Over the top in the Illinois 6

The Democratic Forward
March 21, 2006
Over the top in the Illinois 6
By Tim Bagwell

Contested primaries, even those for an open seat, have generally been governed by a set of rules.  First among the rules is that the party elites wait until after the primary to formally endorse, contribute and support a candidate.  The second rule is that the first rule applies doubly to party institutions and organizations.  In the Democratic primary in the Illinois 6 congressional district the party elites have turned off all the rules.  The party elites, by meddling in a primary at the eleventh hour, have unreasonably raised the stakes for election to congress.  In turning off all the rules they risk damaging, the party, congressional campaigns across the county, and their own reputations with their voters.  All these risks apply even if their candidate wins.

The Sixth District of Illinois

The Illinois 6 congressional district is located in the western suburbs of Chicago.  Most of the district is contained within DuPage County.  The district takes in part of Cook.  An important characteristic of the district is that it contains O'Hare Airport and many of its supporting industries.  DuPage has been characterized as a Republican County for over 30 years.  There are neither county wide Democratic office holders nor Democrats in any of the townships or mayoral offices.  The same situation applies to the state senate and state representative officeholders who reside within the district.  Henry Hyde (R) has held the congressional seat for 16 terms.   Until the 2004 election Hyde had increased his margins in every election.  In 2004 the Democratic challenger reversed Hyde's gains by thirty years, delivering to him the worst margins since his first term in office.  

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Reform Democrats Gaining Ground in Pennsylvania

This certainly caught my eye:On March 4th, the Bucks County Democratic Party announced --prematurely-- that it had endorsed Bob Casey by a vote of 192 to 177. But a recount of the ballots has shown a different result. The certified recount reveals that Casey had only 184 of 374 eligible votes, or 49%. Party rules require 50% to endorse. Chuck Pennacchio received 172 votes, or 46%. Bucks County is Chuck Pennacchio's home county, but this result is still quite meaningful. In particular, it reminded me of a Senatorial primary in 2004:Mike Miles pulled off a mild upset by drawing 51% of the delegates at the State Democratic Convention in Pueblo yesterday, to Ken Salazar's 49%. I say it is a "mild" upset because Salazar's opening move of running straight toward the middle of the political spectrum alienated a lot of more leftist Democrats who feel taken for granted by Salazar, so in a sense he brought this on himself. And Miles has run an excellent campaign (if way too long for my taste -- I don't want to get into a situation where campaigning for two years is considered the norm). Chuck Pennacchio has also been campaigning for an extended period of time, and I think anyone would be hard pressed to say with a straight face that Bob Casey Jr.'s campaign hasn't upset a significant number of reformist, progressive activists in Pennsylvania. Of course, Miles went on to lose the Colorado primary to Salazar by a margin of roughly three to one. However, the next year, this remarkable event took place:Months after their historic wins in November, Colorado Democrats have ousted party chairman Chris Gates in an upset organized by activists angered by his handling of Mike Miles' failed bid for the U.S. Senate.

Pat Waak - a nonprofit director from Erie who is little-known in statewide political circles - narrowly edged out Gates in a final vote of 187 to 184 during Saturday's meeting of the Democratic State Central Committee. Miles victory at the state party convention did not prefigure a win in the primary (although he did get a lot more votes than the 9% Survey USA put him at a couple of weeks before the primary), but it did prefigure the takeover of the Colorado Democratic Party by progressives and reformers. Given this, I would like to revisit something that I wrote almost exactly one year ago: Read here for more on what happened in Arkansas and North Carolina. In addition to these three states, there have also been recent grassroots successes Maryland to retake the party leadership, and in Oregon to capture a national committee seat. Believe me when I say this is just the beginning.

Disturbing as this may seem for some, Colorado Dems were angry over what was a bossed primary in Colorado. The DSCC was complicit in this bossing for a couple of months, not even mentioning on their website that Miles existed. Being shut out of the process of selecting your party's nominee is a bitter pill to swallow, even in victory.

