the primaries just behind the scenes.
There is also the myth of call time.  Call time can work if you have been given other people's lists or you have significant friends and family with money. If the party does not endorse you no politician is going to share their list with you. Cold calling will get some money but it will not finance a federal challenge in a contested primary. 
  The web can raise the money but the party has a way of challenging that as well.  They have back doors that help spread the rumor that the candidate is not electable (too liberal for the district, can't raise money, PACs won't endorse them) and since these are remote candidates who do you believe?  It isn't like the blog gets written in the name of the Party.  It sounds like someone from the district. So the netroots tend to back off.
  Grassroots or the locals are more reliable but it takes time and money to really build a strong alliance on the ground.  It does not happen in one election cycle.
  I personally think that the netroots should be working to be building grassroots solutions over long periods of time because that will be the only way to challenge the status quo.

I'm nobody, who are you? Are you a nobody too? (0.00 / 0)
So break the rules.  Have people file in the primary who have no career, and thus nothing to lose.  you know, like ordinary people.

Of course, that might piss some people off.  Can't have that.

Full Court Press!

[ Parent ]
It still takes money (0.00 / 0)
You can not stay a nobody and really have an effective campaign.  You need to get you message out and you need to get in the press, send out mail, have a staff, canvass neighborhoods etc.  All that takes money.
  You can sort of go back to being a nobody after the election but if you stay a nobody during the election then you are just ineffective and wasting your time.

[ Parent ]
no, you miss my point completely! (0.00 / 0)
I'm not talking about effective campaigns.  That's an entirely different breed of cat.

My point is that the very act of filing creates a reaction in regular circles completely out of proportion to its significance.  My plan is that -- for every open seat -- you file, put out a position on Iraq, Iran, healthcare, gay rights and abortion, and ask if the incumbent supports those positions.  If the incumbent does, you withdraw.  If the incumbent doesn't, the incumbent is faced with an unknown.

The act of filing and releasing a statement generates pressure in and of itself.  The incumbent now faces a wild card where before he or she ONLY had to think about the Republican.

It's not the revolution, but we can agitate nationally off the reaction.  We have to develop a better understanding of agitation.  As Rosenberg put it, we have to change the spectrum, not just position ourselves on the existing spectrum.

Full Court Press!

[ Parent ]
I'm late to this party but here a my thoughts based on experience (4.00 / 1)
The greatest obstacles come from "connected" Democrats themselves.

1) Most people in the "establishment" think short term. They see no future in "wasting" money on "unwinnable" races.

2) Viability is all about money. Message, charisma and brains are not "attractive" unless a candidate BRINGS money to the table.  It's like poker.  Can you ante up?

3) In "red" districts there is no real history of giving to local Congressional candidates. I'm told all the time that people who gave before will give again. What if there are too few givers? Worse what if people in your district give to the DCCC because the DCCC claims they "run everywhere"?

Now, here are a few practical things that must happen if your view is to succeed.

1) Knowledge: Democrats must develop a campaign in a box. Our congressional districts don't really change that much election to election. For example, I would like to know which towns have Lion's clubs and other civic organizations. Who is this last known contact? What are the dates of the county, city community fairs? Do the local dems have a booth? What is a decent web host with the right support tools? What newspapers are in district (fax, phone numbers, emails)

2) Personal contacts: This need is a little tricky. I don't think locals need to open their contact list to every "Tom" that rolls through town. They should be ready to offer a firm electronic list of active supports with email addresses as soon as they are comfortable with the candidate.

3) Start up money: Each district needs to have a list of people who can provide the $100,000 needed to start a campaign. Once again, I'm not talking about throwing money at anyone who walks through the door. Candidates, however, need money up front and fast to get the ball rolling.

These things need to be done if we want to return our Republic to citizen legislators. If we don't change these things, we'll be stuck with millionaire candidates who really have no idea how to connect with the average American.

Fighting for Texas families

2006,2008 Nominee for US Congress, TX 4th


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