Even though we still have 48 states to go in the 2014 campaign filing season, we have already been treated to our first true "holy shit" moment of the cycle.
Republican Congressman (and legitimately batshit crazy dude) Steve Stockman, one of the more ... ahem ... remarkable figures in the teabagger wing of the Republican Party, made a last-second decision to challenge veteran Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas in a primary.
Now, for at least a couple of reasons, Stockman's challenge looks to be a bit of a fool's errand. It is a virtual impossibility for Stockman to mount a campaign, on very short notice, that can be financially competitive with the Cornyn campaign. What's more: Stockman is already getting his ass kicked in the endorsement game, with even fellow paragon of batshittedness Louie Gohmert unwilling to cast his lot with him.
But, having said that, what if ... what if? ... Stockman were able to pull off the upset of the century and win the Republican primary coming up on March 4? Wouldn't that be amazing news for the Democrats, putting a no-hoper of a seat into the realm of competitiveness?
The tragic answer to that question is: nah.
The reason, quite simply, is because the Democrats are left with a raft of "Some Dudes" that filed for the U.S. Senate. Arguably the best bet is David Alameel, a wealthy dentist whose previous political claim to fame is a fourth-place finish in the 2012 Democratic primary for the Metroplex-based 33rd district.
But at least the Democrats have bodies willing to compete in the Senate race. Downballot, the picture is far more brutal. A total of seven GOP House incumbents do not even have to worry about Democratic opposition in 2014, as no Democrats even bothered to file in those seats.
Meanwhile, at the state legislative level, the Republicans are already very close to maintaining their majorities. For example: In the Texas state House, a total of 57 seats held by Republicans will not feature a Democratic challenger.
It is not something likely to end any time soon, but Democratic prospects for building the kind of party that can win majorities at both the state and federal level would be vastly improved if they put bodies on the field, even in districts where it seems, on the surface, to be a low-percentage play. Follow me below the fold as I explain why.
Let me start the discussion by making a key admission: Even if Democrats fielded candidates in all 64 of the federal and state legislative districts where they came up dry in last week's Texas candidate filing, they would almost certainly go 0-64. These are, by and large, districts of such a deep red hue that you could hold a district Democratic caucus in a broom closet. A smallish broom closet.
On the state legislative level, for example, the Democrats failed to fill their ballot line in HD-01 through HD-13. Yup, the first 13 districts in the roster are either GOP versus Libertarian, or GOP versus Nobody. But when you consider that the most Democratic district in that baker's dozen went 63-36 for Mitt Romney last year, that starts to seem logical.
But it isn't just blood red districts being left on the sidelines. A couple of Texas districts that were left uncontested had Mitt Romney staked to much more modest leads. And in the Illinois candidate filings a week prior, several districts where Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were essentially at parity in 2012 were left uncontested by the Democrats.
But whether the district is winnable or not, it makes sense for Democrats to grind hard to fill out the entire card. Here are just a few of the reasons why:
1. Never underestimate the ability of GOP primary voters to mess the bed.
This is a relatively recent phenomenon, but that does not make it any more pivotally important. One of the most critical by-products of the bubbling internecine war in the Republican Party is that GOP primary voters, smaller in number and more pure in their ideology, have managed to elevate some truly unelectable candidates over the years.
One could make a pretty compelling argument that the U.S. Senate would either be in Republican hands, or tantalizingly close to it, were it not for this reflex among the GOP primary electorate. And that is why it is imperative to have candidates, and preferably reasonably viable ones, at the ready.
Consider the case of Joe Donnelly. Donnelly, a third-term member of the U.S. House from northern Indiana, elected to run for the Senate when his district was dramatically altered by the GOP in the post-2010 redistricting. It was seen as a bit of a suicide mission, since an Indiana state institution, Sen. Richard Lugar, was running for yet another term in the Senate. But then Lugar was dispatched (with alarming ease) by uber-conservative state treasurer Richard Mourdock, and the rest, as they say, was history.