There might be a lesson in this for certain other state parties. I have met with Chuck Pennacchio, and he is as dedicated to winning as any Democrat I have ever met. Similarly, I stand by my long running argument that Bob Casey Jr. is in an absolutely dominant position against Rick Santorum. However, no matter what happens in the Senatorial primary on May 16th, when the meetings to determine Democratic ward and county leaders take place in early June, there is now a very good chance that reformers and progressives will take over the Bucks County Democratic Party. We may not have the votes to do that across the state in Pennsylvania yet, but there are going to be at least a handful of counties where things do change for the better. It has already taken place in my ward.

Outside of Philadelphia County, which probably needs to most reform of all, I can hardly think of a better place to start this takeover than Bucks County. Among other factors, in 2004, I was under-whelmed by local party support for Ginny Schrader (Bucks is basically PA-08). We need to do better out there, and I don't think we will see dramatic improvements as long as the unreformed remain in charge.

No matter what happens on May 16, we will win eventually in Pennsylvania. Just last week, another primary was bossed, this time for Lt. Governor. Well, some of us are saying "no more" to all of this. The time when party county steering committees decide primaries before they even begin are going to end. The time when ward leaders and committee people are paid to not GOTV in order to protect incumbents in primaries will end. The time when judges pay a fee to ward leaders in order to win primaries is going to end. The time when the party leaders do not give their full backing to primary winners because they didn't get to choose the nominee is going to end. The time when our Democratic elected officials try to score points by repeating Republican lies about Democrats is going to end. The time when our state party tells us they don't need a blog to communicate with us is going to end. The times when we are told that a progressive agenda can't win statewide is going to end. This is all going to end as long we al understand that this is a long-term fight that we must continue to be active in no matter what happens on May 16. The transformation that seems to be taking place in Bucks County and elsewhere in the state probably could not have happened as quickly and with as much success unless Chuck Pennacchio had been running. But even if Chuck becomes the next Senator from Pennsylvania, that won't end our struggle. We are facing an endemic problem in most of the state's 67 counties, a problem that has led to an extraordinarily undemocratic state party, and absolutely pathetic electoral success in a lean-blue state. I became a committeeperson to change all of this, and I am running for committeeperson in the May primary to help continue that change. We are clearly making progress, and all of us here in Pennsylvania need to continue to fight long after May 16 in order to achieve our goals.

We may not win everywhere all at once, but we are already winning in some areas now, and we will win everywhere, eventually.

Post-TX28: Constructive questions for this & future campaigns

With the apparent loss of Rodriguez to Cuellar, some are celebrating the netroots' major assist to Ciro and optimistically touting this as an honorable defeat in TX-28 that will lead to future victory there and elsewhere.

Others are disappointed, wondering what went wrong, and in a few cases pointing fingers at those who, they feel, failed to deliver despite intense support from Democrats all over the nation.

As someone who has been intensely involved with election campaigns on a local level, I have a strong interest in the mechanics of politics. This experience leads me to be skeptical of those trying to find a silver lining in this loss, while also discounting criticism that is not aimed at identifying specific problems -- and at building commitment to solving them in the future.

I'm not trying to armchair quarterback here, but rather to learn from a defeat. I've spent many, many hours preparing poll watchers and inspectors, building GOTV databases, designing mailers, courting candidates, defining campaign messages, poring over election law, helping to prepare challenges and lawsuits, writing press releases, going door-to-door, registering voters, and other nitty-gritty of local elections. I say this not to brag, but just to convey that for underdogs to win requires a virtually endless commitment to nailing down every detail.

When campaigns leave things to chance, or just cross their fingers, or say, "well, we did what we could," those candidates lose. People like Karl Rove are not geniuses; rather, they just work much harder on every detail of campaigns, over a long period of time, and don't accept mediocre results.

With all that said, here are some constructive questions that occur to me, strictly as an outside observer, that might be worth asking the Ciro campaign, and keeping in mind in future contests in that district and around the country. Those questions appear after the jump...

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TX-28 Postmortem, Part II: Qualitative and Strategy

Well, it looks like our first primary challenge against an incumbent Democrat didn't work out. To my knowledge, there haven't been any official concession yet, but no matter what happens, I would like to point out that Republicans still haven't won anything new on the electoral front since 2004. While we it looks like we were unable to defeat a Democrat who sucked up to Bush, over the past year we still have a pretty good streak going of defeating Republicans who suck up to Bush. This is not even to mention that Republicans are still too gutless to even try to run someone in this majority-Latino district. I'd like to se how close they would come to defeating Henry Cuellar.

