By Larry Levine –
If we listen to the TV talking heads and the newspaper columnists and headline writers, we might as well call off this year’s midterm elections and save the hundreds of millions of dollars it will cost to conduct them.
The Democrats are going to get their clocks cleaned, they tell us. Republicans will capture majorities in both the House and Senate.
They may turn out to be correct, but not for the reasons they cite. But, it doesn’t have to be that way. Democrats can hold or even expand their majorities if they wrap their arms around the wisdom of the late Speaker of the House of Representative Tip O’Neill (D-Massachusetts), who said, “All politics is local.”
To succeed in this year’s House of Representatives races, Democrats must look at it not as a national election but as 435 separate local elections, one in each district across the nation. Some districts have voter registrations that make it impossible for one party or the other to win. In districts that are decidedly Republican, the Democratic candidate will limp along with insufficient funding to mount a meaningful campaign. Ironically, those are the candidates most likely to heed O’Neill’s wisdom because they will get no interest or interference from the national party organization.
The balance of power, the prize of being the majority party in the next Congress, will rest in no more than 40 or 50 competitive districts around the country. These districts should break down into three groups: open seats where no incumbent is running, districts with Republican incumbents who voted against President Biden’s infrastructure bill, and districts with Democrats being challenged by Republicans. In addition, voter registration numbers need to show enough of a margin among Democratic and Independent voters to make the race “winnable.”
To flip seats from red to blue, the most logical places to start are districts with a Republican incumbent who voted against the infrastructure bill that President Biden signed into law last year. The Democratic candidate should identify projects in the district that will be funded from the bill and hold the Republican incumbent accountable for voting against those local projects. Hold news conferences and demonstrations at the site of the road that will be fixed, the police station that will be repaired, the bridge that will be shored up or the harbor that will be expanded with funds the incumbent voted against. Gather local elected officials, working people, small business owners and others to appear at those events. Get photos and video at those places and use them in mail to voters and TV commercials. Accuse the incumbent of being out of touch with the community and more beholden to the power brokers in Washington than the people of the area. Talk of how many jobs will be created by those projects. Tell voters the Democratic candidate would have voted for those projects and always will put the community first.
In districts where the Republican incumbent is retiring but voted against the bill, carry a slightly different version of the same message. Call on the Republican candidate to disavow the vote of the retiring incumbent and the Republican establishment. Challenge the replacement Republican to say where he or she would cast a different vote than the retiring incumbent and buck the party bosses in Washington. If he or she criticizes the incumbent and cites specific votes, let local Republican voters know the new Republican candidate has disavowed the record of the one who is retiring. Drive a wedge between them and make Republican voters wonder if they can trust the new person. Again, promise to put the community first, and challenge voters to not take a chance on another Republican naysayer.
For Democrats who voted for the bill and are being challenged for re-election, call on the Republican to disavow the national party’s position. Promise to continue to fight for what’s best for the community and tell voters they shouldn’t elect a Republican who will go to Washington and be part of the Republican gang that voted against what’s best for our community. A different version of this message can be used in districts where the seat is open because the Democratic incumbent is retiring. But keep the focus on local issues, local projects.
The efficacy of this messaging is validated by the growing number of Republicans who voted against the bill and now are claiming credit for projects it will bring to their districts. Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Alabama) voted “no” and then claimed credit for funding a stalled highway project. Rep. Ashley Hinson (R-Iowa) voted “no” and now hails the bill for funding locks along the Upper Mississippi River. Rep. Steve Scalise (R-Louisiana) voted “no” and now brags about the funds for flood protection and hurricane repairs.
Finally, don’t get drawn into discussions of broader national issues. Voters believe they know where the two parties stand on reproductive rights, guns and other such issues. Be pro-choice. Support assault weapon bans and immigration reform. But keep those issues in the background. Republicans would love to distract the electorate with debates of things like this. Run for the local seat on local issues.
It’s no more complicated than that. To triumph in the midterms, Democrats need to figure out the districts that offer the best chance a success. Then they need to develop a list of local issues on which to run, issues that will cast them in a favorable light and put the Republican opponent on the defensive. Finally, they need to carry their messages directly to voters.
The next thing to consider is how to communicate all this to voters, and this is where the whole thing could fall apart.
Political pros of a certain vintage know there are several tried-and-true ways to deliver messages to voters in an efficient and economical way. We have relied on them for ages and won a lot of elections that way.
