Democrats fret as longshot candidates pull money, attention

Kentucky progressive Charles Booker speaks during the "Commitment March: Get Your Knee Off Our Necks" protest against racism and police brutality in 2020 in Washington, DC.
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Longshot challengers to Democrats’ most reviled Republican foes are starting to be seen as threats by some in their own party who fear they are distracting from midterm efforts to protect their congressional majorities.

Just over a year out from what will be a referendum on President Biden’s first two years in office, Democratic strategists are expressing frustration that a handful of candidates looking to oust some of the GOP’s most high-profile incumbents  Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) among them  in deep-red areas are using valuable resources that could otherwise be used to strengthen the party’s hand in more competitive races.

“Are they running for self-serving purposes because they have nothing to lose?” said Michael Ceraso, a progressive consultant who works with grassroots organizations. “Or are they running because they really have something at stake in their community and they want to change that?” 

Up and down the ballot, Democrats have long grumbled about candidates they deem to be inconsequential attention suckers. They argue there’s limited value to contenders who launch far-fetched bids that take away time, media focus and money from other choices.

Those candidates and their supporters have pushed back on that narrative, arguing fundraising isn’t a zero-sum game and that there is value to challenging controversial Republican incumbents, no matter how safe their seats seem.

But the complaint is becoming more normalized within a Democratic Party experiencing a new strain of frustration during the Biden era and facing down its narrowest House and Senate majorities in decades. And it’s become particularly noticeable as candidates with little chance of winning try to take on boogeyman incumbents who have inspired mass outrage on the left. 

One strategist described the situation as “emotional giving” — a compulsion to spend money on doomed races over sheer anger at the other side.

“Should we be running against people like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Rand Paul? Absolutely. We should be running everywhere,” said one Democratic strategist. “The problem is when those longshot races start distracting from the ones that are actually competitive and will decide the majority.”

Among the pool of steep-climb candidates angling to unseat GOP rivals is former Kentucky state Rep. Charles Booker, who said last week that he had raised nearly $2 million since July in his bid to oust Paul, a sign that he’s raking in donations at a faster pace than Democratic Senate candidates in far more competitive states like North Carolina. 

On Tuesday, when Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) said that he was retiring from Congress, speculation mounted about whether Booker would possibly compete for Yarmuth’s old House seat instead of the Senate. 

Booker, for his part, said his race was worth fighting.

“No Democrats with a mind about fighting for our democracy are seriously questioning whether insurrectionist-enablers like Rand Paul should be challenged,” Booker told The Hill on Wednesday.  

“Collectively, we haven’t done the deep organizing it takes to build coalitions. We have conceded the narrative, and run campaigns that are destined to lose. That is what we should call a waste of money,” he added. “Opting out of running sophisticated, inspiring, and deeply embedded campaigns in ‘safe’ Republican seats is not only wrongheaded, but is destructive to our aims of democracy.”

Another such candidate is Marcus Flowers, an Army veteran and former military contractor who is running to unseat Greene in a northwest Georgia district that she won last year by a nearly 50-point margin. 

Since being elected into office in 2020, Greene has arguably been Democrats’ most hated fixture on the far right.

Despite running uphill against her blowout lead, Flowers has emerged as one of the top fundraisers among nonincumbent House candidates, accruing more than $2 million in the first half of 2021 and outpacing vulnerable Democratic incumbents like Reps. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) and Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) in the money race.

And Colorado state Sen. Kerry Donovan (D), who entered the race to take on Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) earlier this year, has also reported hauls that look more like those of a well-heeled incumbent than of a Democratic challenger in a comfortable Republican district.  

Donovan suspended her fundraising efforts last week after the state’s independent congressional redistricting commission approved a map that would put her residence in another district.

The midterms are likely to be among the most polarized for the incumbent party in recent years. 

When Biden captured the White House and Democrats reclaimed Congress, there was a feeling of immense optimism for the party that had fought vigorously to defeat former President Trump. The idea that Democrats could start to repair what they believe was lost during his tenure was, seemingly at once, no longer wishful thinking, many thought in January.

Nearly nine months into office, however, that sense of buoyancy has turned to apprehension as major areas of the president’s own legislative agenda remain in flux on Capitol Hill.

The stagnation has caused some in the party to start contemplating doomsday scenarios for the midterms, fearful that the early traction awarded to Biden will go away if the party doesn’t pass his agenda.

The hyperpolarized climate and anticipation of 2022, combined with the ease of online fundraising and the potential for campaign ads to go viral, has created an environment in which even the least competitive races can draw outsized attention  and funding.

One example of that traction is ActBlue, Democrats’ online fundraising clearinghouse.

