Political Animal

Elections Are More Complicated Than National Trends Indicate

I’d like to dig a little deeper into the idea that “all politics is local” and, assuming a point of personal privilege, apply it to a couple of congressional races in my home state of Minnesota. I hope that these examples can shed some light on the idea that the urban, suburban, and rural divide is much more complicated than is often recognized.

One of the Minnesota takes I’m seeing pretty regularly is represented by this article from Steve Karnowski.

For all the talk of a blue wave sweeping Democrats back into the House majority this fall, their efforts could be thwarted in one of the nation’s bluest states.

Voters in the sprawling farm country south of Minneapolis and in the economically struggling Iron Range along the Canadian border give Republicans in those two congressional districts perhaps their best chance anywhere for flipping Democratic seats. Democrats need to pick up 23 seats in November to retake the House, but the odds grow long if they lose districts they currently hold.

Democratic incumbents in both Minnesota districts are leaving office, and the races to replace them are widely rated as tossups. President Donald Trump carried both by about 15 points in 2016, even as Hillary Clinton narrowly won Minnesota.

The congressional districts he’s talking about are the 1st along the southern border with Iowa and the 8th in the upper northeast region of the state. Both are predominantly rural areas. Since they were won “bigly” by Donald Trump in 2016, they’re definitely in play for Republicans.

Tuesday’s primaries finalized the candidates who will run in each district. In the 1st, Democrat Dan Feehan will face Republican Jim Hagdorn. Feehan has a pretty impressive biography.

What you should know about Jim Hagdorn is that this is the fourth time he has run for that seat, and even the conservative Washington Examiner called him “the worst Republican candidate in America.”

He has the political acumen of Rick Saccone and the misogynistic mind of Blake Farenthold, combined with the winning track record of the pre-2016 Chicago Cubs. He is Jim Hagedorn, the worst midterm candidate in America and, more than likely, the reason Republicans will lose Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District along with their majority in the House of Representatives…

A prolific conservative blogger while a U.S. Treasury Department employee, his Internet archive is full of the locker room talk that even the recently resigned Blake Farenthold wouldn’t find funny. Ahead of the 2002 midterm elections, Hagedorn called Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., “undeserving bimbos in tennis shoes.” During the confirmation hearings of Harriet Miers in 2005, Hagedorn described her Supreme Court nomination as an effort “to fill the bra of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.” Throughout the 2008 presidential election, Hagedorn complimented the Republican ticket, writing, “On behalf of all red-blooded American men: THANK YOU SENATOR McCAIN, SARAH’S HOT!”

In past years, Mother Jones and the Minnesota Star Tribune collected and archived the blog posts that Hagedorn hasn’t scrubbed from the Internet already. Those include conspiracy theories about the birthplace of former President Barack Obama and ruminations about “ungrateful” and “dead Indians.”

It’s true that Trump won this district by about 15 points, but in Tuesday’s primary, 40 percent of Republicans voted for someone other than Hagdorn. Perhaps the description up above gives you an idea why that happened.

It’s also important to keep in mind that, while the 1st congressional district is primarily rural, it also includes the city of Rochester, which is home to the Mayo Clinic. In a lot of ways, that part of the district has more in common with suburban areas because of its concentration of highly educated voters. I expect this race will be more about the personalities of the two candidates than the issues they talk about.

Republicans in the 8th district did a much better job of choosing a candidate. Pete Stauber is a former professional hockey player and retired police officer, which will play really well in rural Minnesota. He will face Joe Radinovich, who was a state legislator for two years and served as campaign manager for Rick Nolan. In other words, he doesn’t have much of a career to run on, especially outside politics.

But unlike the 1st, there is one over-riding issue in this district that is huge. The 8th includes the “Iron Range” that runs to the east of Lake Superior. Miners there have been hit hard economically, just like much of the manufacturing base across the country. The hottest issue in that part of the country has to do with opening up new mines in an area environmentalists say could damage the much-beloved Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area, which is the home of 1,100 of Minnesota’s famed 10,000 lakes. The area includes “more than a million acres of pristine waters and unspoiled woodlands … interspersed with canyons, steep cliffs and huge rock formations shaped by glaciers during the last ice age.”

