Lambert: By Betteridge’s Law, no. Readers who came in late may not appreciate the depths of the internal dysfunction in the Democrat Party. This post on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is a useful corrective.
Originally published at Down with Tyranny.
I never met middle of the road New Mexico congressman and DCCC chairman Ben Ray Luján and, although we’ve been making a commotion here about Pelosi firing him, I bear him no personal animus. What I don’t like is that the Democrats had a reasonable chance to take back a lot of seats in the House, which is Luján’s job. He failed– pretty miserably— so Pelosi should have found someone better to do it in 2018. But that isn’t how she does things. I’ve spoken to nearly a dozen members of Congress who have told me, more or less, that Luján shouldn’t be blamed for screwing up because it was really Steve Israel’s fault since he was in charge of giving Luján on-the-job training and he was pulling the strings. That was also Pelosi’s fault– keeping that hopeless loser around after he had already proven himself unqualified to have anything to do with the effort of winning seats (for Democrats).
At two times I was president of two different record companies. The first was my own, 415 Records, a small independent outfit in San Francisco, and one major label under the Time-Warner corporate umbrella, Reprise Records. Both companies did well… but that doesn’t mean there weren’t problems. There always were– as there are in all businesses. And if things didn’t go well– you know the phrase, “the buck stops here?” That doesn’t mean the buck stopped at the desk of my head of marketing or head of promotion or at the business affairs office or publicity office or international office… or any other office other than the president’s office.
But that, apparently isn’t how they look at this inside the Beltway. So Luján’s back at the helm. But it’s not all as horrible at it usually is. At least Luján is trying to slay the Nemean Lion, slay the nine-headed Lernaean Hydra, capture the Ceryneian Hind, capture the Erymanthian Boar, clean the Augean stables in a single day, slay the Stymphalian Birds, capture the Cretan Bull and, last but not least, steal the Mares of Diomedes. Personnel was a problem– a big one– but the underlying Rahm Emanuel ideology and operating procedures held over by Chris Van Hollen, Steve Israel and, most recently, Luján will prevent the Democrats from ever winning back the House so long as they’re in place. Democratic voters don’t want recycled Republicans, NRA shills, Republican-lite fake Dems, and more crap from the Republican wing of the Democratic Party which is, basically, the only kind of candidates the DCCC believes in.
Luján finally dumped incompetent and much-failed Steve Israel operative Kelly Ward, the executive director. Good first step! Last week Simone Pathé reported for Roll Call that Democratic incumbents have been complaining about DCCC staffers.
Whether or not disgruntled members’ grievances about the DCCC are legitimate, their complaints are indicative of a disconnect between parts of the caucus and the committee.
The griping isn’t directed at New Mexico Rep. Ben Ray Luján, whom the caucus elected to a second term as committee chairman Monday night.
“We truly believe he never really headed the DCCC,” Arizona Rep. Ruben Gallego said last week. The perception is that Pelosi ran the show, beginning with her appointment of the chairman.
Members generally like Luján and believe that making his slot an elected position is a step toward bringing transparency to a committee that they think needs more of it– even if they’re not quite sure what it is they’re looking for behind the curtain.
Whatever it is, they believe it begins with wresting perceived power away from staff. “Our mission,” Gallego said, is “this is going to be a membership-driven DCCC instead of staff- and consultant-driven.”
…[T]he DCCC fell below expectations publicly set by leadership and came nowhere close to winning the 30 seats needed to take the majority during a presidential year when Democrats should have had the advantage based on turnout.
Midwestern Democrats have blamed the DCCC for abandoning its working-class base. Traditionally, though, crafting a national economic message is the job of Congress or the White House.
Pelosi put Steve Israel in charge of that and he failed dismally, as he failed at everything he’s tried to do in terms of House leadership. Israel’s horribly failed messaging offers nothing for anyone to vote for and that’s why the Democrats failed to gain even close to as many seats they should have. Unfortunately, Luján and Pelosi insist everything and everyone is to blame for the serial failures (except themselves).
In its first post-election discussion with members last month, Luján said that many of their recruits were on a upward trajectory– with Virginia’s LuAnn Bennett tied with Rep. Barbara Comstock, for example– until the release of the letter from FBI Director James B. Comey about potentially reopening an investigation into Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s emails.
But some Democrats say they’ve heard similar excuses after disappointing election results in 2010, 2012 and 2014.
