The line from some Democrats in the wake of the closer-than-expected Kansas special election was fairly predictable: don’t cry because it’s over (Democrat James Thompson lost by seven points), but smile because it happened. (Only seven!)
The results are encouraging for progressives, and no one in their right mind can be disappointed at a single-digit loss in one of the most conservative districts in the country. But those kudos should be reserved for the work of Thompson and his staff, and for groups like the Daily Kos and Democracy for America, which raised a ton of money for Thompson when the national party ignored the race because conventional wisdom said they were going to get thrashed.
It’s not surprising that some Democrats have rushed to the defense of the national party as it’s getting (rightfully) shredded, but it is a bit shocking that they’re presenting the argument that Thompson’s campaign was better off without money like it’s a no-brainer. “If you’re following a pundit that says “if national Dems threw money into KS-04 they could’ve won!” unfollow them. They’re not very smart,” said Democratic pollster Matt McDermott, a guy who also said anyone who thought Clinton could lose Pennsylvania should ‘never work in American politics again.’ “National Dems jumping into a House race in Kansas would’ve totally killed Dem chances. How you win? Stay under the radar. Keep it local.”
Where McDermott is right is that Thompson should not have accepted a visit from Nancy Pelosi or Barack Obama or maybe even Bernie Sanders, because the Democratic Party is essentially dead in Kansas. They would have hurt him. That’s why Thompson, to great success, campaigned on being an independent-minded politician over his willingness to vote with Pelosi on most pieces of legislation.
But where Thompson is getting his money from is a completely different issue altogether. Thompson got a huge influx of cash via Act Blue in the last week or so, mostly coming from Daily Kos appeals. Were most of those people from his district in Kansas? Definitely not. Is the money he got still valid US currency, and did that money help him close the gap in the race? Hell yes it did.
A DCCC official who spoke with The Huffington Post on Monday, however, argued that the party’s involvement would have been “extremely damaging” to Thompson because it would have been used against him by Republicans, who have poured significant money into the race. Thompson has performed better than expected in the race because he stayed under the radar, the official added.
“Now that the race is being nationalized, and the involvement of a national party committee can’t be used against him, we don’t want Thompson to go unprotected,” the official said, adding that the race provides an opportunity to test messaging for future elections.
It’s not clear what would be worse: if the DCCC actually expects people to buy this shit or if it reflects their genuine understanding of how campaigns like this are financed. For my own sanity, let’s pretend it’s the first one.
To start, the DCCC line that national money would have been bad contrasts pretty sharply with what Thompson himself said, which is that the party’s failure to invest was “establishment thinking” and that “a lot of people don’t want to be proven wrong.” Before that, his campaign manager got into a very public battle with the state party over its failure to lend the campaign $20,000 for a mailer. So, Thompson didn’t have some kind of moral dilemma over getting financial support from the Democratic Party. He ran as a Democrat for a reason.
Furthermore, when the national party sends money to a candidate, it does not come with a stipulation that the candidate has to end every robocall with “Chuck Schumer is my daddy.” Where the money comes from shows up in campaign finance records, and the other party can, of course, publicize that and use it as evidence that the other candidate is too beholden to the party leadership. They get the local paper to do a story on it, and use it as a line of attack alleging that the candidate is going to be a rubber stamp for their party leadership once they get to Washington.
And guess what? Despite the fact that Thompson got almost no money from the DCCC, and the premise of his whole campaign was that he would be an independent voice in the House, that happened anyway.
[Ted Cruz] said it’s important to send Estes to Congress to work toward repealing the Affordable Care Act, reforming tax policy and cutting regulation on business.
He called Thompson “another knee-jerk vote for (House Minority Leader) Nancy Pelosi.”
Cruz didn’t say this because Thompson was getting money from the DCCC. He said this because Thompson is a Democrat. Thompson won the nomination at a convention of Kansas Democrats. All of the reporting on the race noted that Thompson was a Democrat, and a progressive one at that. And when voters picked up their ballots, they saw he was a Democrat. It was never a secret that he is a Democrat!
More to the point, not every voter is a knuckle-dragging rube, despite the apparent belief of some people who run the Democratic Party. They know that the money for the commercials playing nonstop during the Final Four and the local news over the past few weeks was coming from corporations, from special interests, from wealthy environmentalists in Los Angeles and oil barons in Texas, and from activists who don’t live in the district or the state. And at a very basic level, there’s a conscious understanding that, in a race between a Republican and Democrat which has national implications, the national parties are going to give some level of monetary support to their respective candidate. (Well, that’s the way it should work in theory, but apparently not in Nine-Dimensional-Chessland.)
It is true that voters all over the country absolutely loathe one or both of the national parties. But that doesn’t mean the parties refrain from giving candidates in those places financial support. In some races — like North Carolina’s AG race last year, which I wrote about — the national committees set up dummy PACs with localized names like “Carolinians for Freedom” and the “Bluegrass Committee for Justice and Fairness” that are, in reality, vehicles to funnel a ton of national cash (that has mostly come to the national committees via corporations and wealthy individual donors) into statewide and local races.
But in other races and states, they don’t bother, and I highly doubt it makes a difference in the end anyway. Almost no one who saw a Carolinians for Freedom ad thought to Google the name and pull the FEC reports to figure out where the money was coming from, and they probably wouldn’t have done that either if the ads had told the real story that the Republican Attorneys General Association was the buyer. For better or for worse in our incredibly fucked up campaign finance system, people just don’t care where the money is coming from, only which candidate’s platform aligns more with their political leanings and whether or not that candidate is too big of an asshole to vote for.
So when the DCCC and their useful idiots sell you the line that financial support would have been actively harmful in a race like Thompson’s, remember that the next time you get a dumb email from James Carville asking you for five bucks and understand you’d be better off ripping it up. Instead, invest that five bucks into the candidates themselves — or better yet, give it to an actual political organization and not a glorified think tank. They might actually know what to do with it.