Saturday, October 15, 2005

The Two Democratic Challengers

This blog will be dedicated to the campaigns to oust Pombo from office in 2006. It seems logical, therefore, to begin with a diagnosis of the Democrats who have declared their candidacy for CA-11 in 2006. This is my take at the moment of posting, and is therefore somewhat tentative and subject to change.

Right now there are two Democrats who will run against each other in the primary, Jerry McNerney and Steve Filson. McNerney ran against Pombo in 2004 as a write-in candidate because the Democrats weren't running anyone against Pombo. He did so largely without any support from the Democratic Party establishment. However, now that the Democratic establishment has recognized Pombo's vulnerability, they have gotten behind another candidate (Filson) whose only qualifications seem to be his connections with Ellen Tauscher (CA-10) and the fact that he used to be a Navy pilot.

The choice in the primary is between a more progressive, grassroots candidate (McNerney) and a less progressive, DLC-backed candidate (Filson). Thus, the difference between the two campaigns cut across two different spectra: ideology AND method. Filson's ideology might be more natural to the district (although I am not convinced that this is the case) but his method of campaigning (i.e. looking for lots of money and trying to co-opt, rather than engender, enough grassroots support to win) has tremendous consequences that we'd be foolish to ignore.

As far as I can tell, Filson's base of support is largely composed of elements of the Democratic Party establishment (such as the DCCC and Ellen Tauscher), pilots (who he claims have given him 25% of his funding), and (assuming a DLC model) businesses. The problems with this are two-fold.

First, Filson's base is essentially composed of funding-sources, not constituencies. This is vitally important to note because all campaigns must deal with three scare resources: time, volunteers, and money. Filson and McNerney have equal time to run their campaigns, so neither is especially "richer" in this resource. But whereas Filson is richer in monetary terms, I think he is much poorer terms of the volunteer base he can tap.

As a Democratic Party activist, I listen to the grassroots organizers who are on the ground day after day, not the elected officials or Washington insiders who ask me for money from time and time. Some elected officials, like Barbara Boxer or Barbara Lee or Loni Hancock, command enough respect that I will give what they say a thoughtful listen. (Note, this is not about ideology, it is about influence).

In terms of influence among the grassroots, I think Tauscher's support is fairly minimal. I have seen no evidence that Ellen Tauscher commands the same level of support from the party activists in her district that someone like Barbara Lee commands in hers. In fact, whereas the activist base of the party in CD-9 proudly declares "Barbara Lee speaks for me," I have met a lot of activists in CD-10 who call Tauscher a word that rhymes with "witch."
So although Tauscher can doubtless prompt some at the top of the grassroots hierarchy to get behind her golden boy, the real issue is whether they can in turn use their position to further promote Filson. I would argue that's no the case. For example, some of the people on the Contra Costa County Democratic Central Committee like Filson and some do not. But there is only something like 20 people on this committee. The Lamorinda Democratic Club, on the other hand, has 600+ members and their governing board, and indeed the whole club, is very progressive. Phil Angelides either announced his candidacy for governor at the Lamorinda Club or he went there within a week. This should tell you about the respect given to that club AND it's efficacy. Also, McNerney will have the support of many similar organizations that have members who actually do a lot of grassroots organizing.

Given these considerations, if you look at the neighboring districts and ask which one will have volunteers drive to CD-11 to help out, or whom those volunteers will support in CD-11, I think you will find that many, many times the people will come to aid McNerney's campaign than will come to help Filson's campaign. Furthermore, the DCCC's tacit endorsement, in terms of influence, is even less than Tauscher's. The DCCC has no organizational influence on the ground in CD-11 at this point. After the primary they might send some money and some consultants, but most Democrats hardly know what the DCCC is, let alone respect it enough to allow it to sway their vote in the primary.

The next question is what this means, not for Dems outside the district, but Dems inside CD-11. It's hard for me to know exactly how the various campaigns will activate the grassroots in the district, but nothing I've seen so far has provided any evidence that Filson is activating the grassroots where the rubber meets the road. I know that the McNerney Campaign has dozens of activists from Democratic clubs in the district and I have heard that McNerney's Campaign in 04 is what revitalized the moribund Stockton Democratic Club. Clearly, CD-11 has an under-developed Democratic Party apparatus, especially at the grassroots level. This makes it particularly sensitive to the amount of time outside, experienced organizers spend in the district. Filson's strategy basically takes for granted the Democratic Party base, whereas McNerney's strategy will (or at least ought to) grow the base. So the fact that McNerney has the support of outside organizers works to his advantage in a serious way. That is, outside support can lead to increased indigenous support and can in fact multiply the efficacy of the indigenous support that exists for McNerney.

