This week, as the unbeloved American Health Care Act did its best impression of Jason Vorhees, Democrats were reminded of their dire need to win some elections. They won't send a Democrat (probably Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez) to Congress from California's safe 34th District until June 6; Jon Ossoff, who is still narrowly favored to win Georgia's 6th District, won't face a runoff until June 20.
That means the next state that will potentially change the majority in Congress is Montana's At-Large District, where Democrat Rob Quist is running an aggressive if creaky campaign to beat Republican businessman Greg Gianforte. For weeks — and especially after a stronger-than-expected Democratic showing in Kansas's far more Republican 4th District — local activists have raised money while hinting that Democrats might want to help out.
But as Politico's Elena Schneider points out, Democrats have made a fraction of the investment that Republicans have in Montana's race. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has put $200,000 into Montana's operation; between them, the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Congressional Leadership Fund have earmarked 10 times as much money to save the seat.
Here's the problem: Democrats, in defending their priorities, keep arguing that jumping in too early will nationalize the race. As one strategist put it to Schneider, "you don’t want it to be a strict Democrat-versus-Republican because Trump did win."
Based on having covered most of this year's special elections on the ground, including Montana's, this is starting to sound like something you can only believe if you're addicted to the defensive crouch or if you never leave D.C. Three reasons:
Republicans nationalize every Trump state (or Trump district) race anyway. Here are the latest spots from the NRCC and CLF in Montana.
Here is the latest CLF ad in Georgia.
The eagle-eyed reader might notice a pattern. Neither Democrat has run as a Pelosi ally; Ossoff, somewhat famously, has rarely mentioned that he is a Democrat. But nothing stops Republicans, whose polling finds that Pelosi remains well-known and toxic in red districts, from making a Pelosi-shaped paddle and repeatedly whacking their opponents with it.
Voters don't really know who's funding the campaign attacks they see. One striking aspect of seeing elections on the ground is seeing how local news — TV and newspapers — cover campaign developments. If the president tweets about a race, an action that costs no money, it makes the lead of the TV news. If a surrogate comes in for a rally, it's got a fighting shot at the front page.
But you rarely if ever see local news write up a big partisan investment in a race. It's simply not interesting, unless you're a political junkie, or unless the ads are coming from a surprising source; think here of the super PACs that spring up because a multimillionaire wants them to. Party committees can also alter their identity by creating front groups, like the Republican Governors Association did when it (successfully) invested millions to flip Vermont's state house. Its ads for now-Gov. Phil Scott never mentioned that he was a Republican — they ran under the banner of "A Stronger Vermont."
Democrats have a brand problem that dodging a fight will never fix. In 2008 — not really so long ago — Democrats won off-year special elections for Congress in Louisiana and Mississippi. One of the victors was Don Cazayoux, who took over a seat vacated by a Republican who saw the bright lights of a lobbying career. In a district where the national party regularly lost, Cazayoux ran as a pro-life, pro-education funding, tough-on-crime Democrat who favored expanding health-care coverage.
Democrats have not really competed for that seat since 2008. (Cazayoux lost a three-way November race when another Democrat ran as a spoiler.) But it was not so long ago that a populist message, which smoothed over cultural issues, could put together a coalition with enough white voters to win tough rural seats.
In 2017, Democrats are despondent about their chances of winning rural seats — and the national party has moved left on issues such as abortion and immigration. But from many appearances, the party has triaged rural seats. The secretive autopsy report, prepared for the DCCC by Rep. Sean Maloney (D-N.Y.), argues that some extremely rural districts where New Deal and Great Society Democrats won for years are now unwinnable.
To progressives, it doesn't feel like Republicans share this despondence. They compete in the suburbs; they compete in the cities where they can (Omaha, Indianapolis, San Diego). They let the party's brand shift from race to race, and are nimble about it. But running through each race, they let it generally be known that a Republican is going to be easier on your wallet than a Democrat. There's an existential argument here that Democrats have not really engaged in for years.