How the Democratic Party Fails Long-Shot Candidates Like My Dad

As a surprisingly close election in Kansas showed, national Democrats don't support the party's candidates equally. I should know.

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Apr 12 2017, 8:04pm

Photo of Andy Millard via Facebook

Tuesday in Kansas, Republican Ron Estes beat Democrat James Thompson by 7 points in a special election for a congressional seat left vacant when Representative Mike Pompeo was appointed CIA director. Kansas's Fourth District is one of the reddest in the country, so a Republican winning wasn't news—the shock was that it was so close. Just a week ago, Thompson, a civil rights attorney who'd never held political office, was trailing former Kansas state treasurer Estes by a single point, according to one internal Republican poll. In response, the national Republican Party gave Estes its full support, including robocalls to voters from both Donald Trump and Mike Pence, as well as an in-person appearance by Texas Senator Ted Cruz at one of Estes's rallies. That's an insane push given that the Fourth was supposed to be a safe seat for the GOP.

The Democrats, meanwhile, turned down Thompson's request for money to send campaign literature to voters (though they eventually threw Thompson $3,000). When Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez explained the party's rationale for not throwing itself behind Estes to the Washington Post, he seemed startlingly apathetic in the face of Thompson's very real chance of victory, saying, "There are thousands of elections every year, though. Can we invest in all of them?"

As I watched Thompson's quixotic attempt to be taken seriously by his own party, I felt a pang of recognition: Last year, I spent months working on a Democratic congressional campaign that the national party apparatus had judged to be similarly hopeless. Like Thompson, the candidate was a political neophyte with a demonstrable base of support, but his pleas to the party for resources were overlooked largely because he was running in a historically Republican district. Unlike Thompson, the candidate was my dad, so excuse me if I seem a bit biased. (While I worked on his campaign, I should make it clear that I'm not speaking for him––his interpretation of events might be completely different from mine.)

Decisions by national Democrats about which races to invest in are no doubt complicated and probably involve a lot of factors I don't know about. But it's impossible not to notice that the Democratic Party isn't fighting all the fights it could; in Montana, where there's another special election approaching, the party is barely paying attention, according to a story in the Huffington Post. Maybe Democrats wouldn't have won in Kansas if they pumped money into the race; maybe Montana is a lost cause. But leaving these candidates on their own sends a troubling message to people who pour their hearts and souls into these campaigns—losing is one thing, but it becomes even more disheartening when your allies openly admit they don't care about you winning in the first place.

Though my dad was a relative unknown, he had a few things going for him that many first-time candidates do not. He studied drama in college and as a result knew how to work a crowd like a seasoned pro. He had a full staff, including a couple folks with previous campaign experience. One of his main hobbies over the past few years has been recording and editing videos, which meant that he could quickly and cheaply post clips to social media. He built up a network of small-dollar donors––a crucial metric for predicting electoral success––and managed to raise nearly $400,000. (By comparison, Thompson reportedly raised around $300,000.) And perhaps most importantly, he made running for Congress a full-time job––he sold his business to concentrate on his campaign, showed up to every candidate forum and rally he possibly could, and at one point literally ran from town to town in the district to meet voters. A lot of my memories from last summer involve driving my dad from event to event so he could spend more time calling donors and keeping his campaign humming along.


Watch this VICE News Tonight profile of the young Democrat taking Georgia by storm: 


On a state level, people took notice––the head of the North Carolina Democratic Party often accompanied him to events, he drew support from prominent Democrats in the state legislature, and even wrangled former Bill Clinton chief of staff Erskine Bowles for a robocall. (Bowles pronounced his last name wrong, but still!) He met with a sitting North Carolina congressman, who helped arrange a meeting between him and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, commonly known as the DCCC. That's when things hit a wall.

After traveling to Washington, DC and presenting the DCCC with polling data he'd commissioned as well as a "path to victory" (politics is full of cringe-inducing phrases like this one), he asked for money that would be used primarily to print and mail campaign literature to people in the district––a tactic that to this day remains one of the most effective ways to turn out voters. The DCCC people seemed impressed by his presentation and by his dedication to his campaign. They said they'd get back to him. No money ever came.

What little help the Democrats did give him was largely useless. He paid into Hillary Clinton's coordinated campaign, which in theory meant that he would help drum up local support for Clinton, and her campaign would be obligated to give my dad a push as well. This ended up being mostly farcical. I distinctly recall accompanying my dad to a canvassing session set up by the Clinton campaign in a county that had been flagged by FiveThirtyEight as being in a dead heat between the two presidential candidates. Before the volunteers went out knocking on doors, my dad gave them a pep talk and then stood to the side as Clinton campaign staffers instructed those same volunteers to urge the people they talked to to vote for Clinton, gubernatorial candidate Roy Cooper, senatorial candidate Deborah Ross, and, uh, their "local Democratic congressional candidate." You know, the guy who had just delivered a speech.

Come Election Day, Trump won 65 percent of the vote in that county and picked up North Carolina. My dad lost by a much larger margin than James Thompson just did in Kansas.

The Democratic Party has a lot of problems right now. But a big one is the lack of institutional support for candidates on the state and local levels. It reveals a data-driven pessimism that all but guarantees defeat. While it's true that many congressional districts have been drawn by state legislatures in ways that favor Republicans, at some point the Democrats are going to have to win in those districts. That means supporting candidates who may not have run for office before, may not have a lot of infrastructure when they begin, and might be long shots—candidates like Jon Ossoff of Georgia, a 30-year-old who has a real chance at victory in an election this month. But waiting until a candidate shows serious momentum before supporting them seems like a path to failure.

When the DNC's Perez uses words like "invest" to describe the party's view on congressional races, that implies he's only looking to put money into races that stand a good chance of offering a return on that investment. And I admit that it might not have been worth pouring a couple hundred thousand dollars into my dad's campaign in hopes of flipping one probably unflippable seat. But a lot of the time candidates aren't asking for that much. If the DNC and DCCC identified dozens of congressional candidates who were facing uphill battles but took running for office seriously, they could make small shows of support—throwing down some money for mailers, say. National Democrats might be surprised to find that some of those candidates actually will pay off, and that "safe" Republican districts are actually anything but.

At the very least, they should remember these candidates' names.

Follow Drew Millard on Twitter.

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