Cross-posted at Minnesota Progressive Project. A bit of this gets Minnesota-centric, but it's broadly applicable.
I'm reposting this diary I wrote two years ago minus a month, because we're at that same point in the election cycle. Actually, it's a copying and pasting rather than a reposting since I want to open it up for comments. I offered a test of whether it made sense to try to defeat a Democratic incumbent who opposed party principles too often, "too often" being a subjective term, so for this exercise, we're assuming the incumbent met that definition for much of the Democratic base. I tried to define some criteria for saying this incumbent should be challenged, that one shouldn't. I had a couple thought experiments, but now we have real-life results, so I'll update how those went. The test remains the same however, thus why I'm not doing a complete rewrite.
So on to the 2009 part or, if your memory is so good you don't need to re-read it, skip to the new part.
The recent news about the decision by State Senator Steve Dille not to run for reelection because he can't win the GOP endorsement got me thinking about purging elected officials who too often defy their own party, but I'm trying to think more deeply than just schadenfreude over the deterioration of the Republicans. Maybe they're not entirely wrong. If a party stands for some principles, and a given office holder or candidate too frequently opposes those principles, don't party activists have a right to try to replace them? On the Democratic side, I recently suggested trying to defeat incumbents who are doing more harm than good in relation to health care reform, specifically the Stupak-Pitts amendment.
Perhaps the mistake Republicans have fallen into is looking at it as either/or: either you let incumbents do anything as long as they bear your party label, or you purge anyone who strays from the party line at all. I'm suggesting Democrats be a bit more nuanced.
I'm thinking of several cases where a candidate or incumbent faced an intraparty challenge --- cases which happen to come to memory, so unless someone is ready to make up for the loss of my full time job so I can research more thoroughly, understand that I'm almost surely missing some that would be useful --- and I think I can pick out some useful questions to answer before deciding whether to challenge a given blue dog or conservadem. Let these help establish guidelines, with an understanding there are always exceptions, and if we're to be nuanced, then there are many factors involved in any challenge.
If the challenger wins, can the party keep the seat?
The Republicans seem to give little thought to how red a district is before they start challenging. We should be more nuanced, and consider whether the incumbent Democrat is the only sort of Democrat who could win that seat. My sense is Republicans don't ask that question, which may explain Doug Hoffman in NY 23. Though the district long leaned Republican, Obama did win it, so maybe the local Republicans picked the sort of Republican who could win the seat. Maybe a candidate who brown-noses Glenn Beck wasn't the best choice. By contrast, when the netroots got behind Donna Edwards in Maryland 4 to defeat blue dog Al Wynn, this was a safe Democratic seat, with little likelihood of handing it the Republicans. However, to make the risk clear, I know of no instances of an intraparty challenger improving the odds of holding a seat except where the incumbent was involved in a scandal. If anyone knows of an example, please tell us in the comments (and I'll get into where I think I see one such instance for 2010, but no fair skipping ahead).
We especially have to be careful given how only a wingnut can win a Republicans nomination currently. Maybe a blue dog who opposes his party on half the important votes is an improvement. A corporate Democrat attached to reality would be an improvement over a Republican who is principled and delusional.
What will the incumbent do if he survives the challenge?
We may have thought Joe Lieberman couldn't be worse, or might be chastened into voting like a Democrat again, but he instead has lost any semblance of party unity. That link is a spoof, but I expect readers recall his lying about Obama at the Republican convention, and he now threatens to filibuster any bill with a public option. My guess is the chance to screw over the Democrats is just too good to pass up. So should he have been allowed to cruise in the primary so he wouldn't get mean later? I don't know, but I am saying it's a consideration that the challenged incumbent might retaliate if in a position to do so. He might even switch parties, as Arlen Spector did when his primary defeat seemed certain. I expect there are examples where the challenged politician hung on, but took a warning and got more in line with his party, and I'm just not thinking of those cases right now --- so again, please use comments for examples.