This is the classic battle between resource extraction and recreation that is playing out all over the country, but primarily in western states. Just as there are significant interests on the part of miners for these jobs, there is a huge industry around the Boundary Waters that is dependent on recreation, not to mention that it ties with the Mall of America as Minnesota’s #1 tourist attraction.

Stauber has been unequivocal about where he stands.

Radinovich beat several candidates in the primary who ran against the mining of copper and nickel near the Boundary Waters. But he didn’t take a terribly strong stand—basically suggesting that mining should go forward with proper safeguards in place. So Democrats have a candidate with a weak resume and an electorate that is split on a major issue.

What we have with these two congressional districts is that, in one, personalities will be front and center, while in the other, an issue that is unique to the area will be the focus of attention. If I had any money, I’d bet on Democrat Dan Feehan winning in the 1st and Republican Peter Stauber in the 8th. While national trends are important, ultimately, all politics is local.

Meanwhile, there are two suburban districts in Minnesota that are considered toss-ups and could very well flip from red to blue—the 2nd and the 3rd. If that happened and my aforementioned predictions come true, this state would be a +1 in the 23 seats Democrats need to be in the majority. Check back on election night and see how I did.

My Faith is in Nemesis

In my political writing, I very rarely find much use for my study of Ancient Greek language or philosophy, but lately I’ve been thinking more and more about Nemesis, the “goddess of indignation” who exacted retribution for foul acts and brought down to size anyone enjoying an undeserved good fortune. Another culture might call this karma or “just deserts.” The Book of Proverbs says, “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” I think every culture knows the feeling that someone deserves a good comeuppance. Indignation is a universal emotion.

The Greeks had a word that we now use for prideful and haughty spirits: hubris. Those filled with hubris are arrogant, conceited, overconfident and ultimately blind to the true human condition. The original use of the word hubris was related but different. Here’s how Aristotle defined it:

To cause shame to the victim, not in order that anything may happen to you, nor because anything has happened to you, but merely for your own gratification. Hubris is not the requital of past injuries; this is revenge. As for the pleasure in hubris, its cause is this: men think that by ill-treating others they make their own superiority the greater.

In this sense, hubris wasn’t a condition but a specific act (and criminal charge). It could be mocking a man after you’ve beaten him down. It could be sexually assaulting someone just to humiliate them. It could be giving a less powerful person a demeaning nickname and joking at their expense on Twitter. It really describes the pleasure a sadist gets out of being sadistic.

The antidote for this kind of bully is Nemesis.

But Nemesis is more satisfying when someone who richly deserves it has already experienced their fall. That’s when the goddess seems to be active in the world and doing her job. When someone emerges on the world stage and collects immense power and commits one egregious act after another with seeming impunity, that’s a direct challenge to faith in Nemesis.

Donald Trump has had a long stretch of impunity and it’s causing a huge spike in indignation. That’s why I don’t think of him as the tragic hero whose downfall evokes pity. King Oedipus had no way of knowing that he’d killed his father and married his mother so the Gods’ wrath seemed something less than just. Trump knows exactly what he’s done wrong and he’s tempted fate for so long that he might just sense that his luck will run out. I think of him more as Narcissus:

One day Narcissus was walking in the woods when Echo, an Oread (mountain nymph) saw him, fell deeply in love, and followed him. Narcissus sensed he was being followed and shouted “Who’s there?”. Echo repeated “Who’s there?” She eventually revealed her identity and attempted to embrace him. He stepped away and told her to leave him alone. She was heartbroken and spent the rest of her life in lonely glens until nothing but an echo sound remained of her. Nemesis (as an aspect of Aphrodite), the goddess of revenge, learned of this story and decided to punish Narcissus. She lured him to a pool where he saw his own reflection. He did not realize it was only an image and fell in love with it. He eventually realized that his love could not be reciprocated and he melted away from the fire of passion burning inside him, eventually turning into a gold and white flower.