“As long as the storyline is, ‘Our polling was great! Our strategy was perfect. James Comey screwed us,’ then it’s a sign there’s no drive for accountability,” one Democratic consultant said. “Somehow, every cycle when the DCCC falls short, someone else is to blame,” he said.
That perception of failure exists among some members who are taking aim at a campaign committee that they don’t think has been working for them. A member’s opinion and understanding of the DCCC may be influenced by their reliance on the committee to get elected and re-elected.
…“I sat in all the recruitment meetings that were run by Cheri Bustos and Denny Heck, and I thought they did a great job,” said New York Rep. Kathleen Rice, elected in 2014 from a district Obama twice carried by double digits. “But I didn’t know anything about the staffers that were there. Was everything being carried out? We just don’t know.”
Three useless New Dems scratching each other’s backs– Kathleen Rice is a mess and Bustos and Heck are, if anything, even worse. These 3 are the very epitome of the Republican wing of the Democratic Party. Like Luján, all three of them have F scores from ProgressivePunch. Their lifetime crucial vote ratings:
• Denny Heck (WA)- 74.54
• Kathleen Rice (NY)- 61.84
• Cheri Bustos (IL)- 48.56
No one wants to openly talk about the self-enriching revolving door policy the Democrats tolerate or encourage between consultants and DCCC staffers. But it’s certainly been a major factor in the performance of the DCCC since Rahm started running– and ruining– the committee in 2005.
As eager as they are to give Luján another chance, members are taking their frustrations out on the committee staff– much more so than in cycles past.
“We realize that it’s also unfair to blame him for the direction of the DCCC when systematically that staff of the DCCC, starting from the top, and almost all the way through middle-management, has been nothing but bureaucratic and ineffective for many, many years,” Gallego said last week when answering a question about why he wanted to keep Luján on as DCCC chairman.
“He wasn’t given the time or the power to get rid of them,” the freshman Democrat added.
While Gallego and others suggested the staff was handpicked by Pelosi, that’s hardly the vast majority of bodies sitting in the DCCC’s South Capitol Street office.
“It’s far easier to blame a nameless, faceless, nebulous staff than it is to confront reality,” said a senior Democratic strategist not working with the committee this cycle.
Ryan, who’s had limited interaction with the committee, pointed his finger at the greater web of political consultants who do business for the DCCC and their recruits. “They need to go on a consultant detox,” he said.
“There’s a closed shop,” a Democratic consultant added. “That would be OK if there were a record of success,” he said, but “we’re not winning the close races.”
…The perception remains that a limited class of consultants contributes to a group-think culture, but the committee’s independent expenditure arm did add at least five new consulting firms this year, including Latino and women-led shops.
“There are favorites that get played and that tends to be with the larger firms, or the people staff think they can get a job from,” another Democratic consultant said.
Any consultant who feels he or she isn’t getting enough business could have an incentive to complain. But “the closed shop” concern is bigger than one consultant or even one party.
“It is something we faced,” Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said outside the speaker’s lobby Monday night.
After losing 30 seats in 2006, Cole said the NRCC opened up.
“You put staff in and tell them, ‘I don’t want a select group of people here. We want to throw this open, we want everybody who’s a reasonable consultant to have a legitimate opportunity to compete,’” he said.
Friday, Luján fired more DCCC incompetents– though he didn’t even consider getting some of the garbage members like Bustos and Heck out of the works, even though it was they, not the staffers, who set the policy. He hired Dan Sena, a Ward deputy?, to take her place, and made Aaron Trujillo chief of staff and Meredith Kelly communications director. “More of the same,” is what one congresswoman told me in disgust after the announcement. Ughhh.
Thomas Mills started the respected blog, PoliticsNC and this year he ran for the NC-08 seat held by Richard Hudson. He spent $380,866 to Hudson’s $2,431,160 and received 131,428 votes (41.2%) to Hudson’s 187,909 (58.8%). The DCCC didn’t recognize his race in any way whatsoever. Yesterday he wrote a post for Politico, How The Democratic Party Lost Its Way, which has been called to my attention by nearly a dozen former congressional candidates who have an equally dim view of the DCCC in the Pelosi era. Mills, though, started with a good DCCC experience– in 1998 as the campaign manager for Mike Taylor. By 2016, though, with his own campaign, the DCCC experience was pretty awful, something dozens of Democratic candidates all over the country will tell you. “After the primaries,” he wrote, “I reached out to them. But despite leaving numerous messages on both email and answering machines, I never got any response. When I eventually used my Congressional connections to get an audience, I took my pollster and media consultant to a meeting that lasted all of 15 minutes. We left with little more than a list of reasons why the DCCC wouldn’t be helping our campaign.”