There is no way to prove this, but I still bet that if this was a closed primary and Republicans and Independents had been unable to vote, we would have at least forced a run-off, if not won outright. The margin was so close, I can easily imagine a few thousand registered Republicans and Republican-leaning indepdents wanting to vote for Cuellar because of his connections to Bush. The Texas primary system would have allowed them to do so. Update: Check out the NCDem in the comments for a more accurate description of the Texas primary system.

Also, considering the wildly different vote totals for each candidate in different counties, it seems fairly safe to assume that "voting for the home-boy" was probably the number one voter issue in this campaign. It wasn't the only issue, but it was probably the biggest issue. As one pro-Ciro commenter on the ground noted yesterday: Zapata County is made up of good, hard working, blue collar folks. They voted overwhelmingly for Ciro, before Laredo was put into the mix by DeLay. They voted for Ann Richards by far, over Bush. They voted overwhelmingly for Kerry 2 years ago. (...) They're voting for Cuellar besause they are part of Laredo's orbit. They are simply voting for the home boy. They are nor conservatives -- socially or otherwise. They're poor folk, mostly Mexican-Americans trying to get by. They are progressive-liberals, and good Democrats. We shouldn't get too mad at Cuellar's voters. Most of them are with us a lot more often than Cuellar himself is.

Further, as Steve Gillard pointed out over an email tonight, it is important to remember that the netroots doesn't actually run campaigns--we just have the ability to offer resources that can give candidates the chance to win. The rest, ultimately, is up to the candidate, the campaign, and the voters. I'm not saying this to throw Ciro under the bus, but rather so that we all get a little more perspective on the role we play online. We are not an alternative party apparatus unto ourselves.

As for tactics, it seems to me that we should have moved into this race earlier--probably as early as November. There was a large gap to overcome in this district, and six weeks proved to not be enough time. We even won the voting on Election Day voting, but we lost because of the early voting. Had we spent more time on this campaign, we could have made it closer earlier, and we could have kicked up a lot more media. As Matt Singer noted over email:Campaigns also need these resources earlier. When it ends up coming down to a good ground effort, it just can't spring up overnight. And mail/TV ads need to be planned in advance, too. True dat. In the future, we need to develop a target list for primaries much further in advance. Too often we jump on board campaigns when it is already too late, as I complained about in my Edjamacation post. We have to start moving in earlier.

Of course, even had we come in earlier, defeating federally elected incumbents is a difficult game. Even on the Republican side, for all of their vaunted ability to run primary challenges against their sitting incumbents, the only real win they have against a federally elected incumbent is Sununu over Smith in New Hampshire in 2002. We may be 0 for 1, but they are 1 for 100. Primary challenges are almost always failures at the ballot box.

However, even in electoral defeat the Republican base has often succeeded in forcing some incumbents to start toeing the conservative line. If Cuellar becomes a more reliable vote as a result of this primary, then we will have succeeded anyway. If Cuellar makes fewer appearances with Bush, then we will have succeeded anyway. We won't know if that has happened right away, but we do know that even if things don't change, we can always run another primary challenge against Cuellar in 2008. Netroots electoral wins may seem few and far between (Chandler, Obama, Herseth, Dean for DNC), but the only way we are going to get more of them is if we keep trying.

Hope that is enough qualifiers for you. Make sure you read Ciro's statement to the netroots. I know you are disappointed, but you helped turn what would have been a blowout election that no one noticed into a real fight. Never give up hope. It's on to CA-50.

Update: I just received the following statement from Ciro:“Last night we didn’t receive the outcome we had hoped for. The end result was true to the intentions of Tom Delay when he carved out this district for his friend — geographic rivalries won out over a true discussion of the issues for working families.

I congratulate Mr. Cuellar on his victory, however, and I hold no bitterness or ill will.

I do hope, however, that he takes seriously the message sent by over 47% of the voters — and by a community of progressive donors from across the country — that a Democratic congressman’s first responsibility is to stand up for the needs of seniors, of children and of working families.