The single most effective way to get a vote is to look the voter in the eye and ask for it. That means knocking on doors. No one is as effective at this as the candidate. The candidate’s spouse or parents work well. Adult or late-teen children are good. Volunteer activists can have an impact.
Other tactics that yield votes dependably are targeted direct mail to various segments of the electorate, voting guides mailed to voters, and phone calls by live people. Everything beyond these is marginal, inefficient or wasteful. Television advertising rates are based on market areas many times larger than a Congressional district, so much of the money spent on commercials is communicating with people who can’t or won’t be voting in that election. More and more households are disconnecting from the cable and/or avoiding commercials by watching streaming services. Automated phone calls (robo-calls) have failed to produce in actual tests. Billboards have become part of the visual clutter and don’t get noticed. In short, if it doesn’t land directly in a voters’ lap it is of lesser value.
Consultants of a lesser vintage often look at the wisdom of the more seasoned veterans as “out-of-date” or “the old way of doing things.” Many tout social media, texting, and videos posted on You Tube and other outlets as being the way of the future. Candidates, who have no frame of reference and probably also are of a more recent vintage, are dazzled by seeing themselves in those videos.
So, if it’s that simple, why do we say in the headline of this essay that the Democrats probably won’t prevail in the midterms.
I’ll state my biases before we go any further: I am of an advanced vintage; I’ve been doing campaigns for 52 years. I have won some 88 percent of the more than 200 campaigns I’ve done. From my perspective it is the growing east coast influence that has caused the Democratic Party to be ever fighting for its life despite large voter registration advantages. Some 40 years ago that east coast influence, imposed and enforced through the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), caused me to swear off ever doing another congressional campaign. They stifle local campaigns rather than support them. They bully candidates and chase away the local campaign team. They threaten to withhold financial support if a candidate seeks to assert any independence.
In the 2020 elections the DCCC told candidates they were not permitted to do “field operations,” the door-to-door campaigning we describe above. That led to Republicans ousting four Democratic incumbents in California alone and probably cost the party seats in other states.
In 2020, and not for the first time, the DCCC told candidates they had to get rid of their local team. In their place they anointed their own people, usually with no roots in the district. I spoke with one local campaign worker who told me the campaign had six consultants, all imposed by the DCCC. There was the general consultant, the mailing consultant, the communications consultant, the polling consultant, the earned media consultant and the TV consultant. Only one of them had been to the district and that person only visited once.
There is a distinct Belt Way bias against anyone from anywhere else. California consultants have directed campaigns that captured super majorities in both houses of the state legislature, the overwhelming majority of the state’s Congressional seats and every one of the statewide offices. Yet the DCCC already is telling candidates this year to divest themselves of the local yokels. The attitude is: we know everything and you know nothing. In place of campaigns fitted for the communities, they bring their national polling data and one-size-fits-all campaigns.
Those replacement consultants mostly are headquartered in the east. One of them told me a few years ago he was doing 12 campaigns at the same time. I asked how he managed that. He told me if he won three of them, those go on his client list but he still cashes 12 checks.
This is not a secret. It’s been going on for decades. Incumbent members of Congress, whose futures and committee positions are at stake, know about it, as do the congressional leaders. The mystery is why no one has broken up this cabal. Based purely on voter registration numbers, Democrats should be dominating state and federal office. Yet the party is in a constant struggle to win in areas that should be secure.
Therein lies the real reason the pundits may end up being correct about the outcome of the midterm elections. It won’t be because the Democrats don’t have a good story to tell. They’ve passed job-producing legislation to fix and expand rail and public transit, produce clean energy and power, clean up drinking water, expand high-speed internet access, upgrade and modernize airports and ports, and establish a nationwide network of electric vehicle charging stations. Two-hundred and five Republican members of congress voted against these. Job growth in the first year of the Biden administration was the greatest in more than 80 years. The economy grew at the greatest rate in 37 years. Democrats are fighting to preserve the child tax credit and enact paid family leave, immigration reform, tax breaks for middle income homeowners, affordable prescription drugs, free community college and a host of other benefits for working families. Republicans are standing in unanimous opposition to these.
If the Democrats can’t turn this into success at the ballot box in November it will be because they ignore Tip O’Neill’s wisdom and refuse to listen to and trust those candidates and campaign operatives who know their communities best.