Back in the ’90s when I started out, the DCCC was tasked with contesting as many races as possible and providing staff, training and direction to the campaigns in the field. Today, they’re narrowly focused on a small number of highly targeted races. Other campaigns get little attention or support.
Democrats need to be sharper going into the next election cycle. With a 50-plus seat deficit in the House, the party will have to win more than just the most competitive seats. They’ll probably need a wave in which they figure out how to win some longshot races. That won’t happen unless the party actively recruits good candidates around the country and treats them with respect and encouragement. And it also won’t happen unless the party provides campaigns– especially in the toughest districts– with the training, support and infrastructure to create or take advantage of opportunities.
…Democrats should be thinking broadly instead of narrowly. Successful political organizations are entrepreneurial and opportunistic, especially when they are 60 seats in the minority. But despite the dismal record it’s racked up in recent years, the DCCC has become insular and myopic. Candidates and consultants can’t reach high-ranking staffers. Reaching ranking members is unthinkable. The circle of people influencing the political strategists rarely reaches outside of the beltway, which means the strategists– like so much of Washington– have lost touch with the people whose votes they need to attract. They rely on polling and focus groups to give them an understanding of the challenges facing families today. Those tools would be greatly enhanced if the people using them had regular contact with the people they are trying to reach.
Much of the insularity seems to be rooted in a lack of accountability. For staff, there’s little penalty for failure. They often either get rehired or go to work for consulting firms that have contracts with the DCCC. And the Democratic Congressional leadership comes predominantly from safe districts. Most ranking members haven’t run competitive races in many years, if they’ve run them at all. They don’t understand the skills and experience they need in a caucus staff since they don’t really know what a professional campaign organization looks like and they don’t understand what candidates in competitive districts need to succeed.
The DNC stopped providing its training academy in the late 1990s. Since then, training been contracted out to organizations like Wellstone Action, which has a heavy field emphasis or EMILY’s List, with a fundraising emphasis. We’ve lost the intensive trainings that focused on basic management and strategic skills.
It’s not only the training that’s taken a hit. Despite their 60-seat deficit heading into 2016, the Democrats didn’t appear to do much candidate recruiting except in the most competitive districts. In Texas, Hillary Clinton won in a congressional district where Democrats didn’t even field a challenger. Numbers, not potential, guided the DCCC efforts. Instead of looking for possibilities, or trying to create them, the committee only paid attention to the districts that looked viable on spreadsheets.
The DCCC and other campaign committees ought to retool their campaign operations looking back to the 1980s and 1990s. Back then, they introduced research and polling to campaigns. Now, they should be teaching campaigns how to use social media and online operations to reach voters early and build low-dollar fundraising operations.
Today, Democrats are so far in the hole that they could use the opportunity to try new tactics and strategies to see if they can win in some unlikely places. Longshot and marginal races are not won in the final two months of a campaign. They’re won because candidates put together campaigns that prepare them to take advantage of opportunities throughout the cycle. Social media and online fundraising give candidates the platforms to build profiles and low-dollar fundraising operations, as well as create excitement among their base before the paid media and field campaigns begin.
For Democrats to be successful, they need leaders, both campaign professionals and elected officials, who understand how modern communications and campaigns have changed. They would be wise to reach out to operatives and consultants who live outside the Washington, D.C., bubble to better understand voters. They should get back to their roots: recruit candidates to compete in as many races as possible; create an army of professional operatives across the country to run campaigns cycle after cycle; provide a base level of support for every candidate who files; introduce innovative strategies and tactics and teach campaigns how to use them. They’ll need the leadership to take them there.
And, alas, that’s never going to happen while Nancy Pelosi is the House Democratic Leader. She should give it up and let the party she loves, and has served for so many years, get a new lease on life. This morning I was speaking with a recent candidate who told me he thinks he’s better off with the DCCC not getting involved in his race in any way. “All they can do,” she told me, “is diminish my chances of winning. They don’t seem able to bring anything worthwhile to the table… They’re from a bygone era. It’s pretty sad… As you pointed out in your blog, the best people who won this year, like Pramila and Nanette Barragan, Carol up in New Hampshire, Jamie Raskin all won without any involvement with the DCCC.”