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Disclaimer: This is NOT standard campaign doctrine. Running against a prohibitive favorite risks diluting scarce resources. It risks driving up GOP turnout, with adverse impact on statewide races. It risks burning out good candidates who might be useful elsewhere.

Despite these caveats, always contest the district ... and with a re-electable candidate if at all possible.

Every so often, lightning strikes ... and you have to be there to take advantage.

Stuff happens. Stuff like scandals ... health problems ... bizarre bonehead verbal miscues ... distracting personal and family issues ... better offers. Some incumbents just lose interest and(literally or figuratively) wander off.

A former Governor blows a stop sign and wipes out a motorcyclist. A Ways and Means chairman gives away a few too many congressional ashtrays, and a no-name wins his seat.

In the average cycle, lightning will strike in one or two of nearly 200 "safe" GOP districts. You have to be there to take advantage.

Not every cycle is an average cycle. Sometimes a tsunami uproots fixtures that "everybody knows" are safely above the tide line. Somebody gives away too many ashtrays, and his party's sitting Speaker of the House gets swept out of office along with 50 other incumbents.

You can't engineer a tsunami ... you can't plan on it ... you can't predict it ... you can't necessarily see it coming 24 hours ahead of time ... but you have to be there to take advantage.

2004 might be a tsunami year. November might arrive with an employment crisis, a hot war, preparations for a military draft and presidential aides frog-marched out of the White House. You just don't know.

The GOP is sitting on a slagheap of creeping corruption, failed leadership, bungled legislation, bad ideas and bad results ... a miserable failure. You never know exactly when The People will catch on. When the mood takes them, anything can happen. Anything. You have to be there to take advantage.

The web should be our friend, making it easier to support "placeholder" candidates with prefab templates. Give our long-shots decent visibility without running them ragged or running them into debt.

Keep them in position without bleeding our funding reservoirs. Give local Dem's something to meet up about. Let them ring a few doorbells and convert a few votes that may come in handy next cycle or the one after that.

Be there to "catch the wave" -- if it comes -- with a few weeks left in the cycle, and pump in money, media and phone solicitation to make it a real contest.

When people are happy where they bank, you can't pay 'em enough to cross the street. When people are angry where they bank, you can't stop 'em from crossing the street ... but you have to be there to take advantage.

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Wed Feb 25, 2004 at 11:18 PM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  what were biggest upset? (none)
    In the last 20 years, what were the biggest upsets in Congressional races?

    I host an Internet radio show which now has a participatory blog. See Collective Interest.

    by Carl Nyberg on Wed Feb 25, 2004 at 11:24:01 PM PST

  •  Having an opponent is no fun (none)
    for an incumbent.  If you are unopposed, you know you are in.  If there is a race, you have that nagging uncertainty that some skeleton may spill out of a supposedly locked closet (no double-entendre intended), and you are stuck with all the expense and hassles of actually running.

    I was legislative aide to a popular Congressman in a safe district, and the state party once yanked his chain by throwing him a token primary opponent after he voted the "wrong" way on a certain bill.  He still won the primary 80-20, and the general was a walk as always, but having the opponent still really got his attention.  

    It would be a good thing to educate the Republicans on the amendment issue by forcing as many of them as possible to defend their seats.  

  •  RE: Great Post (none)
    First, this is a great post and well-deserving of the front-page.  RonK should be a regular contributor to the front-page, not just for this piece, but his insightful comments in general.

    As to contesting races, years ago back in the '80s, a family friend ran as a Democrat against Dan Burton (R-IN).  At that time, Burton's district was considered 'the most Republican in the country' (not sure if that is still the case).  I wondered at the time - why anyone would run against Burton when they knew they don't stand a chance?  The reason is exactly as RonK points out, because you never know what could happen during the campaign and somoene needs to be there on the Democratic ticket if 'lightening' does strike.  

    The Democrat lost to Burton of course by about 30 points or so, iirc, as they almost all do, but few resources were spent by the candidate or the Party (no harm done) and we did have someone there just in case.  

    Zero is for comments that are offensive, script-generated, or otherwise content-free and intended solely to annoy and/or abuse other readers.

    by jg on Wed Feb 25, 2004 at 11:42:06 PM PST

  •  candidate recruitment (none)
    That's what's's often very, very hard to find talented and decent candidates, especially in an unfavorable district/state.  

    It's a fundamental problem - the system is so distasteful good people don't want to be a part of it.  Would you ever run for office? I wouldn't.

