Caucus-building: Warm butts in seats by @BloggersRUs

Caucus-building: Warm butts in seats

by Tom Sullivan

Laura Moser, Democratic candidate for TX-07. Image from her campaign website.

This week's case of Laura Moser is illustrative of how party campaign organizations work and for whom.

The Texas Tribune reports:

The campaign arm of Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives set its sights on a surprising target Thursday: Democratic congressional hopeful Laura Moser.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee posted negative research on Moser, a Houston journalist vying against six other Democrats in the March 6 primary to unseat Republican U.S. Rep. John Culberson. Democrats locally and nationally have worried that Moser is too liberal to carry a race that has emerged in recent months as one of the most competitive in the country.
Moser's campaign is gaining momentum. That plus the fact that she has raised nearly $150,000 since January 1 makes her a threat to the DCCC's preferred candidate(s). Thus, the opposition research dump by party insiders.

Be they elected officials or career political operatives, call them, well, the establishment. Political parties exist to get them reelected, to support them in electing candidates of their choosing, and to support their careers in and out of elective office, whether in Washington or in state capitals.

More than a few friends still stinging from the 2016 Democratic primary seem convinced that what's needed to change the culture of the Democratic Party is some kind of revolution involving wholesale replacement of top-tier operatives. The Democratic National Committee comes in for special ire, but this comes noticeably from people who have a slim grasp on how party politics actually works.

Swapping out the entire top tier is unlikely to happen and unlikely to change things. Because much of what people object to about party politics is not a function of particularly flawed people holding top jobs. The problem is structural.

Understand, with few exceptions the political judgments made by people who have chosen politics as a career are colored by their need to remain steadily employed. This includes not just consultants and other political operatives, but elected officials as well.

Call it a culture of incumbency.

Something else new activists often fail to grasp is how little leeway the state and national party organizations have in setting their own agendas and spending their own monies.

Their location in the national or state capitols and down the street from the legislative buildings means their organizational priorities are dominated by the priorities of the campaign arms of their legislative caucuses and top elected officials with whom they regularly interact.

The Democratic National Committee, for example, is not the One Ring that rules them all. The DCCC recruits and supports candidates for the U.S. House. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) does the same for the U.S. Senate. A recent memo from the DCCC spelled it out, "The Committee is not an affiliate of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), and does not receive regular funding from that organization." That will come as a surprise to many new activists. State-level counterparts operate the same way for both Republicans and Democrats. Their priorities are structural, not a function of who leads them.

Party-building is a tertiary concern of the caucuses' campaign arms. Their primary focus is caucus-building: putting warm butts in seats on their party's side of the aisle. Now. This election. The candidates Democratic campaign organizations support is built upon that prime directive and premised (if that) on the notion that if you elect more Democrats, you will build the party. Grassroots activists come at elections from the opposite direction.

State parties and the DNC have structural obligations that mean much of what they do each year is raising money to pay salaries, keep the lights on, update the required legal paperwork, and to fulfill the party's statutory role in general elections. They have limited budgets and bandwidth for anything else. The best state parties do is give counties some instruction in precinct organization and party mechanics. They give them VoteBuilder logons, teach them to pull poorly targeted voter lists, then pat them on the head and send them on their way. Next year there will be a new crop of activists to run through the same basic training.

Building the brand is not in the mission statement. Advanced training is a luxury for which there is never time or money. If there were more money, it would go towards reelecting incumbents and increasing the head count in the caucuses. Don't dare suggest otherwise.

As DNC chair, Howard Dean wanted to deploy funds for party-building in places the Democratic Party had not been in 25 years. Dean wanted to pursue a long-term strategy for rebuilding a national party. The pushback Dean got from Beltway insiders and the consultant-ocracy was intense.

In my state, a former state party chair suggested disbursing to county committees some monies collected from the state's (now defunct) tax check-off fund for political parties. Top-tier electeds were furious. "Their" money would be wasted on county parties with no plans for spending it wisely or effectively, not as they would on their campaigns, targeted races, and pet consultants.

James Thompson, a congressional candidate in Kansas who barely lost a 2017 special election, is again running for a seat in Wichita in 2018. He told The Intercept last month:
... the DCCC is specific about why it wants candidates to raise money. “They want you to spend a certain amount of money on consultants, and it’s their list of consultants you have to choose from,” he said. Those consultants tend to be DCCC veterans.
The DCCC, the DSCC, and their state-based counterparts are looking to back winners. Winners listen to their advice and hire professionals, former colleagues insiders have on speed-dial. What voters on the ground want and how well candidates represent the Democrat brand and progressive values is secondary. Building the caucus comes first. Warm butts in seats.

Laura Moser, whatever her merits as a candidate, is not party insiders' idea of a winner. Should she win her primary, she can expect no help from House Democrats' campaign arm.

The Intercept adds:
But in 2006, the last time Democrats were washed into the House on a blue wave, the DCCC also worked against a handful of candidates it believed couldn’t win the general election. When they won their primaries, the DCCC walked away, declaring the races un-winnable.

They won anyway.
Caucus-building doesn't get people off their couches and down to the polls. It is not especially inspirational for activists wanting to change the course of local and national politics and make government work more for people again. But caucus-building is not a Democratic establishment thing per se. It is cultural. And not unique to the Democratic Party.

That culture won't be changed with revolution or by swapping out players at the top. The same short-term imperative behind focusing on a few "winnable" races will drive anyone running the caucuses' campaign arms so long as caucuses have campaign arms.

But power at the top might be offset by building power at the grassroots independent of control structures in the capitols whose focus is themselves. After all, that is what Dean wanted to facilitate and what power players found so threatening.

Find a free tool below for building local power.

Update: Revised to indicate the DCCC supports candidates for the U.S. House, not the whole Congress.

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Request a copy of For The Win, my county-level election mechanics primer, at tom.bluecentury at gmail.