While many in the party believe the platform has been a net good, it has also made it easy for longshot candidates to raise outsize sums of money nationwide. 

“It’s kind of the blessing and the curse with ActBlue,” the Democratic strategist said. “The donor pool is so massive. But everything is just so hyper-online and a lot of people get siloed off from the reality of what’s competitive, what’s winnable and what’s not.”

Other Democrats believe the focus should be on encouraging “strategic giving” to deliver a positive outcome in November for Biden, who is loath to repeat the mistakes of former President Obama’s first midterm elections, when the party lost control of the lower chamber.

“While I understand that it might feel good to give money to these longshot candidates who are running against these characters, that’s not going to help hold the House. It’s not going to help hold the Senate,” said Jon Reinish, a Democratic operative based in New York. “I would be giving to our front-line members.”

“Front-line member” describes Democrats’ most vulnerable incumbents, a list that includes nearly three dozen House moderates like Spanberger and Slotkin. 

“I would also be giving it to folks running to recapture some of the seats that we lost in 2020,” Reinish said. “What I don’t want to see the day after Election Day is that Marcus Flowers raised $5 million and lost by 20 points and Abigail Spanberger and Elissa Slotkin raised less than that, and lost by 3 points.”

Some Democrats argue that donating to a less viable candidate isn’t necessarily a drain on other contenders’ fundraising prospects. And even if a candidate loses their race, their campaign can still have a positive effect on turnout that could help swing other races on the ballot.

They also point out that House Democrats are still amassing money at a breakneck pace. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced last month that it had raised $10 million in August, giving it its best-ever fundraising total for an August in a year without regularly scheduled federal elections.

But others point to cautionary tales from past elections. One mentioned by several Democrats is Amy McGrath, a former Marine fighter pilot who raised more than $94 million last year for her ill-fated challenge to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). And when current Democratic National Committee Chairman Jaime Harrison ran against Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) in 2020, he became the first U.S. Senate candidate to ever cross the $100 million fundraising threshold. 

After the vote was tallied, McGrath had lost by a nearly 30-point margin. Harrison, who ultimately raised $130 million, lost by 10 points.

“Amy McGrath was never going to win that seat. Unless your last name is Beshear, it’s incredibly unlikely that you’re going to win in ruby-red Kentucky,” said another Democratic consultant, referring to Gov. Andy Beshear (D) and his father, former Gov. Steve Beshear (D).

“That was flushing money down the toilet,” the consultant added of McGrath’s massive fundraising hauls. “We don’t want to do that again.”

Progressives, too, are keenly aware of the sensitive nature of recruiting and fundraising for candidates with less than stellar odds. To counter a narrative that they’re hurting Democrats’ chances at success, many on the left say that they only focus on boosting intraparty challengers, careful not to run candidates who could end up losing in a swing state or district to a Republican. 

In recent weeks, some liberals have become more critical of what they say amounts to a routine desire within their own flank to find the next party icon, regardless of whether a seat is realistically winnable. 

One longtime activist in close contact with leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the body that has banded together to link Biden’s infrastructure bill and social spending package, warned against so-called candidate addiction.

An ongoing star search, the source said, detracts from the more serious debate about what policies can feasibly be accomplished with Biden in the White House and Democrats at the helm of Congress. 

“We’re moving away from candidate addiction and we’re moving to understanding the connection between party building, issues, and candidates and elections,” said the activist. “That is a radical shift in terms of what people on the center-left have done.”

To be sure, there’s also a history of Republicans launching longshot bids to oust progressives like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), the two highest profile and most attacked members of the “squad.” 

Republican Lacy Johnson raised more than $12 million last year for his campaign to tank Omar before ultimately losing the race by nearly 40 points. The GOP saw a similar result in New York, where Republican John Cummings raised more than $11 million only to be defeated by Ocasio-Cortez by more than 44 points.

Still, Reinish said, the phenomenon isn’t as pronounced with Republicans as it is among Democrats. 

He pointed to DeAnna Lorraine, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) chief Republican rival in 2020, noting that she raised little more than a quarter of a million dollars during her bid.

“You didn’t see Republican donors running to flood Diana Loraine with money. They’re smarter with their giving. They might put her up for a few interviews on OANN, but they’re giving money to candidates in purple districts,” he said in reference to the ultra-conservative One America News Network. 

Of course, Reinish added, that’s not to say that Democrats shouldn’t put up a fight. 

“Always make the argument. Always run,” he said. “But in a perilous moment like this, dammit, be smart.”

Tags Abigail Spanberger Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Barack Obama Donald Trump Elissa Slotkin Ilhan Omar Jaime Harrison Joe Biden John Yarmuth Lauren Boebert Lindsey Graham Marjorie Taylor Greene Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Rand Paul

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