    •  Yeah, it's hard (4.00)
      Especially in the 100 or so races where the odds are 99-to-1 against.

      And sometimes these sacrificial lambs get pasted with the "loser" tag, so they get passed over when a real opportunity emerges.

      But the information age should at least give us the option of mounting a "virtual cmapaign" where the candidate doesn't have to quit his or her day job, beat shoe-leather and feed a full-time staff of schedulers and handlers.

      It should also let us ramp up fast the minute we sense blood in the water.

      Picture $50M of grassroots Dean money, $20M of Clark money and $10M of Kucinich money, spread over 125 "prohibitive" House races. That's $640K per race -- $1 per capita -- more than enough to sustain a placeholder candidate.

      $2M won't buy a win in one of these races ... but you can keep a hand in the game for $64K or less, and sometimes you'll be the right place when lightning strikes.

      •  sounds great, but (none)
        ...i can't imagine that enough Dems nationwide would cough up 80 million for Congressional races.  

        There's a huge "romance" factor with Presidential elections and campaigns that Congressional races cannot match; that's why so many people opened their wallets.  Or maybe I'm too dismissive?

        •  Check the math (none)
          It only takes 10% of that $80M to sustain these placeholders ...  espcially if they have a good source of cookie-cutter campaign collateral.

          Of course you also want $2-3M in "rapid reaction force" money lying around the shop, else the first $8M won't do you much good.

    •  Recruitment should start at the bottom (none)
      A long-term strategy should include recruiting people to run for slots at the bottom of the ballot, like city council, library board, and community college trustee. These are races that don't require a big cash outlay and where voters are more likely to cross party lines and vote for someone they know or who is endorsed by people they know.

      Also, don't forget appointed positions like city charter commission and zoning board of appeals, where people learn how the machinery of local government works as well as the lay of the local political land.

      Don't underestimate the consequences of neglecting your farm system. It even brought down the mighty Yankee dynasty in the Sixties.

      In politics, sometimes the jackasses are on your side.

      by Dump Terry McAuliffe on Thu Feb 26, 2004 at 12:59:36 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Losing helps with name recognition (none)
    Even losing an election helps with name recognition.  I remember here in Virginia when Mark Warner opposed John Warner for his Senate seat.

    Nobody realistically expected Mark Warner (D) to beat an incredibly popular incumbent like John Warner (R) here in Virginia.  And I doubt the Virginia Democratic Party would have really supported Mark Warner much were he not rich enough to significantly self-finance his campaign.  Mark lost as expected, but he ran a really aggressive campaign and did MUCH better than any of the pundits predicted.  He made John Warner work for it, and he made a name for himself in doing so.

    And a few years later, Mark Warner was back - a better candidate for having run a tough campaign against a popular incumbent.  He had the name recognition, Democrats like me still had his old Mark Warner mugs from his last campaign and remembered being impressed by his balls for running against John Warner, and went to bat for him.  And he won!

    Especially in local elections, plenty of people go to the polls having no clue who to vote for and then voting for names that they recognize.  Even a loser can gain from name recognition.  :-)

    •  There is a downside to losing (none)
      A credible candidate put up against a near-unbeatable incumbent runs the risk of losing so badly that they are too damaged to run in future elections they can win.

      This has happened in Maine two and four years ago.  The Democrats put up good, credible candidates to oppose Snowe and Collins and they both got savaged so badly that they will probably never be able to run for anything again.   Wel, maybe Pingree but certainly not Friedman.

      •  Not always permanent damage though (none)
        See Romney, Mitt; cannon fodder for a run against Sen. Kennedy.  Did better than expected, but running against a Kennedy in Massachusetts is about as hopeless as it gets.

        Still, he manged to recover quite nicely.  I think he was able to meld the name recognition from the failed Senate campaign with the administration cred he got from the olympics.

  •  Interesting. (none)
    You are probably right. A good example is the guy from that fireworks family in New York (Gucci or something like that). Everyone thought that was a very safe seat.

    I have question. Say someone lives in a district where a Democrat would only receive about 30% of the vote in a House race. Would the GOP incumbent still spend a significant amount of money? Would it be worth it for a Democrat to simply run just to have his name on the ballot (and give no effort to actually winning the seat)?

    •  RE; (none)
      Throwing money into a race where the R vs. D registration rolls disproportionately favour the R, is a bit of a resource waster.  Sometimes the numbers are just impossible to overcome a lightening strike on the incumbent R.  