There's nothing cowardly about pondering this question when deciding whether to mount a challenge. It's just a matter of thinking a move ahead: if the challenge fails, what are the consequences?
Is there a strong enough challenger?
We hate to tell an earnest candidate we won't help because he has no hope, especially if he's a big improvement on the issues. In words I might regret if ever I run for something someday, resources are limited and we have to pick our fights. Republicans might have screwed up NY 23 by backing a lousy candidate, though an off-year election doesn't raise the same resources issue, and the activists did defeat the candidate they wanted out. On the other hand, both Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann defeated GOP incumbents, and despite what most of us on the liberal side think of them, they're natural politicians in terms of appealing to the conservative base, which is enough in Alaska and Bachmann's old district, at least as the district was then. Then again, Obama lost heavily to Rep. Bobby Rush, Illinois 1, so even a natural politician can lose.
What is unique about this district?
Every state or district has it's unique circumstances, and those have to be considered. Ned Lamont for example ran a strong campaign to defeat Lieberman in the primary, but Connecticut law allowed Lieberman to file as an independent too, and Lamont was generally considered unready to defeat him in a general election. When Democrats tried to defeat Richard Jefferson in Louisiana 2 (New Orleans) in 2006 due to the money in the freezer (not an ideological challenge, but illustrative of this point), the voters were scattered all over the country and probably worried more about getting their lives back together than with politics back home. Though the state party backed the challenger, I'm guessing they didn't get the word out to absentee voters. So I'm suggesting failing to consider the unique circumstances of that district is both a frequent mistake and a critical one.
Is there opposition in the district?
It should seem obvious that challenges have to be driven from inside the district, but judging from the way national conservatives drove the NY 23 special election, not obvious enough. Money can come from all over the country for a high profile race, but volunteers have to be overwhelmingly local if they're going to be there for many weeks and not give the impression of outsiders telling locals how to vote. Moreover, the unique aspects of a race might be apparent only to those with local knowledge, as Hoffman's utter lack of knowledge about St. Lawrence shipping illustrates. Especially when a race is too low profile for polling, it takes local knowledge to get a feel for how a race is going.
Let's do a couple thought experiments: Rep. Collin Peterson, MN 7
Peterson jumps to mind because he's from Minnesota, but also because he's not merely a blue dog who frequently votes against his party, but in the health care vote, he voted no despite getting every concession. So let's ask my suggested questions in regard to Peterson.
If we challenge and beat him, can we win the general election? The short answer is I hope someone who knows the 7th better than me will give a definitive answer. The long answer is his district is generally considered to be Republican-leaning. He had a good case when he first won election that he was the only sort of DFLer (Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, the Minnesota Democrats) who could win the 7th. Since then there has been a redistricting and the passage of time. Is the district bluer? If I recall correctly, McCain and Coleman won. But Peterson had 72%. Pending more information, I'd call the 7th purple leaning reddish. So a challenger might win, but the odds are longer than if we keep running Peterson.
What would Peterson do if he was challenged but reelected? He might be angry at Democrats, but his chairmanship while the Democrats hold the majority depends on remaining a Democrat. He already votes against us often, so little loss there. I could see him switching parties if Republicans gain the majority, but only if they let him keep his seniority and maybe his chairmanship. So my assessment is the risk of retaliation is low.
Is there a strong enough challenger? No idea, so I again plead for someone from the 7th district to chime in. The fact I've heard nothing makes me suspect the answer is no.
What is unique about this district? It's heavily agricultural, and Peterson's position as agriculture chair puts him in a position to bring home the goodies. Asking DFL delegates and/or primary voters to replace him means asking them to give up having their representative in such a powerful position. Then general election voters might vote for Peterson and his seniority, but not for a DFLer in an open seat.
Is there opposition to Peterson in the district? I don't know. Again, I'll defer to someone from the 7th.
This experiment's result: the likely lack of a challenger makes the other questions moot. If there is a challenger and a party base looking for a challenger, both beating Peterson and winning the general election would be possible, but tough. In terms of all possible challenges, this just doesn't stand out as an opportunity. The next experiment, however, does.