This seems appropriate not just because Trump appears to suffer from some narcissistic personality disorder but because he seems fated to die a political death born of tragic sins of character: the seeds of his eventual downfall were instrumental in his initial successes. And, like Oedipus and like Narcissus, one of these flaws is a distorted and incomplete picture of reality.

Think of how Trump continually incriminates himself in statements and tweets. What is that if not a false sense of impunity? How is that not an example of the (modern usage of) hubris?

But maybe Frank Bruni is onto something with his take:

The genre usually invoked to describe [Trump’s] presidency is reality television. Science fiction is more apt. He’s an entity whose components split off to form independent existences that now threaten to undo him. His hunger for attention became Rudy Giuliani; his thirst for pomp, Scott Pruitt; his taste for provocation, Avenatti; his talent for duplicity, Manigault Newman. They’re an army of emulators, adding up to Trump. And they’re on the march.

That take reminds of the old standard Me & My Uncle, the song played more than any other by the Grateful Dead:

My uncle starts winning, the cowboys got sore,
One of them called him, and then two more,
Accused him of cheatin’, oh no it couldn’t be,
I know my uncle he’s as honest as me,
And I’m as honest as a Denver man can be.

One of them cowboys he starts to draw,
And I shot him down, Lord, he never saw,
Shot me another, right then he hit the floor,
In the confusion, my uncle grabbed the gold,
And we hightailed it down to Mexico.

Now I love those cowboys, I love their gold,
Love my uncle, God rest his soul,
Taught me good, Lord, taught me all I know,
Taught me so well, that I grabbed that gold, and
I left his dead ass there by the side of the road

I can picture Michael Cohen or Omarosa Manigault Newman singing that song: “Trump taught me so well that I grabbed the gold and left his dead ass there by the side of the road.” To me, it would sound like an Ode to Nemesis.

I write a lot about the justice I expect Trump to face, and I’m met every time with skepticism that he’ll ever be held accountable. I confess to having a bit of an Ancient Greek worldview on things. Show me the prologue and parode and I’ll show you the stasimon and exode. In other words, I’ve seen this play before and it doesn’t end well for the protagonist.

But, you know, the man from Denver gets away with his uncle’s gold. There is never perfect justice and justice isn’t guaranteed. It’s just that we all need to have some faith in something. My faith is in Nemesis.

Whatever Happened to ‘All Politics is Local?’

Articles like this one in the New York Times by Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Nicholas Fandos are one of the main reasons why I decided to start writing about politics. Before that, I’d find myself screaming at my computer screen in frustration at the lack of insight and grounding in history. 

Here is the basic claim made by Stolberg and Fandos:

House Democrats, looking to wrest control of the chamber from Republicans in November, are discarding the lessons of successful midterms past and pressing only a bare-bones national agenda, leaving it to candidates to tailor their own messages to their districts.

It is a risky strategy, essentially putting off answering one of the most immediate questions facing the Democratic Party after its losses in 2016: What does it stand for?

By way of  context, here is how they describe the current situation for Democrats:

…with anti-Washington sentiment simmering; a deep divide between the party’s moderates and its left flank; and the brand of the party’s longtime leader, Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, toxic in large sections of the country, they have concluded that a unified campaign framework emanating from Capitol Hill would do more harm than good.

What they’ve done is buy into the myth of “Democrats in disarray” and the fact that Republicans are going all-in on demonizing the closest thing to a national leader the party has right now, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. That is the basis for their conclusion that Democrats haven’t come together on a unified campaign framework. They go on to describe how that means that the party has abandoned lessons from successful midterms past.

For at least the past 20 years, whenever a party has won control of the House, it has done so with some kind of unifying message or pitch. In 1994, Republicans ran and won on their “Contract With America,” a 10-point legislative plan. In 2006, Democrats flipped the House with a legislative platform they called “Six for ’06.”

That is one of the most ahistorical pieces of analysis I’ve ever read. It is true that in 1994 Republicans were able to nationalize the midterm elections with their “Contract with America.” Not much of it was ever actually enacted, other than congressional reforms that Paul Glastris and Haley Sweetland Edwards called “The Big Lobotomy.”

