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Nationalizing a race, whether a state primary or a House special election, can help a campaign raise money and recruit volunteers. But history and recent results demonstrate that this strategy comes at too steep a price.
Back in 2004, nationalizing Howard Dean’s Iowa ground effort sounded like a great idea. We’d build a sense of excitement, buzz, even awe for the candidate ahead of the caucuses.
As Caucus Night approached, we were shipping people into Iowa from all over the country for GOTV. We called it the “Perfect Storm.” To make sure everyone knew we were a force, all our workers wore neon orange winter caps.
There were a lot of reasons we lost that caucus, placing third. It’s impossible to know exactly what percentage of undecided Iowa caucus goers were turned off by knocks on the door from Brooklyn, N.Y. kids in orange hats. But there was undoubtedly some negative reaction to the tactic.
Some of the good people in Iowa didn’t like the out-of-staters. To many of them, the flash of it all went against their Midwest sensibility. We didn’t lose Iowa because of orange hats, no. But if we had to do it all over again, we probably would have toned it down.
I thought of this in the aftermath of Jon Ossoff’s loss in the Georgia special election last week. There Democrats lost with an establishment moderate, but earlier this year they lost with so-called Bernie-crats Rob Quist and James Thompson.
In each of these cases, the Democrat improved greatly on previous Democratic performance in the district. It’s also fair to say that each of them fell short of expectations, given the money and attention from activists nationwide. Democrats and Bernie-crats were not looking for moral victories. They believed they could win each of those races.
Now, there’s one Democrat who lost, but far exceeded expectations, doing more, with less. Archie Parnell in South Carolina’s 5th district had almost no national attention and a relatively paltry campaign warchest -- roughly $765,000 compared with $24 million for Ossoff (by their end-of-May tallies). Yet, where Democratic nominee Fran Person lost the district 59-39 in 2016, Parnell seemingly came out of nowhere to make it a 51-48 race. Early Tuesday night, return watchers openly wondered whether this race would be a shocking upset.
The difference between Parnell, a former Goldman Sachs executive who ran a quirky campaign, and the other Democratic losers, is that Parnell didn’t have national Democrats and progressives swamping his district. There were no Bernie rallies. There were no celebs flying in, or recording ads. There were no hashtags being pushed by the DNC.
On the GOP side of the ledger, the lack of national attention deprived local Republicans of a major motivating factor. As a result, there was a 72-percent drop in Republican turnout from 2016.
Moreover, Parnell wasn’t caught in the middle of a fight between the Bernie wing and the establishment wing of the Democratic Party, as a proxy for a continuing intra-party feud that’s simmered beneath the races in Montana, Georgia, and Kansas. Democratic voters didn’t have one side or the other in their own party smearing him as being too left on this, or too right on that, dampening any enthusiasm.
The result was a campaign that was left alone to develop a message that worked in his district, and came off as genuinely his. There was no sense that Parnell was a candidate being propped up from interests in D.C., San Francisco, or Vermont, which we’ve seen gives the GOP base added motivation.
While the 2018 elections will be a lot different than these special elections, D.C. Democrats and Bernie-crats should still learn the lessons of SC-05. I can see a lot of progressives already gearing up to go all out, working for candidates like iron worker Randy Bryce, in his race against Paul Ryan.
My advice? Don’t.
Don’t make these candidates about you. Don’t make them about Democrats and the progressive movement outside of the district. Send them money and resources. But let them be their own man or woman, and run the campaign they need to run. Pack those orange winter caps away.
Eric Schmeltzer is a New York (soon-to-be Los Angeles) based political communications strategist. He previously served as a spokesman for Rep. Jerrold Nadler and Governor Howard Dean.