Next experiment: Sen. Blanche Lincoln, Arkansas
Lincoln gave an impassioned speech on the Senate floor yesterday about the need to debate the health care bill, which would have been more impressive if she hadn't been the one other Democrats had spent so much time trying to convince. In other words, she's one of those useless people of self-importance so common in the Senate. Can we find someone better?
The answer to the first question, could a challenger win the general election, is probably no. Arkansas has become more Republican, and even unknown Republicans are polling well against Lincoln. However, if Democrats will lose the seat anyway, this might be the exception where a strong challenger could have a better chance than the incumbent.
What will she do if she's challenged and wins? She could switch parties, though at the risk of losing seniority, and of having no influence while the Democrats hold the majority. Her voting record is lousy but could be worse. However, since her odds of winning the general election are so small, I'm calling the risk low.
Is there a challenger? Maybe. Lt. Governor Bill Halter is being pushed from the left to challenge Lincoln, and hasn't said no. He's won statewide office once. His support for health care reform and role in organizing the free clinic in Little Rock yesterday put him in a strong place to challenge. He might be the ideal challenger.
What's unique? As already mentioned, Lincoln is unpopular and likely to lose. If keeping the seat depends on having the Republican implode, what is the risk of replacing her? She would not only have to buck the Republican trend, but if she filibusters health care reform, the base will at best not help her. A challenger would at least have a chance of winning Arkansas Democrats and financial support from outside the state. Halter wouldn't be getting a serious look if he didn't have support from within the state. My conclusion: this is a prime opportunity to remove a conservadem.
What was the point of this whole exercise?
I'm not interested in just analyzing elections instead of collecting stamps (though analyzing elections while collecting stamps: we got a party!). I'm interested in channeling liberal political activism to avoid problems like we have with health care reform, where a few conservadems can blow apart party initiatives supported by huge majorities of Democrats. Think about it: almost the entire health care debate is about just a few members of each house of Congress. These few members refuse to do what their party wants, ran on, and won a majority on. If they had been behind reform from the beginning, we would have had a bill passed long ago, and a better bill too. To get there, we need to be thinking strategically so enough of us recognize opportunities and combine resources.
So while health care is the line in the sand for the next election, this isn't about just health care. It's about all the legislative fights to come.
Update [from shortly after posting in 2009]
What timing. Some of the members of the RNC are indeed proposing a rigid purity test. Get eight out of ten correct, or you're out. Period. Judging from what's happened to state legislators who voted to override Pawlenty's transportation veto, the Minnestoa GOP is going to sign on to these.
How did those experiments turn out? Collin Peterson went unchallenged and won reelection 55%-38% despite a reddish-purple district in a GOP wave, so he was able to hang on to the seat. Leaving him unchallenged seems to have worked out. Blanche Lincoln was indeed challenged in the primary by Bill Halter and narrowly hung on to win a runoff, but was predictably blown out in the general election (it seemed everyone but the senator herself saw it was hopeless, and the critics were right). Though the challenge failed, hopefully it left behind some sort of organization (I've no idea) and it was the right move.
Probably all Democrats know this already, but Joe Lieberman decided against running again. It looks like it took a while before he became as unpopular with independents as he was with Democrats, but he got there.
Another thought experiment: There's a Blanche Lincoln-like situation in Nebraska, where Sen. Ben Nelson is unpopular and barely holding roughly even with Republican candidates. He was one of the Democrats who voted to sustain the Republican filibuster of the jobs bill, even though the bill is very popular, has no hope of passage, and it's a gift to Democrats looking at a tough reelection next year. Such Democrats include Nelson. He was standing at a batting tee and still decided to take the pitch. He was also the one who insisted on the special Medicaid funding for Nebraska in the health care bill, the "cornhusker kickback", even though this was already the sort of thing that had the public irate about the process. Even then, he insisted the public option be removed or else he would support the Republican filibuster --- he wouldn't even allow a vote on his party's top priority. Policy aside, his political judgement seems awful.