      Zero is for comments that are offensive, script-generated, or otherwise content-free and intended solely to annoy and/or abuse other readers.

      by jg on Thu Feb 26, 2004 at 12:10:26 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  RE: (none)
        "to overcome without a lightning"

        Zero is for comments that are offensive, script-generated, or otherwise content-free and intended solely to annoy and/or abuse other readers.

        by jg on Thu Feb 26, 2004 at 12:11:46 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  Usually, ya gotta have lightning (none)
        But there's another class of races where the incumbent has lost the fire inthe belly, and a lot of his constituents know it, but he keeps rolling up big margins because nobody ever makes a good run against him. Self-fulfilling prophecy.

        Nobody knows which races these are (though maybe Kasty's "this is my last race" defeat was predictable in hindsight).

  •  Non-competitive races: A dangerous trend (4.00)
    Only 10 percent of the nation's U.S. House races are truly competitive.

    This might be the most dangerous trend in American politics.

    In non-competitive districts, the prospect of near-certain defeat, and scant prospects of financial support from the party, discourages good candidates from challenging incumbents.

    The result is weak challengers (if one is found at all), no real debate, and even more entrenched incumbents the next time around.

    Even worse, the problem of non-competitive House races gets worse every election cycle, and there is no sign of improvement. Frankly, this worries me.

    In politics, sometimes the jackasses are on your side.

    by Dump Terry McAuliffe on Wed Feb 25, 2004 at 11:55:30 PM PST

    •  Gerrymandering on both sides (none)
      has made so many seats ridiculously lopsided.

      Interesting that two of the more high profile Representatives to lose their seats recently were Cynthia McKinnon and Bob Barr - both of whom lost in the primaries.

  •  You're Right (none)
    Good luck to the Councilman in the Maryland First.  I live in the WI 2nd; lightning can strike.

    Check out and

    by Madorsky on Wed Feb 25, 2004 at 11:55:41 PM PST

  •  With the anti-Gay amendment floating around (none)
    you may see more lightning striking.

    How many Republithug congresscritters are going to get outed?

    Word is that there are somwhere between 20 and 50 in both houses.

    The Dream involves 4 sets of identical twins, 2 gallons of Cool Whip, 5 quarts of chocolate syrup, 2-1/4 pounds of strawberries, satin sheets, a magnum of champ

    by msaroff on Thu Feb 26, 2004 at 12:44:42 AM PST

  •  Qualities of a Lightening Bolt (4.00)
    One surprising victory that you all have yet to mention is that of Paul Wellstone in 1990.  He was underfunded, barely supported by the DFL(It's Democratic/Farmer/Laborer, in Minnesota), and his opponent was a well-funded, sure-thing-republican.

    The only thing is, I think Wellstone was the lightening bolt that RonK is talking about... a lesson there, I think, if some enterprising extroverts are listening.

    Wellstone loved people.  At it's best, the democratic party is people.  It's people like him who can contest those seats we don't think are possible to take, and they don't need much money, just enthusiasm, a great group of volunteers(and maybe this is just a Minnesota thing, but I sure doubt that), and the courage to stand up and speak the truth.

    I just wish that's all you needed to get elected president...

    "Trusting George Bush is a leap of faith, like believing in God, only harder." --Of the First

    by Of the First on Thu Feb 26, 2004 at 12:53:23 AM PST

  •  Upset in 1998 (none)
    Just remember how we wound up with Rush Holt, the wonderfully pro-environment Dem from NJ-12.  It had been a Republican district in the early 90s, held by  wingnut Dick Zimmer.  Zimmer gave up the seat in 1996 to get smoked by the Torch in the Senate race, and the voters somehow elected Mike Pappas, who was even wingnuttier, but also a complete doofus.  Holt,  who had been the Assistant Director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab (as the bumper stickers say, 'My Congressman is a rocket scientist'), was the sacrificial lamb until late August when Mike Pappas took the floor of the House and started singing.  

    Twinkle, twinkle, Kenneth Starr
    Now we see how brave you are.
    Up above the Pentagon sting,
    Like a fair judge in the ring.
    Twinkle, twinkle, Kenneth Starr,
    Now we know how brave you are.
    When subpoenas and lies are gone,
    When obstruction shines upon,
    Then you throw your trump cards down,
    Twinkle, twinkle, all brought down."
    "Twinkle, twinkle, Kenneth Starr,
    Now we see how brave you are!
    Then the Congress in the dark,
    Thanks you for your courage and spark;
    We could not see which way to go,
    If you did not lead us so.
    Twinkle, twinkle, Kenneth Starr,
    Now we see how brave you are!"

