Political Animal

How Democrats Are ‘Owning the Cons’

At a Trump campaign rally in Macon, Georgia on Friday, Sen. David Perdue made a joke about mispronouncing the name of the Democratic nominee for vice-president, Sen. Kamala Harris. That the Georgia Republican can’t (or won’t) accurately pronounce the name of a colleague with whom he has served on the Budget Committee for almost four years reverberated mightily. It was an obvious racist dog whistle to the MAGA crowd. 

But that isn’t the end of the story. A video of Perdue’s comments went viral, sparking the Twitter hashtag #MyNameIs, populated primarily by individuals who have been mocked and bullied because of their names. As a result, Perdue’s Democratic opponent in the U.S.Senate race, Jon Ossoff, had raised almost $2 million from at least 42,000 donors by Sunday. 

At Politico, James Larkin and Elena Schneider explain that, in the midst of a giant wave of Democratic fundraising for 2020 candidates, this is an ongoing phenomenon. They quote Josh Holmes, a McConnell advisor, who lamented that every news development activates Democrats, and “their default is to give $5 every time something angers them.” Conversely, when Republicans see something that angers them, “their response is to write something on Facebook.” 

We’ve seen the Democratic donor base get activated before. When Majority Leader McConnell promised to rush through a Supreme Court nominee just hours after the announcement of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, Democrats responded by donating $160 million, primarily to Senate candidates.

The surge in donations isn’t always sparked by anger. In the four hours after Biden announced that Kamala Harris would be his running mate, the former vice president’s campaign raised more than $10.8 million.

This kind of response from Democrats is made possible because, back in 2004, a couple of techies named Matt DeBergalis and Ben Rahn created an online fundraising tool called “ActBlue.” Their goal in the 2008 election cycle was to raise $100 million. The site has raised $1.5 billion in just the last three months. That is why, during the third quarter, Democrats running for the Senate raised $401 million, while Republican candidates only took in $163 million. 

One of the most entertaining things to watch on Twitter has been the banter between Senators Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.)—both of whom have become masters of social media. They regularly launch fundraising drives on behalf of a Democratic Senate candidate. Here’s how their latest effort began on Sunday.

They chose MJ Hegar, who is challenging  John Cornyn, the incumbent Texas Republican, for his U.S. Senate seat. Before long, they were joined in the fundraising push by a cavalcade of Democratic all-stars, including Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker, Julian Castro, Adam Schiff, and Ted Lieu. Less than 24 hours later, they had raised almost $300,000 from 8,600 donors. Twitter supplied the social media platform, and ActBlue provided the fundraising tool. That’s a far cry from how big-donor fundraising is done behind closed doors with bundlers and costly fundraisers.

Realizing that they were at a disadvantage, Republicans developed an online fundraising platform in 2019 called WinRed, but it is not nearly the fundraising machine that is ActBlue. In the third quarter of 2020, when ActBlue raised $1.5 billion, WinRed topped out at $623.5 million. Former Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), a moderate who lost his seat in 2018,  explained that many of his colleagues have assumed that “95 percent of the money you would raise would be from large donors, political action committees.” As a result, they haven’t developed the kind of grassroots contacts required to do small-donor fundraising. It is also, of course, hard to imagine Republican Senators Ted Cruz and Rick Scott teaming up on Twitter to raise money for their colleague Sen. Dan Sullivan, the Alaska Republican who is struggling to get reelected.  

But perhaps the biggest obstacle Republicans face in replicating the Democrats’ success at small-donor fundraising is that, especially in the era of Donald Trump, their supporters think that winning is all about “owning the libs.” Just like their leader, they assume that a brutal attack on Twitter or Facebook is the end-goal because it feeds their emotional need for revenge. That’s a loser mentality that goes a long way towards explaining how Democrats are “owning the cons.”

This Democrat Can Win the Seat Once Held By Tom DeLay and Ron Paul

One year ago, Rep. Cheri Bustos, Chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, declared that “Texas is ground zero in 2020.” The Illinois congresswoman was referring to the five House Republicans who had announced their retirement following narrow wins in 2018, a phenomenon that became known as “Texodus.” As a result, Democrats targeted their districts to flip in 2020.

The forecast model at FiveThirtyEight gives Democrats a 95 in 100 chance of maintaining control of the House, which is why, when it comes to Congressional elections, most of the attention has been on whether Republicans can hold onto their Senate majority. However, the comments from Bustos indicate that Democrats are actually working on adding members to their ranks in the House—and the one state where that is likely to happen, interestingly enough, is Texas.

