Disappearing Candidates

"I am the Democrat who can beat Rick Santorum," says Bob Rovner in his introduction to hotel-lobby chatter at a Pennsylvania Democratic State Committee meeting. The hotel is not even in Harrisburg, the Democrats having forsaken downtown. It's off a bypass of the interstate east of Harrisburg. "I'm the best Democrat. I'm a fresh face, and I can raise big money," Rovner continues. The lawyer from suburban Philadelphia explains that he was the youngest state senator in the history of the commonwealth and that he already has $1.1 million to spend on his campaign. Only in response to some probing does Rovner acknowledge that his state senate tenure lasted but four years, that it was in the early 1970s, that he was then a Republican, and that he himself contributed everything in his campaign treasury preceding the decimal point.

Rovner is not likely to be the Democratic Senate nominee this year. But neither is his candidacy a joke, at least not in its context. The Pennsylvania Democratic Party's U.S. Senate primary campaign comes perilously close to opéra bouffe. The cast includes a second wealthy lawyer from suburban Philadelphia, two former members of Congress who are former because they got whupped last time out, one second-term state senator, one former state labor secretary, and one current member of Congress who has the covert blessings of party bigwigs in Washington despite being anti-abortion and pro-gun.

In fact, the lineup is something of a microcosm of the nationwide Democratic dilemma and its causes. Rovner and lawyer Murray Levin have money. Former Representative Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky and former state Labor Secretary Tom Foley have ... well, not fame, but name identification, which puts them near the front (at 20 percent or so) in early polls, meaning they can raise money. So can Representative Ron Klink, who also scores close to 20 percent. Klink and Foley have labor support, but Klink opposes abortion and gun control and scares off soccer moms. State Senator Allyson Schwartz is trying to outflank Margolies-Mezvinsky on the upper-middle-income suburban left. Former Representative Peter Kostmayer, who dropped out of the race in December, had hoped for the backing of environmental groups. "In a multiple-candidate race with a likely low turnout," he says, "you can win with as little as 19 percent." Yes, you can. And be in quite a pickle for the general election.

Senator Santorum, elected with just 49 percent of the vote in 1994, is more conservative than most Pennsylvanians. He can be beaten, perhaps even by one of these Democrats. But one would think that in a state of 12 million people carried by Bill Clinton in both 1992 and 1996, the Democratic Party would be able to come up with something better than retreads, self-absorbed rich guys, and a social conservative.

Then again, you'd probably think the same about New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Florida, and Minnesota. You'd be wrong. Democrats might still win some of those Senate seats. But they will have to win them with outsiders, old-timers, mavericks, two-time losers, or unknowns.

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Endangered Habitats

"In some states, we don't have enough bench depth," says former Democratic National Committee Chairman Steve Grossman. But the sports metaphor, true as far as it goes, is just the beginning. It isn't only that the big league team's bench could use a few more power hitters. Like a badly run ball club--the Kansas City Royals, say, or the Chicago Cubs--the Democratic Party doesn't have much of a farm system. And its scouts seem incapable of finding talented rookies who can go to their left.

Why? For one thing, the left-of-center talent pool is dwindling. Organized labor has relatively fewer members, and in many places its support is a mixed blessing. There are relatively fewer Democrats in state legislatures and on city councils. Meanwhile, much of the rest of the liberal coalition has all but abandoned general electioneering to concentrate on a specialty. Champions of the environment, feminism, minority cultures, or gun control practice political-niche marketing, which rarely includes running for office.

Second, there is the money problem. Countless talented progressives consider running for elective office and are deterred by the financial hurdle. Unless you're independently wealthy, you will spend more time dialing for dollars than meeting with voters or debating issues. "No [congressional] challenger in '96 who raised less than $650,000 was successful," according to Grossman. "Probably today it would be closer to a million dollars." Furthermore, while you're raising money, you're not earning any. "You're putting your life on hold," Grossman says.

Republicans, of course, have more money. Yes, there are rich Democrats such as Jon Corzine, the former Goldman Sachs chairman running for the Senate in New Jersey. It's just that there are more rich Republicans, with more rich friends. And there is more consonance between Republican ideology and wealth, which places Republican millionaires in sync with their party machinery, message, and base, and Democratic millionaires at odds with theirs.