A more instructive example might be Chris Coons. Donnelly's Senate campaign was run on a fairly practical proposition: he was getting ejected from his House seat in all probability, anyway, so a long shot Senate bid was not too illogical. Coons, on the other hand, was the only reasonably prominent Delaware Democrat willing to run for the U.S. Senate seat opened up by the elevation of Joe Biden to the vice-presidency. Most Democrats demurred on the universal assumption that the GOP nominee would be the exceptionally popular longtime GOP Rep. Mike Castle. Little did they know that Christine O'Donnell would knock Castle out in the primary, and Coons would go from long shot to favorite in a single night.
Simply put, you never know when the GOP might put someone truly beatable into their ballot slot. The only way to reap the benefit of their own failure to recognize electable candidates is to have one of your own, waiting in the wings and ready to take advantage of the opportunity.
2. Thinning the playing field plays into the hands of the Republicans.
Even if one presumes (almost certainly correctly) that there is little-to-no chance of a Democratic takeover of the Texas state legislature, it is still maddening to think how little effort the Republicans are going to need to expend in order to maintain their majority. Fully three-fifths of the Republican delegation to the state House of Representatives are already insulated from a challenge from the Democratic Party.
This means that not a dime of money, nor a minute of effort, has to be spent on these seats. Even if none of them are appetizing prospects (and they probably aren't), you'd rather see a GOP incumbent have to make a nominal effort at re-election, rather than none at all. In my (admittedly limited) experience, incumbents are infinitely more likely to hoard their resources when they draw a challenger ... any challenger. Freed of that burden, they can bolster their own vulnerable incumbents, and assist in efforts to oust vulnerable Democratic incumbents. They can lend their fundraising prowess to the team, since they no longer are under any individual burden to do so.
Ultimately, that means that the playing field gets much smaller, and that plays into the hands of the majority party. And, in the majority of state legislatures (and, of course, the House of Representatives), that means the Republicans.
3. You simply never know when a wave is going to build.
All the rage in pundit circles in recent weeks has been about the prospect of 2014 being a "wave election." For a brief while in October, when the House GOP had badly misplayed their hands on the government shutdown, some openly wondered if a Democratic wave could result from the crisis. Then in November, when the public conversation turned to health care and websites and the like, many pundits (in my view, prematurely) began to see shades of 2010 in the poll numbers.
The truth is: The track record over the years of being able to see a wave election coming this far out is pretty "meh." Almost nobody saw the 2006 Democratic wave coming until only a handful of months before the election, for example. Anyone who has a high degree of confidence, on the left or the right, about the outcome in eleven months is begging for a cut-and-paste dollop of ridicule come next November.
Which is why you want to fill as many slots as you can during filing time. This is maddening, of course, especially in the early states. In mid-October, one would have to imagine that it would be tough to persuade a GOP rising star to make an effort at toppling a Democratic incumbent. Just 30 days later, the converse was equally true: a fact made painfully apparent this week when Pete Festersen, a top Democratic recruit in Nebraska's 2nd district, elected to drop out of a challenge to perpetually vulnerable Rep. Lee Terry roughly one month after jumping into the race.
Festersen may well have been keeping his powder dry in a battle that had become a great deal more arduous (though area Democrats should never reward him for such a cravenly obvious example of finger-to-the-wind politicking). But he also may have made a colossal blunder, for if the tide turns again within the next 11 months, and the wind reappears at the backs of Democrats, he might've blown a solid shot at earning a seat in Congress.
If a wave does develop, in either direction, a critical side effect of that wave is seats that have been completely stricken from the list of competitive seats for years become races to watch. One must think that the Republicans are quite grateful that they lucked out and had Blake Farenthold running in what was viewed as solid blue territory in heavily Latino South Texas. His defeat of veteran Rep. Solomon Ortiz had to be considered one of the biggest upsets in recent House history. And an election like that can only happen in a wave election. Absent that GOP wave of 2010, Farenthold gets smooshed, like pretty much every Republican that had come before him in the long tenure of the Democratic incumbent.
But, as the cliche goes, you can only win if you play. It's tough to find candidates that may, for all intents and purposes, be sacrificial lambs. But, every now and again, the long shot pays off. And in order to turn minorities into majorities, or bolster majorities that are narrow and tenuous, it is beneficial to a political party to put those long shots into play.