This brings up the second reason to oppose Filson's method of campaigning, and it is a deeper issue. Namely, because Filson is not trying to grow the base he will essentially leave nothing useful behind if he looses. He is not spending time or energy making the district less red. McNerney, on the other hand, even if he loses, will leave behind a more energized, activated, and organized Democratic opposition. (McNerney, for example, announced his candidacy at the Tracy Democratic Club, the existence of which is due in large part to McNerney's 2004 campaign). This is something that a Central Valley Democratic candidate might be able to utilize in 2008, for example, if Pombo stays in power. More to the point, these types of organizations will effect a lot of local races, so that Democrats might win more city council or county supervisor type of races. This then grows the Democratic "bench" of viable candidates, which will have many long-term benefits for the party.

I understand that some approach this race from a pretty non-partisan perspective, but many Democrats see a fight brewing for the soul of the party. This is the time for Democrats to stand up and be proud of what they believe in. By supporting Filson so obviously, the DCCC and Tauscher have essentially backed McNerney into a corner. He needs to run as an insurgent-type candidate. I hope he will do this, although I'm still unsure about his perspective on this. But if McNerney does run the right type of campaign, he will tap into the same energy and enthusiasm that buoyed Dean's campaign. Unlike the conventional wisdom, I saw Dean as more of a reform Democrat who happened to oppose the war than a left-wing type. (Incidentally, this is also why many true lefties supported Kucinich). Still, however left-wing Dean was, he also had to deal with the genuinely grassroots efforts of the Clark Campaign, which was both in fact and perceived as more moderate than Dean's campaign. The equivalent of the Clark Campaign does not exist in this race, so I think the grassroots energy will redound to a genuine grassroots campaign run by a proud, fighting Democrat, over a status quo, establishment candidate like Filson.

Whoever wins the primary will be at least dutifully supported by the grassroots. Now let's think about how Republicans and moderates will react to the different candidates. I am less confident of my analysis in the following part than in the previous part, but I understand this and need to deepen my understanding of the voters in the district. That said, here's where I'd start.

There are a lot of Republicans in the district who are not wingnuts, especially when it comes to the environment. I DO NOT think that a tree-hugging, hippy-esque appeal to the animals would suffice in the district, and might drive people away from the campaign. But everyone is concerned with the health of their children and their families, and the air in the district is really, really polluted. Jerry cannot only speak credibly about clean energy, he can tie clean energy into the larger health effects of dirty air. This is important because independent women who have children with asthma and the like will listen to concerns like this. Also, the Democrats in Montana have been very successful at forging a coalition between Sierra Club types and hunters and fishermen. Pombo wants to increase off-shore oil drilling, has supported dirty air policies that end up increasing the mercury in fish, etc. I'm not sure which message will have the most resonance, but I'm sure that there is so way of talking about the environment that makes it an asset, not a liability.

Then there is the issue of corruption in the Republican Party. I'm sure others know a lot more about the specifics of Pombo's corruption. It has a bipartisan appeal, especially when everyone can see how bad Tom Delay is and how closely Pombo and Delay are tied. Also, Pombo arguably has ear-marked transportation funds to help his family profit, not deal with the traffic congestion that I'm sure pisses people off. This can be framed in a way that is not about politics, but about governance. I'm sure that people in the Central Valley looked at the levees breaking in New Orleans and thought about their own precarious situation. The Democratic candidate can make use of this unease to form an argument that Pombo cannot be trusted to do what is responsible vis. infrastructure.

Lastly, I think the war in Iraq needs to be discussed. Some Republicans have already indicated that they want to withdraw troops as the war is becoming increasingly unpopular. In fact, one of the clearest differences between McNerney and Filson is their take on the war. McNerney has called for a time-table to withdraw troops, Filson has not. In this I think McNerney has staked out the position that will only grow in popularity, whereas Filson will be stuck with a position that will lose support. Furthermore, this will undercut Filson's appeal stemming from his service in the Air Force. Nobody is going to vote for Filson over Pombo based on their support for the war in Iraq. Filson has, at least up to this point, provided no contrast that would make him more attractive to those who are sympathetic to the Bush line on Iraq. So the real question is whether the fact that he's a veteran will make Filson more appealing to those not inclined to support the status quo in Iraq. I think the answer is no as long as Filson does not forcefully challenge the status quo. Essentially, being a veteran will provide Filson some cover if he wants to challenge the Bush administration, but it provides no particular cachet if he's silent on the issue. McNerney has staked out a position that will resonate with the grassroots who vote in the primary, and will likely resonate with moderates and independents who increasingly see this war as a losing proposition.


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