    Yeah.  And Rush starting throwing that clip on as many local stations as he could.  He took a 5,000 vote victory in '98, a 600-some vote margin in 2000, and the seat was redistricted in 2002 to make it safer Dem territory.  Lightning struck, and the outcome was fortuitous.

    •  Holt - Good example (none)
      Not quite one of those 75-25 districts, but it illustrates a few important points.
      (1) You don't score if you don't suit up.
      (2) Dem's often have the advantage of better candidates. That's one reason we have so many red state Senate D's.
      (3) We can often hold a district by concerted effort after winning it with a "lucky" shot.
      (4) Clever, creative opportunism doesn't have to be prohibitively expensive ... and in many such races, the challenger enjoys more creative freedom than the incumbent.
      (5) Weakly-contested districts have a way of seating intrinsically weak "doofus" incumbents.
      (5) By the time an incumbent realizes he's in a dogfight, the momentum is already on the other side.
    •  Holt - P.S. (none)
      The Pappas eruption brings to mind one of my favorite lightning strikes -- Patty Murray's fluke victory in 1992 over the very capable Rod Chandler.

      In a live televised debate, Chandler attempted to rebut one of Murray's gibes by invoking the sage Roger Miller:
      Dang me, Dang me!
      Y'oughta take a rope and hang me
      High from the highest trEEEEEEEE
      Woman would ya weep for me

      Where did that come from? My best guess is "demonic possession" ... but whatever it was, Chandler never recovered and Murray is a comfortable favorite to win a third term this fall.

      They won't make fools of themselves unless you give 'em the opportunity.

  •  It's hard to run (none)
    I live in a Republican district that typically has no challengers.  It makes me mad when I'm at the polls so I've thought about this issue quite a bit.  It takes a lot of guts to just be a token loser, and I'm sure most people would fear retribution in terms of their job and other important things that stop them from running.  If 20% of my district is democrat and my name is sprinkled on signs around town, I've just alienated 80% of my community.  There is a tremendous cost, or at least a tremendous percieved cost of running a hopeless (beyond a miracle) campaign.  I have to worry about what other people think of me in my community.  I guess the correct road is first onto the school board and so forth, so you are a name before you are affilliated with a party, but I really think it is hard to run a hopeless campaign.
    •  True and important, pro and con (none)
      Yes, there are districts where a Dem candidate faces personal reprisals. Several important points here.

      In a worst-case district, you still have about 40,000 Democratic households ... plus some indy's and some disgruntled, dead-ended or overly-moderate GOP'ers.

      Among these, you can probably find a few respectable individuals who enjoy a degree of schedule flexibility ... attorneys, accountants, sales professionals, professors, businessmen, retired military.

      Some of these, if they ran, would suffer unacceptable career consequences ... in addition to seeing their kids ostracized, their mailboxes run over and their dogs poisoned. These prospects should not run.

      Some of your more eager prospects may be nuts, flakes and trolls. These may be difficult to discourage, but they should not run.

      The candidate should be well suited to the district ... which in most of these cases means pragmatic, not purist. Your base (if any) is energized enough these days. Be a happy warrior, and reach out to your plainspoken, common-sense neighbors.

      The candidate should present a "good government" option ... "give the people a choice, for a change" ... "Congressman Frog has lost touch with Sleepy Hollow - Vote Toad". And most spectators like a contest, even if they've already picked sides.

      Don't launch broadside attacks on the whole (surrounding) Republican culture (even if it gets Kossites excited). Run "Republican lite" if necessary ... fiscal conservatism ... personal responsibility ... straight talk ... "what are we doing about [schools/crime/roads/jobs]?". The Bush/Frist/Delay record gives you plenty of openings.

      Don't put your name on signage all over the district. Most red C.D.'s are sparse, expansive districts, and a yard sign in hostile territory won't last overnite. You can't afford to wallpaper your district. Use tee-shirts, not yard signs.

      Use the web, and e-mail, and houseparties and meetups to find and cultivate "your people". Use local papers (usually hungry for fresh readable content) to reach the rest. Use radio (ditto). Use public events. Use your opponent's events. Use your imagination.

      If your opponent hits you with a flamethrower -- that's a good thing. It means you've touched a nerve, and you've made him look bad.

      And don't run so hard you can never run again ... not until you really have an opening. This is where the larger tech community has to come up with better tools and tactics.