But raise your hand if you remember the “Six for ’06” that they assume was so central to Democrats flipping the house in 2006. Even a political junkie like me didn’t pay much attention to that one in the midst of Republican debacles like Katrina and the war in Iraq. Here’s how McClatchy reporters described it at the time:

The Democrats’ version [of the Contract with America] this year – “A New Direction for America/Six for ‘06” – is one page long. It lists six fairly general goals – and raises as many questions as answers.

The most glaring problem with that statement from Stolberg and Fandos is in its omission. They didn’t even mention the most recent example of a party winning control of the house—which happened in 2010. The only unifying agenda I remember from Republicans that year was that they all hated President Obama, wanted to get rid of the Affordable Care Act, and embraced Tea Party slogans like “Don’t tread on me.” One can only assume that if Democrats were running a similar campaign this year, these same reporters would be complaining that they didn’t have any governing agenda at all.

It seems as though the problem for Stolberg and Fandos is that they don’t like the agenda that Democrats say unites their candidates—lowering health care and prescription drug costs, increasing worker pay, and cleaning up corruption—which they call anodyne. Given that the test for whether or not an item made it into the Republican’s “Contract with America” was that it needed to garner at least 60 percent support among voters, that document was hardly risky.

Much of this piece is devoted to describing a few Democratic candidates that Stolberg and Fandos followed recently. In Texas, Colin Allred is promising to be a changemaker. Torres Small is talking to New Mexicans about preserving the national monuments that Trump wants to shrink. Jared Golden is promising the voters of Maine that he will protect Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. In other words, they are emphasizing messages that have always been important to Democrats and are particularly salient in their districts. That seems to pose a problem to these New York Times reporters, who are convinced that what Democrats need for these midterms is a catchy slogan. How about this one from Rep. Tip O’Neill: “All politics is local.”

Rolling the Dice on Ironstache

For the most part, Democratic voters have done a good job weeding out candidates who might have difficulty winning a general election due to poor ideological fit or lack of credentials or problematic pasts or just plain kookiness. In Paul Ryan’s district last night, Democratic primary voters took a big chance on working class hero and ironworker Randy ‘Ironstache’ Bryce.

His opponent, teacher and Janesville School Board member Cathy Myers, argued throughout the campaign that Bryce would be unelectable. Near the end, she ran an attack ad that summarized her case:

Bryce became a viral video star, and a magnet for national small-donor progressive cash, after his dramatic launch video that played up his union laborer bona fides. Myers is now trying to sound an alarm, arguing that his checkered past will make him unelectable come November.

But Myers’ spot “Contrast” this isn’t your usual attack ad, with sinister music and an ominous-sounding narrator. Instead, it nestles a vicious attack on Bryce around an uplifting ode to single motherhood.

The ad is narrated by a single mom with purple hair, who begins by saying, “being a single mom is definitely a lot to juggle, but at the end of the day, seeing my kids succeed is very rewarding.”

She shares her initial interest in Bryce, “This election is really important to me. When I heard about Randy Bryce, I wanted to know more.”

The ad offers a quick sample of the effusive national TV coverage Bryce has received, before shifting tone. “But what I learned shocked me,” says the mom.

The mom delivers the first blow. “At the same time Randy Bryce was buying Twitter followers and giving over $8000 to his own political campaigns, he was failing to pay thousands of dollars in child support and old debts.”

The next comes from TV news reports that dug up his arrest record, which includes an arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol in 1998. One news report includes Bryce’s apology, as well as the first words we hear from Myers: “The problem with that is that it’s going to be exploited by the Republicans.”

The single mom returns to say: “My family cannot afford to lose this election, and I can’t vote for Randy when there’s a candidate like Cathy Myers.”

Ms. Myers was correct about the Republicans exploiting his history of arrests, including one for driving under the influence of alcohol.

Republicans are out with a brutal radio ad targeting Wisconsin congressional candidate Randy Bryce (D):

DISPATCH: “Squad Car 5-8-0. We have reports of a swerving vehicle. Do you read?”

POLICE OFFICER: “This is Squad Car 5-8-0. We’re on the scene. We have a drunk driver in custody.”