Third, there is the sheer disparity in partisan resources and organization. Because Democrats generally have less money overall to spend on non-incumbent House and Senate candidates, those deemed not fully competitive by national party organizations are left to fend for themselves. "There's no incentive for anyone new to run," according to Paula DiPerna, now head of the Joyce Foundation, who ran anyway, in 1992, against popular moderate Republican Sherwood Boehlert in upstate New York. DiPerna got precious little support from the Democratic establishment (just some generic TV ads). A truly aggressive political party might be cultivating candidates who could make a good race four or six, or even eight years down the road.

Moreover, there is a chicken-and-egg problem of a narrowed electorate. Centrist candidates and a centrist electorate reinforce each other in the body politic. "Maybe that's why we win elections," says Ralph Santora of Independent Action, a group that promotes liberal candidates. "The general voting population thinks the center is better than the left." But as Democratic leaders increasingly choose centrist candidates, some liberals feel abandoned, and abandon candidates in turn [see Micah Sifry, "Finding the Lost Voters," ].

The Senate, effectively written off just a few months ago, now seems conceivably winnable for the Democrats--if only the Democrats could field some stronger candidates. In Minnesota, Republican Senator Rod Grams "is arguably the most vulnerable incumbent of either party up for re-election in 2000," according to political prognosticator Charles Cook. But for months, the lone Democratic contender was little-known former U.S. Attorney David Lillehaug. Now he has competition: two state legislators, a doctor, a lawyer who helped fight the tobacco suit, and, any day now, the fiscally (and somewhat grouchily) conservative former Representative Tim Penny.

In Florida, where Senator Connie Mack's retirement gives the Democrats a shot in an increasingly Republican state, the strongest candidate is current Treasurer and Insurance Commissioner and former Representative Bill Nelson. Unlike so many former Democratic congressmen, Nelson quit voluntarily. But that was almost a decade ago, and it was to run a losing statewide campaign.

In Ohio the likely Democratic Senate nominee is Richard Cordray, about whom even many an informed Ohioan might respond: Who? Well, he served one term in the state legislature, and last year he ran for attorney general. In New Jersey, the front-runner is the outsider, Corzine, who has been taking some surprisingly liberal stands for a Wall Streeter. But he faces a truly fratricidal primary fight with former Governor James Florio.

And in New York, as you may have heard, the Democratic Senate candidate is a politically untested nonresident who was raised in Illinois and spent most of her adult life in Arkansas; more recently, she resided in Washington, D.C. But before her advent, among all the millions of people in this most Democratic of the mega-states only Representative Nita M. Lowey of Westchester County was ready to try to succeed Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. And she's 62 years old, raising the question of where the younger Democrats have gone.

There are some exceptions to this pattern. Governor Thomas R. Carper of Delaware, a popular Democratic moderate, is challenging Senate Finance Committee Chairman William Roth, co-author of the Kemp-Roth tax cut and namesake of the Roth IRA. Roth is also a moderate, so ideology may be less a factor here than demeanor and age. Carper, 10 for 10 in elections in the past 20 years, is 52. Roth is 78.

Democrats could pick up a Senate seat in Michigan where Congresswoman Deborah Stabenow has a good chance to knock off conservative Republican Spencer Abraham. But this strength masks a weakness; the Democrats could easily lose Stabenow's central Michigan House seat, which used to be a safe Democratic seat.

Even in Montana, which seemed to have joined the general Rocky Mountain swing to solid Republicanism, Democratic leaders are downright giddy about their chances of reclaiming the governor's chair and the at-large House seat being vacated by Rick Hill, and perhaps even sneaking up on Senator Conrad Burns.

One quirk of this year's Senate campaign is the role being played by the House Democratic leadership, which is just a few votes from taking back the House. Dick Gephardt, who stands to become speaker, has encouraged several House Democrats who would make strong Senate candidates to keep their House seats instead, including nominal independent and de facto Democrat Bernie Sanders of Vermont. In Ohio, representatives Sherrod Brown and Ted Strickland resisted the entreaties of local party bigwigs that they try to oust Mike DeWine from the Senate. In Washington, Jim McDermott, a popular liberal, decided to stay in the House rather than take on the vulnerable Slade Gorton. Likewise in New Jersey, Congressmen Frank Pallone and then Robert Menendez opted for almost certain re-election over taking a chance on moving up.