      •  Current (prospective) case in point (none)
        From the Yakima / Tri-City Herald, this prospect with excellent qual's, excellent rep, low partisan ID and plenty of soft places to land, in the WA 4th -- an "untouchable" district, by conventional thinking.

        Hastings May Have Challenger

        By Chris Mulick tri-city herald
        OLYMPIA - Tri-City civic giant Sandy Matheson is mulling a challenge to U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, this fall.

        "I'm very serious about this," said Matheson, who would run as a Democrat. Though it's expected she will run, Matheson said she hasn't fully made up her mind. A formal announcement likely would come next month.

        "We need to get this under way," she said.

        If she decides to jump into the race, Matheson likely would become the Democrats' most formidable candidate in the 4th Congressional District since Hastings defeated Rep. Jay Inslee in 1994.

        Currently the board chairwoman for the Tri-City Industrial Development Council, Matheson owns a consulting business, teaches business courses at Washington State University and is a former board president for Kennewick General Hospital. She was president and chief executive of the Hanford Environmental Health Foundation from 1993 to 2000.

        Active in about a dozen nonprofit organizations, Matheson, 51, was named Tri-Citian of the Year in 2003.

        "I think she is the perfect candidate," state Democratic Party Chairman Paul Berendt said.

        Initially approached by party representatives and others in the community about running, Matheson said she's trying to gauge how much interest there would be in her campaign and to learn more about the district before making a final decision.

        The 4th District stretches from the Oregon border north to Okanogan County and from the Cascades east to include Benton, Franklin, Grant and Douglas counties.

        Though she'd run as a Democrat, Matheson has a history of supporting candidates from both major parties and considers herself a centrist.

        Matheson was appointed by Hastings in 1995 to sit on his Hanford Advisory Task Force.

        "I've always supported individuals and issues based on their merit rather than party," she said.
        Copyright, 2004, Yakima Herald-Republic. All Rights Reserved.

  •  British practice is to use unwinnable races , , , (none)
    as an audition for likely MPs.  If they fight the good fight and do better than expectations, they get a shot at a winnable seat the next time around.  Of course, the British also have real political parties.
  •  Cadidate's Motives are Key (none)
    Running against long odds, against the GOoper incumbent and losing 9 out of 10 times is fine when the challenger is not percieved as an opportunist or marginalized as a Nut. Building LD's into organized oppositions running viable longshots will take resources,as RonK points out, to sustain but are well worth the expense. Bottom line is it is to smart of a concept, to far sighted and to democratic at it's core to for the current establishment to even contemplate.

    Hope I'm wrong or that a change is gonna come.

    "When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that all the dunces are all in confederacy against him." Jonathan Swift

    by ignatius riley on Thu Feb 26, 2004 at 02:02:49 PM PST

  •  Bullseye! (none)
    Well,'ve hit the bullseye (again) on one of my favorite strategic can't win if you don't run.

    In our state, this has been a huge issue for at least 10 years...since the Contract on American and on Washington in '94.  Until this year, the state party has totally ignored Democrats and legislative races on the eastside of the state, preparing for nothing to strike...and it did...with a vengeance.

    There are plenty of examples of the lightning strike, as posters above illustrate. (Dang me! I'd forgotten about Chandler's songfest!) And besides thee and me, who woulda thought Maria Cantwell would beat Senator Gorton in 2000?  (Hooray for third-party candidates...when strategically placed -- and voter turnout in a presidential year).

    The thing is...there is more than one goal to this strategy and the message is as important as the challenger candidate.  People change and get educated one at a time and it takes a LOT of folks delivering the message to add up to a winning turnaround...witness '94 a la Newt and statewide.  They had candidates positioned to let lightning strike...and it did.

    As for running and losing damaging candidates, let's remember Bill Clinton as governor, not to mention Ronnie Reagan and Nixon as presidential candidates.  We need to encourage a lot of younger Democrats who talk well in their communities to get out there and start talking as candidates for SOMETHING...not as sacrificial lambs, but as messengers of the people, giving people hope and information...and giving themselves experience.

    Let's draft 'em!  It worked with Clark and long ago, with my husband who would NEVER have thought of running for office if a group hadn't approached him and finagled him into it.  Turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened in local politics...for him and for the community.

    Thanks for this post, Ron.

    Tell me how you spend your time and how you spend your money -- I'll tell you what your values are.

    by oldpro on Thu Feb 26, 2004 at 03:11:55 PM PST

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