DISPATCH: “Can we get an ID on him?”

POLICE OFFICER: “Yeah, his name is Randy Bryce. Repeat offender.”

NARRATOR: “Randy Bryce has been arrested nine times. Driving while under the influence. Driving on a suspended license. Drug possession. Property Damage. Theft. Randy Bryce has been arrested nine times.”

NARRATOR: “Nine arrests? Randy Bryce has no business making the laws. He’s spent his life breaking the law.”

I think that’s a pretty devastating advertisement and no one can say it wasn’t predicted. Not that fairness has anything to do with it, but the nine arrests sound significantly worse when lacking any context. Most of the arrests stem from Bryce failing to act responsibly following the initial drunk driving arrest in 1998. He failed to appear in court and a warrant was issued. Then he was nailed three times for driving under a suspended license and failed to turn up in court again after one of those. In total, six of his arrests stemmed from his DUI. One arrest occurred all the way back in 1991, on Bryce’s 27th birthday, when he got popped for “marijuana possession, property damage, trespassing, and theft.” The more serious of those charges were dropped. The only time Bryce has been arrested in the last fifteen years is for protesting Speaker Paul Ryan and Senator Ron Johnson.

The Republicans have every right to question whether Randy Bryce has any business making laws after getting arrested nine times, but it’s a significant distortion to say he’s “spent his life breaking the law.” Democratic voters had the opportunity to choose someone else and avoid the annoyance and difficulty of trying to contextualize Randy Bryce’s criminal record. They can make the points I made above and suggest that these arrests weren’t violent in nature and occurred a long time ago, but that doesn’t mean they can overcome the Republican attacks.

And they’ll attack more than his arrests:

While Bryce has raised millions from a viral video his campaign has been dogged by stories of past actions and legal troubles. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, in 2002, Bryce borrowed and failed to pay back $1,776 from his then-girlfriend for a car. A court ordered a lien against Bryce in 2004, but only once he was a candidate was the debt paid, by Democratic Party lawyer Jeremy Levinson. Then, in 2015 according to the New York Times and Bryce’s own admissions, he paid for fake Twitter followers while, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel failing to pay his court-ordered child support. Again this debt to his ex-wife was paid upon entering the race for Congress.

Unless the Republicans completely fail at their job (and they don’t appear to be doing so), Bryce will spend the entire campaign on his heels trying to explain why he should represent his community in Congress after compiling this less-than-exemplary record.

And that’s a shame because yesterday (with 98% of precincts reporting) there were more Democrats at the polls (59,379) in Paul Ryan’s district than Republicans (58,549). That suggests that this is a winnable seat for a Democrat who isn’t beset from the start with a difficult history that requires rationalization.

It’s notable that Bryce’s opponent, Bryan Steil, doesn’t mention his work as a Paul Ryan staffer on his campaign website. Apparently, that wasn’t considered an asset in a Republican primary in Paul Ryan’s district. That’s an indication of how vulnerable this seat has become. I’m not sure that things have deteriorated so badly for Ryan at home that Bryce can successfully attack Steil for having worked for Ryan, but it’s probably worth a try. Certainly he will make class an issue. When Steil announced his candidacy, Bryce’s spokeswoman responded, “It’s hard to think of anyone less in touch with the struggles facing working families than a third-generation corporate attorney from a politically connected family.”

Bryce has an inspirational story to tell, including military service, a successful battle against testicular cancer that bankrupted him, and his resurrection through the dignity and opportunity of a union job. In some ways, his past difficulties can be recast as part of this phoenix-like recovery, and his scuffles with the law, health problems and his past financial hardship give him a certain working class authenticity that contrasts well with his opponent’s life of privilege.

That’s going to have to be the strategy, anyway, but things would probably have been easier for the Democrats if they’d gone with a teacher and school board member with a clean record and a history of local leadership.

Congress could use more people from both of these walks of life, and I’m certain they are not suffering from a deficit of former staffers. The Democrats of Janesville rolled the dice on Ironstache. Now we’ll see if their faith in Bryce will be rewarded.