Gephardt did more than simply entreat members to stay in the House. He offered them choice committee assignments, snazzy offices, access to the best fundraisers. It's hard to blame Gephardt for trying to dissuade Ohio's Brown and Strickland and New Jersey's Pallone from vacating their competitive seats. But McDermott's district is as Democratic as they come, and had Sanders run against Senator James Jeffords, he no doubt would have been replaced by an official (and perhaps more effective) Democrat.

Hopeful House

Despite their weakened farm system, Democrats could well take back the House. Theoretically, they could pick up the five seats they need in just one state--California--where they have strong candidates in several open seats and even a chance of ousting a Republican incumbent or two. In the Golden State, Republicans, on the other hand, flubbed their potential recruiting coup: convincing Skunk Baxter, once a guitarist with the Doobie Brothers, to run against two-termer Brad Sherman in the San Fernando Valley.

Elsewhere, Rick Larson, the 32-year-old president of the Snohomish County Council, will run for the Puget Sound-area seat being vacated by Republican Jack Metcalf. Two Democrats, including a state legislator, are vying to reclaim Oklahoma's Second District, once held by Mike Synar. Former Representative Scotty Baesler of Lexington, Kentucky, has agreed to run against Ernie Fletcher for the seat Baesler held until he narrowly failed to get elected to the Senate last year. And in California, state Senator Adam Schiff was persuaded to give up his seat (with more constituents than a congressman's) and the Judiciary Committee chairmanship to contest Representative James E. Rogan, one of the House managers at the impeachment trial.

Republicans, in contrast, have so far failed to find strong contenders to run against the freshman Udall cousins (Mark in Colorado, Tom in New Mexico), newcomer Shelley Berkley in Nevada, or theoretically vulnerable conservative Democrat Ken Lucas in Kentucky. And not even a plea from George Bush (the elder) could persuade former Rhode Island Attorney General Jeffrey Pine to run for the House seat Bob Weygand will vacate to run for the Senate. Republicans are doing no better in Massachusetts; they have no convincing candidates for any of the 10 House seats (none of which they currently hold), and no one to serve as sacrificial lamb against Senator Edward M. Kennedy.

But Democratic partisans might pause before they spend too much time practicing how to say "Speaker Gephardt." In several winnable districts, the field is weak. The only announced candidate against three-term incumbent George Nethercutt--the Washington Republican who beat House Speaker Tom Foley in 1994, in part by pledging to serve just three terms--is a local businessman named Wayne Brokaw, whose political base seems to consist of being Tom's cousin. And Democratic leaders have given up on recapturing Idaho's western district, held by Democrat Larry LaRocco until 1994.

Some of what ails Democratic candidate recruiters ails Republicans as well. "There are obvious generic reasons," said veteran political consultant Robert Neuman. "The cost of campaigning and the exposure of one's personal and business experience. People are hesitant to subject their families to the onslaught of negative campaigning. A lot of people have a basic distrust of the media." He meant investigative journalism of a potential candidate's professional, financial, and (needless to say) sexual past. Perhaps because political consultants don't like to insult reporters, Neuman did not mention the increasing inanity of political journalism, another factor that might make a reasonable person think thrice before running for office.

Nothing is immune from the zeitgeist, and postmodernism has rendered political reporting self-referential. Yet another reporter asks George W. Bush yet again about his past cocaine intake not to elicit information but to have asked the question himself or herself. So low has the profession fallen that Diane Sawyer asking the Gores about the Clinton marriage was considered to be political journalism. No wonder sane men and women pause before approaching this abyss.

But Democrats face special obstacles. They are more likely to be deterred by the money hurdle and to spend cash fighting each other. When asked who urged him to run, Kostmayer conceded that his candidacy, like that of his competitors, was "self-generated." Nobody talked him into running--thus only Kostmayer could talk himself out of it. "The boys in the back room aren't going to decide who stays in this race," he said."There are no boys anymore."

No, there aren't. Whether this is good or bad is open to debate; that it creates more trouble for the Democrats is not. Officially, there are no Republican boys in the back room, either, but the GOP has managed to create its functional equivalent, as Representative Rick A. Lazio learned after he threatened to challenge Mayor Rudolph Giuliani for the Republican Senate nomination in New York. His party leaders told him not to. He obeyed.

Whatever the reason--perhaps the influence of the military, or of corporate culture--Republicans are more likely to follow their leaders. Democrats are more obstreperous. So they have more primaries, which cost money and which do not always nominate the strongest candidate.

