In the recent special election in Kansas to replace Rep. Mike Pompeo, President Trump’s pick to head the CIA, it looked like a cakewalk for the GOP. Pompeo had won the seat by 31 points in November, 2016, and Trump easily won the district. It has been called one of the safest Republican districts in the country.
The GOP ran Ron Estes, the state treasurer, a guy who had won two statewide elections in the past. The Democrats’ candidate, James Thompson, had never run for any office of any kind before. But it didn’t turn out to be a cakewalk. Democrats across the US have been energized by the election of Donald Trump, and this energy can be found at town meetings held by GOP reps across the country (at least those not afraid to hold them) or the many demonstrations in front of their offices, or in one of many protest marches. And in Kansas, there was another factor – the wild unpopularity of Governor Sam Brownback, probably the GOP governor with the worst chance of being re-elected in a solid GOP-controlled state in the country.
The GOP candidate won, but only 6.8 points, and only after a panicked GOP poured thousands of dollars and robocalls by prominent Republicans into the state. A win is still a win and a loss is still a loss, but it’s no secret to say that some loses are more meaningful than others. Whittling down the GOP margin of victory by more than 20% points in “one of the safest GOP ridings in the country” was a real lift to many Democrats across the country. Political pundits had said that if the GOP only won by single digits, it would be a problem for them.
So one has to wonder that if the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had paid more attention to the race who knows what might have happened. Its excuse for not getting more involved was, ‘well, if we paid attention to the race, it only would have hurt him,’ which is only so much horse manure. On the one hand, you might understand in the beginning that establishment Democrats were reluctant to get involved in Kansas. It’s a pretty red state. But on the other hand, the signs that something extra-ordinary was happening were seen by lots of people. But other than last-minute phone calls, the DNCC pretty much ignored what was happening. It didn’t even provide a link to Thompson’s website on its home page. And when the GOP launched wave after wave of negative ads against Thompson, he did not have the resources to respond.
If the DNCC had helped Thompson when it mattered, the result would have been even closer, or perhaps a totally unexpected victory. But the organization’s reluctance to throw its weight behind what grassroots Democrats across the country are doing, even in solid GOP districts, is a real mistake and if not corrected will come back to bite them. Right now, there is a real split in the Democrats between the Bernie Sanders “Build the party from the ground up” folks, and the Obama acolytes still running the party in DC who see the special election in Georgia 6th district as more of a target because it’s largely college-educated suburban area that they think will trend against Trump.
Yes, Georgia is promising. But here’s the problem with only that thinking way. When people work hard to make a difference, they need to see that what they do matters. They need small victories. If the Democratic establishment doesn’t help them find those small victories, they will become discouraged and stop what they are doing. They will stop coming out to town meetings and to protests. Even more important, they will stop donating money to the Democrats. Or instead donate it to the Green Party or something similar.
And the DNC can count on primary and convention fights in 2020 that will make what the GOP was afraid of happening in 2016 with Trump look like a slumber party. If the Democrat establishment does not find a way to work with what is happening at the grassroots level, they can forget about taking back the House, they will lose even more Senate seats in 2018 and will not win back the presidency in 2020.