Tuesday, May 09, 2017

The DCCC Bets On First-Timers...Will It Pay Off?

Jon Ossoff (D-GA)...the wave of the future?
Part of me wants to just list all of the ways that Sally Yates is more qualified to be president right now than Donald Trump, but I feel like that's a wasted article because any rational person has already reached that conclusion.

So instead I'm going to shift my focus to a different arena of the political world-that of congressional campaigns and the movement for Nancy Pelosi and the House Democrats to recapture the majority for the first time in nearly a decade.  So far, Democrats have a lot to celebrate.  They did surprisingly well in the Kansas special election (which no one thought they'd have a shot at), and polls show them performing strongly, though perhaps not well enough to win in Georgia and Montana for their open seats.  The DCCC has already raised $20 million online this year, more than they did in the entirety of 2015 (and nearly $700k since House Republicans passed the AHCA).

However, I am kind of curious about their campaign strategy (note the use of the word curious, not questioning or critical, because I'm truly undecided here).  Obviously you can't win a race without a candidate, and the DCCC has been out gathering names in hopes of winning back the House.  Some of their strategies seem to reflect past races.  We're seeing a few people, like Doug Applegate and Angie Craig, who came close in 2016 and are hoping that the midterm environment favors them in a rematch.  Other races feature local state legislators such as Jennifer Wexton and Abby Finkenauer, prominent individuals taking on incumbents in marginal districts.  But continually and surprisingly frequently, the DCCC is relying upon first-time candidates to win offices.  I was curious to see, looking at past cycles, whether this was smart or not.

Obviously there are pluses to having a newcomer in the race.  For starters, people don't like politicians, and they truly hate career politicians.  While people come at this from a variety of angles, people generally don't care for politics as a profession, and are leery of politicians who want to get a step up, claiming they just want more power.  Seeing an individual come straight into politics, however-people tend to enjoy that jump, because it seems like they're doing it for a specific issue or a specific reason, rather than just to continually profit for themselves.

Additionally, it's attractive because politicians come with paper trails, specifically they've cast votes, votes that can be taken out of context or may have become unpopular since they were initially delivered.  A state senator who has been in office for, say, a decade, will come with hundreds of decisions they've weighed in on that an opponent can use against them.  Admittedly, there's pragmatically something good about this (we know based on evidence how a person will respond to a specific situation), but in reality we all know that the truth can easily be distorted in a campaign.  You can't, however, distort the votes of someone who has never cast a ballot, making a political novice more attractive-there's no paper trail other than what they've carefully cultivated against their opponent this cycle.  This results in a candidate being tailor-made for a specific race, at least in theory, and you can make he or she fit the situation (say, only focus on the things that make the incumbent unpopular and not what makes them popular).

You may be shocked, considering these advantages, then, to learn that challengers who beat incumbents in general congressional elections rarely are running for their first political office.  Using the past three election cycles, for starters, you'll find that only one time did a political first-timer defeat an incumbent US Senator (Elizabeth Warren over Scott Brown) despite eight senators losing during that time.  In fact, only three current US Senators have never held political office prior to serving in the Senate (Warren, Orrin Hatch, and Ben Sasse), and Warren's the only one to defeat an incumbent to get there.

The numbers aren't much more impressive in the House.  Looking again at just challengers who defeated incumbents in a general over the past three cycles (where the bulk of the Democrats' wins in 2018 will need to be), 50% of them had held previous elected office, and 73% of them had held prominent positions either politically or in the government; you hit 84% if you also count military jobs (or having a parent in politics) as being "a politician."  That means that during those years only six individuals went from no political/government experience to beating a sitting congressman.

This isn't because first-timers don't run.  In fact, they run all the time.  In those special elections, in fact, the Democrats are running solely first-timers for these seats.  But while there is something appealing about a non-politician, there are disadvantages as well-namely, if you're actually good at politics.  A proven vote-getter has a better chance of succeeding at the next level because they know of the discipline it takes to win, raise money, meet with constituents, and build a grassroots campaign (all things a sitting member of Congress can do with their eyes closed).  Most people aren't built for that, certainly not at the level that someone who is running for a seat that could need $6-8 million to compete in will require.  Additionally, with the microscope of social media running in a federal race will mandate that you are always on-point, as your opponents are hoping you'll make a slip of the tongue that will easily derail your campaign or define you.

So given this, I'm undecided if this is the right strategy for the DCCC.  Certain candidates, such as Dean Phillips in Minnesota, Jason Crow in Colorado, and Chrissy Houlahan in Pennsylvania certainly seem on-paper to be superb recruits, and could well be joining the ranks of people who have ousted members of Congress in the near future, but only time will tell.  It's a risky strategy, considering that the Democrats don't have a lot of margin of error for winning back the House due to redistricting and population distribution favoring Republicans far more than Democrats in general, but if it pays off it could yield huge dividends.  After all, these House members could give the Democrats a dose of breath air that both parties seem to be lacking at the moment, and give the Democrats, desperately in search of a bench (part of the reason they're going to non-politicians in the first place) a new generation of leaders.

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