Jon Ossoff
Credit: Jon Ossoff for Congress/YouTube

Have you ever heard of Richard Vander Veen? He’s the only Democrat since 1912 to win a seat in Congress in a Grand Rapids, Michigan-based district. He won a special election in February 1974 and then won again that November earning a full two year term. Why did he succeed where every Democrat before him and since has failed?

Well, that’s interesting.

The special election was called because Rep. Gerald Ford had been chosen to replace Spiro Agnew as the Vice-President of the United States. By February 1974, the Watergate scandal was pretty advanced and the end game was within sight. Nixon only held on until early August before he felt compelled to resign.

Locally, Gerald Ford was immensely popular. Today, the airport is named after him. So, Vander Veen really didn’t run against his opponent at all. Instead, he promised to hold Nixon accountable and make Ford the president. Holding Nixon accountable may have had some appeal to the constituents of Michigan’s 5th District, but making Ford president had a lot of appeal. His strategy worked, and when he faced the voters again in November he could point to President Ford to argue that he’d made good on his campaign promise.

Unfortunately, for Vander Veen, when he faced the electorate again in November 1976, he had to face a ticket headed by Ford. And that was the end of his short political career.

In the greater picture, western Michigan was and still is Republican territory with perhaps more churches per capita than anyplace else in the country. The Democrats had discovered a clever way to steal a seat there for a brief period, but they hadn’t found anything that would alter their position as a permanent minority party in the region.

I have a feature article in the upcoming issue of the Washington Monthly on how Democrats can improve their performance in places like Grand Rapids without compromising on their principles, and it doesn’t involve talking about how horrible Donald Trump is doing as our president. However, that doesn’t mean that talking about Trump can’t be an effective way of winning in 2018. It may help the party win seats that they wouldn’t win at any other time in a hundred years.

The problem is that having success that way can give the Democrats a false sense that they’ve solved a problem that hasn’t really disappeared. And when they face the voters again in 2020 (and let’s face it, Trump won’t be heading the Republican ticket then), the Democrats who won in red districts in 2018 will lose.

More importantly, the Democratic presidential candidate will have to do better in 2020 in these areas than Clinton did in 2016 or the results will be the same. So, it’s true, the Democrats have to take strategy seriously, and while it would be malpractice to fail to exploit Trump’s weakness, it can come with an opportunity cost.

“We need these folks up here dealing with all the investigations and all that stuff. It’s important,” Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia said during a visit to the capital on Tuesday. “But to think they’re going to drive an economic message with this blazing inferno going on today is just not realistic.”

Mr. McAuliffe was in town for a daylong “ideas conference” sponsored by the liberal research group Center for American Progress. The event was designed to showcase the next-generation leadership of the party and highlight an agenda that Democrats can run on next year.

But the gathering mostly revealed how difficult it still is for progressives to present their message while Mr. Trump is grabbing new headlines by the hour.

A raft of potential 2020 presidential candidates showed up, each armed with a policy theme in the hope of standing out. Senator Kamala Harris of California had prepared a speech on criminal justice and drug policy, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York came ready to discuss family leave law and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts brought proposals about how to combat the scourge of “concentrated money and concentrated power.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren is the one singing from my hymnal, along with Tom Perriello who is fighting in a Democratic primary to earn the right to run as Terry McAuliffe’s replacement as governor of Virginia. It’s important the Democrats win upcoming elections, but it’s also important how they win and what they learn from those wins.

Richard Vander Veen was clever and a strategic mastermind, but we don’t remember him today because the overall trend was from Watergate to the conservative conquest of the Republican Party and the beginning of the Reagan Era. The country has been aligning away from the Democrats in rural and Rust Belt America, and if that process isn’t stopped and reversed, any short term gains will come with potential dangers that provide the illusion of progress. Vander Veen won in a Republican district but the district and the region remained Republican. We don’t want to look back and say the same thing about Jon Ossoff or Rob Quist or a dozen or more others like them who have upset wins in 2018.

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Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at