Were there boys in the Democratic back room, for instance, they would have suggested, and finally insisted, that State Assemblymember Susan Davis make way for former Navy Undersecretary Wade Sanders, who would have been stronger in the general election against Representative Brian P. Bilbray of San Diego. But the better-known Davis had more support from Democratic interest groups, and in the end, it was Sanders who dropped out.

Were there boys in New Jersey's back room, they would do everything short of threatening to shatter Florio's kneecaps (not an unprecedented tactic in New Jersey) to get him out of the Senate primary. No one knows how Corzine will fare in a TV debate. If the past is any guide, Florio will be smooth, impressive, and vicious. It is conceivable that he could win the primary. It is all but inconceivable that he could win the election. "Our own polls show that he still has high negatives, even in Democratic areas," said one New Jersey Democrat.

And unenlightened though the thought may be, were there boys in the back rooms out West, they would find more ... well, boys. Although electoral politics is still a disproportionately male enterprise, the Rocky Mountain West is getting littered with the political corpses of Democratic women who win primaries and lose elections; last year there were two in Colorado alone. Now, against Gorton of Washington, the Democrats apparently will have a choice between Insurance Commissioner Deborah Senn and Maria Cantwell, another defeated (and rich) former member of Congress. Senn is potentially a strong candidate, and obviously Washington State voters will elect a woman to the Senate; Patty Murray is there now. But two Democratic women? That may be pushing it. Washington is not California.

The discipline disadvantage also renders Democrats more vulnerable to the current curse of political professionalization. As money and television ads have become more dominant, so has the power of the political consultant, who works with (or is) a pollster, and who is consequently guided by polls. This guidance is often blinding. In the pre-election year--the recruiting year--polls largely reflect name recognition and not candidate potential: thus the incentive to make an early bet on a horse who may not run nearly as well as another who was simply less famous. Nita Lowey, maybe?

This tyranny of the professionals (themselves all but enslaved to polls, fundraising projections, and computerized analyses of which seats are winnable) obviously discourages taking chances. The result is that party leaders rarely consider recruiting someone who isn't already (a) an officeholder or (b) filthy rich, categories that exclude potentially exciting candidates. Perhaps if the consultants looked up from their printouts, or if the party leaders looked beyond their consultants, they could see opportunities lying just outside their self-restricted fields of vision.

These general trends seem more disabling of Democrats. Though the right has its splinter groups, too, disaffected liberals seem to outnumber their conservative counterparts. A few liberals defect to the Greens or the more cerebral New Party, but more of them simply disaffiliate from electoral politics. Whether this reflects individual integrity or solipsistic petulance is a point over which reasonable people can differ; that it hurts left-of-center political prospects is not.

Disappearing Democrats

One reason Republicans have more discipline is that they have more governors, who use some of their time, resources, and patronage power to forge strong state parties. It was Governor George Pataki who effectively ordered Lazio out of the Senate race. But there are only 17 Democratic governors, and many of them, including Gray Davis in California, are first-termers still establishing their power, and in Davis's case there is little love lost between the governor and much of his party.

The political importance of governors--indeed, of state government in general--helps explain why Democrats are in such trouble in Pennsylvania and Ohio, where they control almost nothing. Since George Voinovich was re-elected as governor by an extraordinary 72-to-25 percent majority in 1994, the Ohio Democratic Party has been reduced to impotence. All the statewide elected officials are Republican, including Voinovich, who won John Glenn's Senate seat last year. So, by wide margins, are both houses of the legislature. Pennsylvania Democrats are in almost as bad shape, though the state auditor is a Democrat and the Republican majority in the state house is small.

There's nothing unique about a one-party state, but it's been a long time since Democrats were so helpless in any of the big states. It's one thing not to be competitive in, say, Utah, where Democrats sometimes come in third. But being shut out in Ohio and Pennsylvania is calamitous. Utah has three House seats; Ohio and Pennsylvania have 40 between them.

The depleted Democratic base begins with state legislatures, the Triple-A level of politics, through which one-third of today's congressmen passed on their way to Washington. There are 7,464 members of the 99 state legislative bodies in our fair land. At last count, 4,254 of them were Democrats. Ten years ago, there were 4,477 Democrats, and 25 years ago there were more than 5,000. Not surprisingly, the decline has been greatest in the South, where a generation ago every legislative body was dominated by Democrats. Now Republicans control both houses in Florida and Virginia, one in Texas, and, after a recent party switch, one in Kentucky.