So to answer the first question, if a challenger wins, can the party still keep the seat? There's no challenger, but it sure looks like a challenger's chances would be better, or at least not significantly worse, depending of course on the challenger.
What will the incumbent do if he survives the challenge? It's not unusual for conservative Democrats to switch parties when the Republicans gain majorities, as they're expected to do in the Senate (it's a matter of the huge number of seats Democrats have to defend). He might switch anyway. If his switch would decide the majority, he's shown he'll go for the self-serving deal, so he has little to lose by switching. However, the ideological coherence of the parties means that even Nelson is to the left of any Republican, so he might not be all that comfortable as the left-most Republican. I see a moderate risk of retaliation from Nelson should he defeat a challenge.
Is there a strong enough challenger? It appears not yet, which might mean Nebraska Democrats are stuck with Nelson. Nelson's low approval suggests there might be enough opposition to fuel a challenge, but under my guideline that opposition has to come from within and can't be forced from outside, there's nothing to latch on to.
What is unique about the state? It's a red state, but Obama did win one congressional district, suggesting it's worth looking into. The Keystone XL pipeline is unpopular enough to engender even some Republican opposition, so that might offer a Democrat who opposes it an opportunity. Somehow Bob Kerrey used to win a US Senate seat despite being more liberal than Nelson.
This isn't so clearly a no-risk situation as Blanche Lincoln was last year, but given how poorly Nelson is doing, it's low risk, if there's a challenger. We're assuming for this exercise that the challenger would be an improvement, just as we're assuming the incumbent has justified the challenge.
Legislative seats (here's where I really get somewhat Minnesota-centric, but again, I think this broadly applies):
Given the huge Republican gains in legislative seats last year, the damage they've been doing with their new majorities, and our focus on retaking those seats next year, I feel like I ought to use a legislative incumbent for a test. A few months ago a blogger on MN Progressive Project compiled the votes of some DFL legislators who cast some noxious votes. They'd be great for thinking through, except I don't know enough about their districts or any challenges, and I can't stress enough the importance of local knowledge and opposition. I'm going to have to take this at a macro level, and restrict anything local to some unsolicited advice, to wit, if you find your legislator acting Republican-ish, stop a moment. Think this through and be hardheaded, and I mean that both ways. Don't let anger over even multiple bad votes cause you to put limited resources (a redundancy, but the emphasis helps) into opposing an incumbent who has no serious challenger or who really is the only sort of Democrat who could win that district. On the other hand, make no assumption the incumbent can't be beaten. Size up any challengers before deciding they aren't serious. Maybe you have a blue district with an incumbent less blue than the district.
On a macro level, before going after state legislators, I have to point out how tightly the caucuses stuck together at times this last session, specifically over budgetary votes. I look more at Congress for conservative Democrats to challenge because that's where blue dogs and conservadems have not merely cast regrettable votes, but actively undermined their party. Meanwhile, in Minnesota at least, we have a chance with both houses up for election to overturn the Republican majorities. Republicans have a lot of purple seats, which opens opportunity, but then again, they have a LOT of purple seats, and we might find time and money short enough to beat Republicans without taking on some Democrats too. I too was angry that some DFLers voted for marriage discrimination, voting rights restrictions, etc., but that's my attempt at being hardheaded. They're simply a lower priority than beating Republicans, defeating certain congressional Democrats, and I'd even put defeating the constitutional amendments and defeating the crazy state supreme court candidates as a higher priority.
That said, as an individual, your greatest ability to affect the outcome is in your districts, and I recognize I might feel differently if it was my incumbent that kept running with my party label and voting against me. I'm just saying we probably don't have the resources to take on every DINO, they vary in their vulnerability to a challenge, and they vary in their ability to hang on to the seat if they get to the general election, so an analytical look might let us make better choices about who to challenge.