Last Monday, Jake Zimmerman, the Democratic rep from Olivette in St. Louis County, spoke at the West County Dems meeting. But he had nothing of substance to say. He announced that to begin with.
He and Rachel Storch are heading the House DCCC, and, on the assumption that he was speaking to people who already understood the importance of getting Ds elected in this state, he spoke not about policy issues but about his new responsibility to be “a cynic”, to calculate coldly what moves will get the most Democrats elected to the Missouri House in 2008.
What follows is close to being a transcript of the first ten minutes of his talk, but his words and mine are so intermingled that I gave up on putting in quotation marks.
The last election showcased a grand strategic debate within the Democratic Party at the national level, and that debate is important to understand, not only for its national implications but also because the same debate is currently playing out at the state level.
The debate involves three universes of people. The first universe is represented by Nancy Pelosi and Rahm Emanuel. Their goal before the 2006 election was short term, to get the Democrats into the majority in the House. The only thing we care about, they’d have said, is immediate victory, because if we control the House, we can stop the Bush agenda and change the direction of the country.
The second universe of people is represented by Howard Dean, who was intent on building a movement for the next thirty years. With so many citizens furious at G.W., Dean said we had an historic opportunity, the best chance in a generation to get the names of people who care passionately and who will take the fight to Republicans even on their own turf in states like Mississippi and Utah.
The third universe of Democrats is represented by someone like Nancy Boyda in Kansas. She was in between the pure numbers-oriented focus of Pelosi and Emanuel and the vision of Howard Dean. She was a perceived long shot, running against a Republican incumbent who hadn’t done anything remarkably wrong. Not many figured she had much of a chance, but she was working hard anyway. She’d have said to the other two groups:
Listen to me. Give me a chance, right? I can do this. You gotta take me seriously, people. Don’t brush me off, Rahm and Nancy, just because I’m not on your list of twenty districts that look like the best possible opportunities to flip. But, Howard, don’t go wasting your money on just a bunch of field organizers here in Kansas. Send me something. Send something to my campaign. Get me some professional assistance because I can do this thing. And even if I can’t beat this guy, Jim Ryan, I can make him work his tail off. I can keep him busy in his home. I can prevent him from helping out all those other Republicans. I’m good for you in those other districts.
The tension among these three groups, common in many elections, played out particularly loudly in 2006, with a nasty public spat between Emanuel and Dean. Dean was in charge of the DNC budget, and when he announced that he was going to put field organizers in Mississippi and three people in Salt Lake City to canvass all of rural Utah, Pelosi and Emanuel went batpoop. Why, they wanted to know, are you spending millions of dollars there when you could split that money into $300,000 increments and portion it out in the top ten congressional races. That money could get you five more congressional seats. It could be the difference between a Democratic majority and a minority, the difference between whether we sustain or override Bush vetoes.
Dean’s attitude was that last year was about something bigger than just that election.
And there was Boyda saying, Don’t forget about me. If it’s really about opportunity, then don’t constrain yourself. Don’t just look at those top twenty opportunities.
A tense compromise ensued, with Dean funding the field operations as he had planned and with Pelosi and Emanuel raising astounding amounts of money just before the election. Most of that last-minute money didn’t come from the true believers because their money was already in. Oh sure, there were the last desperate appeals to the party faithful: We can do this if you’ll just send a check to …. fill in the blank. We’ve all gotten so many of those, we could write them ourselves, right?
No, the big money that poured in at the end was the cynical money from lobbyists for, say, coal companies, who suddenly realized, hey, these guys might end up being in charge. Better send them some love. And the coal company money went to fund many of the second and even third tier candidates like Boyda (who won, by the way).
That three-universe scenario that played out at the national level last year is also playing out here in Missouri for the coming election. Jake pointed out that there were examples of all three types among the people attending the West County Dems meeting.
Joe DeLuca, for example, could represent Pelosi and Emanuel. Joe, who is president of the Creve Coeur Township Democratic Club, is fighting to see that Jill Schupp gets House DCCC money in her run to keep Sam Page’s seat (district 82) in the D column. It’s an open seat with about a fifty-fifty shot at winning for each side. Dems need to hold that seat, both to show that they are competitive in the Creve Coeur part of St. Louis County, to hold this new bastion for Democrats and possibly to give themselves the incumbency advantage for the next eight years.
Susan Cunningham, the departing West County Dems president, lives in Republican territory-Franklin County–and plays the role of Howard Dean. She would say: You know what you forget about? You forget that there’s lots of good Democrats out in this ex-urban area, and the way things look now may not be the way they’ll look in five years, ten years. They’re especially likely to look different ten years down the road if you put some resources out here now. We need to build the party out here, and the way to make a change is to take advantage of the fact that people are angry with Republicans now. 2008 is the year to do it because it looks to be a great year for Democrats.
The Nancy Boyda figure locally could be Deb Lavender, who is running in Kirkwood (district 94). She’d tell the HDCCC: Don’t forget about me. I’m running against an incumbent who is a little too conservative for his district, who won reasonably well in a close election last time around, but I can do this. You didn’t take me seriously six months ago, so I went out and raised some money. And I may still have a primary, but I’m working at this, and I’m following the playbook, and I’m doing it right. Don’t forget about me.
This tension that we see at both the national and the local levels is inherent to our style of politics and to our primary and general election system. The tension is especially palpable this time around because we won’t have too many more opportunities like the magical one we had in 2006. 2008 looks like it will be great, too. All the metrics say so. But after that, we won’t have George Bush to kick around anymore. If we have Democratic majorities in D.C. and if we get the White House, some voters will become disillusioned. They’ll be saying that we elected these guys to change the world, and they only changed 30 percent of it.
So 2008 is the year to … do everything. And the question won’t be where to start; it will be: if we can’t do everything who do we give the short end of the straw to?