The statistics for county commissions, city councils, and town boards tell a similar story, and all for the same obvious reason. The country is simply less Democratic than it used to be. According to Curtis B. Gans of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, 30 years ago, 45 percent of eligible voters (in party-registration states) registered as Democrats. In the past two elections, 33 percent did. The drop is starkest among people in their 30s and 40s, precisely the source of the politicians of the future. Again, the situation for the Democrats is worst in the South. In Texas, 1.8 million people voted in the 1978 Democratic primary. In 1996, with about 5 million more Texans, only 890,000 did, fewer, for the first time, than the million who opted for a Republican ballot.

So it isn't that the Democratic Party is mismanaged, but that its managers are making the best of their bad situation--a dwindling pool of potential talent, which in turn reflects a dwindling base. In 1995, following the 1994 debacle in which Democrats lost 500 state legislative seats and control of 19 legislative houses, the Democratic National Committee established a Legislative Campaign Committee. It's been reasonably successful. In 1996 Democrats picked up 100 legislative seats and took back 11 of the chambers they had lost. Last year, they won control of four more legislative houses and about 60 seats.

In most states, legislative Democrats have created their own campaign committees, with professional organizers and recruiters. In Pennsylvania, an energetic young woman named Mary Isenhour has helped pull the Democrats within three seats of winning the state house of representatives. Since two Republican members have recently been indicted and a third felt obliged to declare that she was not a witch, the Democrats might well take control this year.

This is a matter of more than parochial interest. The legislators elected this year will redraw district lines, congressional and their own, based on the 2000 Census. Even without egregious gerrymandering, a party in complete control of a state can carve districts to its advantage. Pennsylvania now has 21 U.S. representatives, of whom 11 are Democrats. After reapportionment, the state will have 19 or 20 representatives, and Isenhour says that with a Republican governor and a solidly Republican state senate, only a Democratic House could prevent the GOP from drawing lines that might reduce the number of Democratic congressmen to five.

Passion Gap

Among the electorate, local officials, and state legislators, there are still more Democrats than Republicans. But the numerical advantage is much diminished, and it was the big spread in numbers that helped Democrats offset the Republican advantages in money, discipline, and intensity. In all of this, the imponderable factor is intensity; and despite GOP setbacks lately, the Republicans still have more of it. Beyond all the other dilemmas of strategy, structure, organizing, and money, there is clearly a passion gap that adds to the Democratic problem in recruiting candidates and rallying voters.

At least since the Republican take-over of Congress in 1994, the essential Democratic message has been "We're not as wacky as they are." It works. It helped re-elect Bill Clinton in 1996. It helped the Democrats pick up seats in 1998. It may well elect Al Gore or Bill Bradley this year. Democrats win, says New Hampshire Governor Jeanne Shaheen, when they offer "sensible solutions." Shaheen should know. She was elected and re-elected in a Republican state, pulling in behind her the first Democratic state senate in decades. But "sensible solutions" is hardly the motto to inspire a bright young lawyer, academic, or businessperson to join a crusade.

The crusaders these days are the Republicans. They're the ones who want to change the world, mostly by undoing the changes Democrats made from the 1930s through the 1970s. That puts the Democrats on the side of the status quo, an attitude harder to invest with passion.

"We have to inject passion into our campaigns," says Margolies-Mezvinsky, who sees her main primary opponent as Klink, the party candidate who opposes abortion and gun control. "We can't win by being Rick Santorum Lite. We have to energize people, including those who haven't been voting. You know, there's passion in the soccer mom, in her concern over guns, for instance." Tactically, Margolies-Mezvinsky has a weak case. A slew of evidence, most recently a study by Ted Jelen of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, shows that most Republican women who favor gun control still vote Republican, even for a candidate who disagrees with them on guns, while Democratic men who oppose gun control are more likely to desert their party over the issue.

Alas for passionate Democrats, their party is often riven by competing passions. But it is hard to argue with the notion that to recruit good candidates--and a majority of voters--a political party has to stand for something and feel strongly about it. As long as conservatives proudly proclaim their label while liberals are afraid to use theirs, redefine it, or find another, the unconservative party will have trouble arousing much fervor.

Not that the Democrats should return to the days when they pandered to every friendly interest group and reflexively opposed economic enterprise. But they might stop apologizing for government. And it would be a good idea if all their state committee meetings were held in a nice hotel right downtown.