John Nichols (The Nation) takes the Democratic Party to task for not doing more to win the Kansas special election in Coulda Woulda Shoulda—Democrats Miss a Huge Opportunity in Kansas. He notes that “The DCCC barely lifted a finger to help James Thompson. He almost won anyway.”
Democrats on Tuesday night almost won a House seat in a Kansas district that has been sending Republicans to Congress for more than two decades and that Donald Trump won by 27 points. But at this point, after suffering so many setbacks in 2016, the Democrats need more than another “almost.”
The party had a chance to score a game-changing victory in Tuesday’s special election by filling the seat that opened up when Donald Trump tapped Republican Congressman Mike Pompeo to head the CIA. It was an outside chance, to be sure. But it was real, and it became more real as election day approached. Unfortunately, national Democrats failed to recognize—or respond sufficiently to—what was happening on the ground.
But something was happening—as the results ultimately revealed.
Just last year, Pompeo won reelection with 60.7 percent of the vote, as compared with just 29.6 percent for the Democratic candidate. When Pompeo—a Koch-brother acolyte who represented the region where Koch Industries is headquartered—joined the Trump administration, the first post–2016 special election for a House seat was called. Washington Republicans assumed they had the seat locked up, and Washington Democrats generally agreed. Talking-head pundits could barely be bothered to pay attention.
But civil-rights lawyer James Thompson was paying attention. Inspired by the 2016 presidential run of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Thompson jumped in the race and ran a smart, progressive populist campaign that—despite his newcomer status and relatively small campaign treasury—resonated with a lot of voters.
On Tuesday, Thompson took almost 46 percent of the vote—improving on the Democratic percentage from 2016 by more than 16 points. Where Pompeo regularly won by margins of more than 30 points, Republican Ron Estes won this year by under seven points.
Could Thompson have won the seat?
“Yes” says Nichols. But the Republicans went into full court press mode, employing the top national Republican leaders to shore up support for their candidate: Trump, Pence, Ryan, Cruz all weighed in.
National Democrats? Not so much. An election-eve story by CNN, headlined “GOP cavalry heads to Kansas ahead of close House election,” noted, “The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is not spending money on this race at all, and even the Kansas State Democratic Party rejected Thompson’s requests for funding for mailers.”
The DCCC made some last-minute calls, and a lot of excuses. There were even those who suggested that the strategy was to “fly under radar”—apparently missing the fact that Republican radar detected what was happening and mobilized at precisely the point when Democrats could have and should have moved money and attention to the race.
Jim Dean, the chair of Democracy for America, … hailed Thompson’s run—which DFA backed, along with Our Revolution, the group that evolved out of the Sanders presidential campaign. He celebrated Thompson’s aggressive approach, highlighted the role of grassroots activists in creating a “progressive surge,” and explained that “If we can make Republicans go into full-on freakout mode in a ruby red Kansas congressional district now, we have the power to rip the gavel out of Paul Ryan’s hands in November 2018.”
This near miss did indeed freak-out the Republicans. Steve Benen (MSNBC/MaddowBlog) cites a GOP strategist: ‘The way things are headed, we would lose the House’.
By every possible metric, the GOP candidate should’ve won this race easily, without breaking a sweat. It’s a ruby-red district – Donald Trump won here by 27 points – in a ruby-red state. A FiveThirtyEight analysis this week noted, “A Thompson loss of 20 percentage points or less would probably be a good sign for Democrats.”
The Republican Party had to scramble furiously, in ways no one expected, to win by about 8 percentage points. The GOP push included intervention from Donald Trump and Mike Pence, both of whom recorded robo-calls for local voters; in-person campaigning from Ted Cruz; a fundraising push from Paul Ryan; and 11th-hour investments from the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Republicans prevailed, but the GOP candidate didn’t win so much as he survived. If Democrats can seriously compete in this Kansas district, they can seriously compete almost anywhere.
McClatchy had a good report yesterday on the direction of the prevailing political winds.
… the Democratic base is so energized that even voters who rarely pay attention to politics are suddenly engaged. One GOP operative familiar with the special elections said the GOP realized there might be a problem when polling found that even low-propensity Democratic voters were interested in the race.
The article quoted a House GOP strategist who said, “At the end of the day, the national environment has to get better for us not to lose the House. The way things are headed, we would lose the House.”
The House could well be in play in 2018, but only if the DCCC listens to its grassroots and acts on what it hears. Nichols again:
… Dean concluded with a cautionary note for the people at the top of the Democratic Party … To Washington Democratic insiders who wrote this race off before it began, it’s time to wake up … and realize that the grassroots expects this resistance effort to be waged unflinchingly in every single county and every single state across the country.
Listen up, DCCC. Progressive candidates and bold action supporting them is what it takes to win. As in sports, “damn near” doesn’t count.