One of the districts targeted by Democrats is Texas’s 22nd, which covers the south and southwestern suburbs of Houston. From the late 70s to the mid-80s, the district chose Libertarian Ron Paul to represent them. When he decided to run for the Senate in 1985, Tom DeLay was elected and eventually became the Majority Leader. In 2008, when DeLay resigned due to his involvement in the Jack Abramoff campaign finance scandal, Republican Pete Olson was elected to represent the district and has held the seat since then. That explains why the Cook Political Report rates this district as R+10. 

Olson announced his retirement in July 2019 with the usual bromide about wanting to spend more time with his family. But that came after reelection in 2018, where he won by only five points, after cruising to victory by 20-30 points in previous elections. What is happening in Texas’s 22nd congressional district encapsulates what is going wrong for Republicans in the Lonestar State. 

Fort Bend County is at the heart of the 22nd district and ranks 10th on the list of fastest-growing counties in the country, doubling its population since 2000. With that growth has come diversity. Non-Hispanic whites make up 32 percent of residents of Fort Bend County, while Hispanics make up about 25 percent, and African Americans 22 percent. Asian Americans are actually the fastest-growing demographic group in Texas and make up about 20 percent of Fort Bend County residents. 

According to an analysis from Wall St. 24/7, a financial news and commentary site, Fort Bend is the wealthiest county in Texas, with a median household income of $93,645. Approximately 46 percent of its residents have at least a bachelor’s degree. 

What we have then, in the 22nd district, is a suburban community in a major metropolitan area with a soaring population that is increasingly diverse, wealthy, and college-educated. As Robert Draper wrote in Texas Monthly, that is why “the GOP is facing a historical reckoning.” 

What has kept Republicans in power is a dominant hold on a proportionately shrinking demographic: non-Hispanic white voters. Yet even that grip has become tenuous, for two reasons. First, the state GOP has maximized its rural turnout—there are few if any voters left to get. Second, and more important, the party is now struggling in the suburbs.

As David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report told Draper, “Even more than the robust growth in eligible Hispanic, Black, and Asian American voters, the bigger driver of change in Texas is the migration [in the political views] of professional whites in the suburbs, particularly women.”

The Republican candidate in Texas’s 22nd district is Fort Bend Sheriff Troy Nehls. During a primary against 14 other Republicans, he declared that he would “stand with President Trump to defeat the socialist Democrats, build the wall, drain the swamp, and deliver on pro-economy and pro-America policies.” But two days after he became the nominee, the “Standing with President Trump” page on his web site was removed. Now Nehls runs as a moderate committed to protecting energy jobs and criminal justice reform. 

Sri Preston Kulkarni, the Democrat, left his career in the U.S. Foreign Service to run for Congress. His father is an Indian American who taught creative writing at Rice University. His mother, who worked at Exxon as a systems analyst, is a direct descendant of Sam Houston’s grandfather. 

Kulkarni is running on a platform to expand the Affordable Care Act, invest in renewable energy sources, and pass common-sense gun safety measures. But what makes his candidacy unique is that he is reaching out to voters in 27 different languages. Kulkarni himself speaks six fluently, including Hindi, Chinese, and Spanish. The candidate says that “72 percent of the [Asian-American voters] we reached out to had never been called by either a Republican or a Democrat—and they’re the fastest-growing group in Texas.”

The race in Texas’s 22nd congressional district is listed as a toss-up by the Cook Political Report. But with the election just days away, Kulkarni has a massive advantage over Nehls in fundraising. According to Open Secrets, the Democrat has raised $4.5 million to the Republican’s $1.3 million.

Something is going on in Texas. The state has typically had abysmal voter turnout rates. As of Sunday, over 4 million Texans have already voted. According to Dan Solomon at Texas Monthly, “the counties that have seen the biggest spike in turnout are suburban ones with populations of less than a million.” Fort Bend County in the 22nd district fits that description perfectly. 

This is a race to watch. It is possible that a Democrat could win the seat once occupied by Ron Paul and Tom DeLay. There is no better example of the dramatic change underway in Texas.

Third Party Candidates Could Determine Control of the Senate

Did Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein cost Hillary Clinton the 2016 election? We can’t know for sure because so many factors could have led to her defeat. But it’s certainly plausible that this third-party bid delivered us four years of Donald Trump. The wound is still raw: Trump won the Electoral College buoyed by three traditionally Democratic states—Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania—which he won by a mere 78,000 votes. If every Stein voter in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin had cast a vote for Clinton, Trump would have lost.

