The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee suffers from a failure of vision. Consider the Montana special election to fill the vacancy created when Congressman Ryan Zinke resigned to become Trump’s Secretary of the Interior.
Trump carried Montana by 21 points in the presidential election so the conventional wisdom held that the Republican nominee, multimillionaire Greg Gianforte, would easily win. Nonetheless, the GOP did not take victory for granted. Instead, the Congressional Leadership Fund, the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Republican Congressional Committee spent more than $5 million to prop up Gianforte and attack the Democratic nominee, Rob Quist. They invested heavily in Montana from day one.
Their Democratic counterparts spent comparatively little on the race, reflecting their pessimistic view that defeat was inevitable.
Sure, a Democratic win in Montana was always a long-shot, but it wasn’t out of the question. In order to win, Democrats needed to recruit a top-flight candidate. Quist was a deeply dedicated, likeable and hard-working fellow; but he likely wasn’t the strongest nominee the Democrats could have offered. As important, though, he needed a break. When he got one, the Democrats weren’t positioned to take advantage of it.
The national Democrats never thought they had a chance to win the seat. So, when Greg Gianforte assaulted a reporter the night before the election, there was a hurried infusion of money for on-line ads and “boots on the ground.” But it was too little too late.
While the rural areas of eastern Montana, where Trump won by outsized margins, also came out strong for Gianforte, the rest of the state took a giant step in the other direction – moving the needle toward the Democrats by at least 15 points. Perhaps no amount of money would have pulled Quist ahead of Gianforte, but a six point lead need not have been insurmountable.
National Democrats who place bets on political futures dismiss red state races at their peril. Whether or not it’s likely we will win, we need to be prepared to compete in each and every race. Certainly, the level of resource allocation can and should be race specific. We should triage races and constantly assess where dollars can be spent to greatest effect.
But we should not begin an election cycle by assuming that any race is beyond our reach. We should not surgically remove red districts from the “win” map.
Too often the national Democrats refuse to look beyond the presidential percentages from the prior election in assessing a candidate’s chances. Just because Trump won a district “bigly” in 2016 doesn’t mean the district will inevitably vote for a Republican congressional candidate. As former House Speaker Tip O’Neill famously said, “All politics is local.”
When the DCCC decides to ignore a contest because it concludes at the outset that a district isn’t winnable, it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Just because a seat is designated “safe Republican” by beltway pundits doesn’t mean it is.