Especially in South and Central Texas, where so many mothers and fathers have sacrificed their whole lives for their children, and so many veterans have answered the call of their country, we need a Democratic congressman to put his personal political ambitions aside and take a stand for Social Security, for quality, public schools, and for affordable health care for all.

The driving force behind our campaign was a group of volunteers who took such a stand — students, retirees, and working people from all parts of the District. For their commitment and dedication, Carolina and I will be forever grateful.

And I believe I speak for all our supporters and campaign team when I say that we were profoundly touched by the thousands of regular working families from throughout the country who helped fund our effort with their checks of $5, $10, and $20. They looked beyond geographic and cultural differences and sent a message that we are all Americans and that we must stand and act together to reclaim our government.

As educators, that inspiration will forever stay with Carolina and I as we take the next step in our lifelong commitment to public service.” Thank you Ciro. And I hope that Cuellar takes this message seriously too.

TX-28 Preparation and Prediction Thread

Polls close at 8pm eastern. Use the comments in thread to make predictions on the results. Remember that Morales is in the race too, and should pull at least 5%.

Tonight, you will be able to follow returns live here on MyDD. I have constructed an excel spreadsheet that will allow me to estimate overall results based on results and turnout in specific counties. With this tool, I should be able to produce the best up to date estimates of the overall picture that you can find.

Also, here is the webpage for election results form the Texas Secretary of State. Further, CQ politics will also be following the returns live.  Be sure to check in with Swing State Project and Dailykos as well.

Here is a table to use to estimate the overall results based on county returns:

2004 Results
County     % of District    Cuellar    Ciro
Atascosa        6.3%          37%       63%
Bexar          27.6%          20%       80%
Comal           1.9%          28%       72%
Frio              7.6%          46%       54%
Guadalupe     4.4%          27%       73%
Hays            2.3%          36%       64%
LaSalle         4.0%          57%       43%
McMullen        0.2%          60%       40%
Webb           31.2%          84%       15%
Wilson          8.0%          35%       65%
Zapata          6.5%          73%       27%

And here is some excellent, important information on the early voting:

The common wisdom is that in order to overturn the results of the last cycle (when he lost by 58 votes), Ciro Rodriguez will have to do a better job of turning out the vote in his home base of Bexar County (San Antonio), and hope that the opposite happens in Webb County (Laredo), the home of closet Republican Henry Cuellar. Well, early voting is over in the primaries, and the totals for both counties are in.

Early voting is a good indicator of the total turn out because normally 65% of the voters in the Democratic primaries cast their vote early. In Webb County, the early vote totals were 2.5% below the early votes cast in the last cycle. The opposite is true in Bexar County, where there is an early vote increase of 7.3% from those cast in 2004. Laredo's decrease is especially noteworthy because its booming population growth allowed for a 4% increase in the number of registered voters for this election, versus the numbers registered in March of 2004.

My analysis is that there will be a decrease in the overall number of voters in Laredo in this cycle, from those that voted in 2004, because a stirring race for county sheriff in 2004 tweaked the turn out in the last cycle. The decrease in early voters in Laredo this cycle, despite a significant increase in registered voters, tends to prove my hypothesis.

Another point worthy of discussion is based on the fact that the 28th CD takes in only a part of Bexar and Webb Counties. This cycle, a race pulling out many voters in Webb County is for an open county commissioner's seat, contested by 6 candidates. Unfortunately for the sell-out Cuellar, this commissioner's district is wholly outside the 28th CD. On the other hand, the race turning out the most voters in Bexar County is for a highly-contested state senate seat between Madla and Uresti (both San Antonio home-boys), in a state senatorial district which overlaps the 28th CD in Bexar County. Accordingly, in my estimation the gap between the 2.5% decrease in early votes in Webb County versus the 7.3% increase in Bexar County, is actually greater when you consider only the voters eligible to vote in the 28th CD race (those totals are not available).

That is about all of the prep work I can give you for now. I suppose one of the great ironies of my writing for MyDD is that I actually hate election nights. Even though this is what most of our writing builds up to, and even though our traffic goes through the roof, usually I find it too stressful and too disappointing for words. I am already growing pretty nervous about tonight. The netroots, the LCV, and the AFL-CIO have a lot on the line. Not to mention that is just really important that we get Cuellar out of this seat. Tonight is a big night.

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