It’s hard to imagine a third-party candidacy derailing Joe Biden, although it’s remotely possible if the race tightens. Unlike 2016, Democrats have aggressively exploited legal technicalities to keep Green Party candidates—many of whom have been helped by the GOP–off the ballot in pivotal states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. While the Libertarian Party announced in September that its presidential ticket would appear on the ballot in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., the Green Party’s candidates will do so in only 30.

The Green Party will be an option in Florida and other battleground states, such as Minnesota and Ohio, drawing at least some Biden votes. But this year’s Green Party ticket of Howie Hawkins and Angela Walker—have you heard of them?—seems less likely to tip the scales than Stein’s did.

Third-Party candidates’ real effect could be in the U.S. Senate, where Republicans control the chamber 53-47. Democrats wresting it from them could come down to two states, South Carolina and Georgia, where third-party voting could prove pivotal.

If you have any doubt about that, look at Jaime Harrison, the Democratic nominee in South Carolina challenging three-term incumbent Sen. Lindsey Graham. This month, Harrison began running ads that touted a far-right Third-Party conservative candidate to peel votes away from Graham. It’s a jarring and, some might say, brilliant gambit. The ad touts the Constitution Party’s Bill Bledsoe in a manner designed to pet the erogenous zones of conservatives. It notes that Bledsoe has “always supported Donald Trump” (unlike Graham) and is a fervent supporter of gun rights. It also states that Bledsoe is “on the ballot,” which is technically correct. Even though Bledsoe dropped out of the race on October 1, he did so after the deadline had passed to have his name removed from the ballot, and he didn’t bother to submit the paperwork to get that done. There’s even a picture in the ad showing a ballot where a Palmetto State Republican could check his name. If the image of Harrison (an African-American Yale grad with a genial and gentle mien) seems incongruous in an ad that all but spouts a Confederate Flag, that’s because it is. (A candidate’s image is required by law at the end of a broadcast ad.)

Democrats’ efforts to cause such rifts on the other side of the ideological divide are relatively rare, and so are Republican ones, but they can work. In 2012, then Sen. Claire McCaskill, the Missouri Democrat, ran ads touting Todd Akin, a contender for the GOP nomination to challenge her, believing he’d be a weaker general election candidate. That proved to be a smart bet. Akin won his primary and then imploded in the general election following his infamous quip about abortion and “legitimate rape.”

If enough votes go to Bledsoe, it could make a decisive difference in the Harrison-Graham race, which is tight. The latest survey, taken by GBAO Strategies from September 23 to September 28, has Harrison beating Graham 48 percent to 47, with Bledsoe pulling a potentially game-changing three percent.

Bledsoe is a character, the kind who Harrison can exploit. A veterinarian from Spartanburg, Bledsoe ran for the South Carolina’s other U.S. Senate seat in 2018 on both the Constitution Party and Libertarian Party lines. He got just 2 percent but demonstrated a flair for attracting cameras–even brandishing a Revolutionary War-era musket to show he was the staunchest opponent of gun restrictions. But incumbent Tim Scott won that race by 23 points, so Bledsoe’s single-digit showing meant nothing to the outcome of the race. By contrast, Harrison can win buoyed by a charismatic style, Graham fatigue, astronomical fundraising, and, perhaps, leveraging Bledsoe’s name. Not surprisingly, Graham welcomed Bledsoe’s endorsement with the same kind of obsequiousness he’s shown President Trump since the days when the former Air Force lawyer called Candidate Trump “crazy” and “a religious bigot” among other epithets.

Georgia is another state where a Third-Party candidate could make a real difference. Georgia has two Senate elections this year. In one, which features numerous Democrats and Republicans vying to fill the seat of retired GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson, don’t look for Third-Party candidates to play much of a role. It’s the contest between incumbent Republican Sen. David Purdue and Democrat Jon Ossoff, where the GOP and Democrats are concerned about Third-Party voters’ potential impact.

The latest public survey, conducted by Public Policy Polling on October 8-9, has Ossoff, who lost a much-publicized bid for Congress in 2018, leading 44-43 percent. The Libertarian Party candidate, Marine Corp veteran Shane Hazel, clocks in at four percent. A Landmark Communications poll conducted exclusively on October 7 shows Perdue ahead 47-46, with Hazel at two.

Carrying a legacy from the Jim Crow era, Georgia, like a few other states, including Louisiana, requires a runoff election if no candidate reaches a certain threshold. Georgia’s is the only one that requires a majority to avoid a runoff. In 1966, the law’s authors intended it to safeguard against a unified black vote overcoming a divided white vote.

In the Purdue-Ossoff race, this law could help Ossoff initially but perhaps not in the runoff. Since the Libertarian Party typically pulls more support from the right, Hazel’s candidacy could prevent Purdue from winning a majority and avoiding the runoff on January 5, two days after the Senate is seated. Avoiding flat-out defeat would give Ossoff a chance to contend in a runoff. But Democrats still smart from 1992 when a Libertarian’s strong showing forced a runoff between the incumbent U.S. Senator, Democrat Wyche Fowler, and his Republican challenger Paul Coverdell. Fowler lost in what was perhaps a harbinger of a very tough 1993 and 1994 for the new president-elect Bill Clinton.

Ossoff has a shot, though a distant one, at winning a majority outright. The state is trending blue. FiveThirtyEight gives Biden a 46 percent chance of winning there, and it’s telling that Trump visited Macon, Ga. last week, a once impossible-to-imagine sign of desperation for a GOP nominee late trying to hold on to a red state. With control of the Senate on the line, the November 3 contest between Perdue and Ossoff will get enormous national attention and atypically high voter participation but maybe not enough to put Ossoff over the 50 percent threshold.

Democrats haven’t historically fared well in Georgia’s runoff elections, primarily because they’re typically low-turnout affairs. And Democrats need large turnouts. They get their base excited leading up to Election Day for candidates up and down the ballot. Getting them to come back some 11 weeks later for just one race is a heavy lift. The best chance for that to happen would be if, after November 3, neither party is in firm control of the Senate and the Ossoff-Perdue runoff becomes the deciding factor.

Third parties may win less support his time around. There are no high-profile figures atop the Green Party ticket such as Ralph Nader in 2000 or Stein in 2016. There are no high-profile Libertarian nominees for president and vice-president like former Republican Governor of New Mexico, Gary Johnson, and his 2016 running mate Bill Weld, the former governor of Massachusetts. But Third Parties still have the potential to change everything in the Senate.

Like Lincoln at Gettysburg, Biden Promotes Unity in His Closing Argument

Joe Biden is running on a more progressive platform than any Democratic presidential nominee in modern history. His proposals include major investments in healthcare, climate change, housing, education, and infrastructure. For example, Biden would invest $1.7 trillion over the next ten years to achieve a 100 percent clean energy economy with net-zero emissions by 2050. 

The former vice president demonstrated his detailed knowledge of policy at the ABC News town hall forum. But his final statement on Thursday night was about optimism.

Last week, Biden delivered his own Gettysburg Address. Aides say the speech delivered near the sacred Pennsylvania battlefield was prompted by the first debate where Trump told white supremacists to “stand down and stand by.” At Gettysburg, Biden challenged such division and laid out his closing argument, drawing on Lincoln’s address more than 150 years ago. 

There’s no more fitting place than here today in Gettysburg, to talk about the cost of division....

[Abraham Lincoln] believed in the rescue, redemption, and rededication of the union. All this in a time, not just of ferocious division, but of widespread death, structural inequity, and fear of the future. And he taught us this: a house divided could not stand. That is a great and timeless truth. Today, once again, we are a house divided, but that my friends can no longer be.

Biden explained that the battle for the soul of this nation means, once again, defeating the forces of division that pull us apart and hold us back. He promised to be a president who “appeals to the best in us, not the worst.”

That message was punctuated by the release of this ad airing nationally.

To policy wonks and political junkies, that can sound saccharine. But I am reminded of what  Mark Turnbull, managing director of Cambridge Analytica, said about the battleground on which elections are fought. He noted that the big mistake political parties make is to attempt to win an argument with facts rather than a direct appeal to voters’ hopes and fears.

Of course, the specialty of Cambridge Analytica, the consulting firm that Steve Bannon worked with leading up to the 2016 election, was to exploit our fears. That is what Republicans have been doing for several election cycles. Tapping into fear engaged enough of Trump’s GOP base to eke out an electoral college victory in 2016. 

But Americans are exhausted after four years of lies, bullying, and fear-mongering. The majority of voters are disgusted by the president’s antics, which is why Biden’s lead has been growing.

Some progressives suggest that Biden is abandoning his party’s far left in search of support from moderates. They would have a point if Biden were abandoning his progressive policies. But he’s not. As he said in response to the president calling him a “radical,” Trump is “trying to run against somebody other than me. I’ve said to the left, the right, and the center exactly where I am on each of these issues.”

The policies Biden has put forward stand. But his closing argument is designed to forge a coalition of citizens who believe, as Abraham Lincoln did, in the kind of leadership that calls out “the better angels of our nature.” It is a message of hope about what is possible if, as Biden said at Gettysburg, “we do our part, if we stand together, if we keep faith with the past and with each other.”