If elections are ugly things, primary elections are downright hideous, especially on the Democratic side. Ronald Reagan's famous Eleventh Commandment — paraphrased as, "Thou shalt not speak badly of a fellow party member" — is rarely respected, no matter how much it is publicly venerated.
Few argue that these primaries weaken a party's ability to ultimately win the seats it is aiming for. Primary candidates spend months publicly beating one another up and spending money that should otherwise be hoarded for use against the other party. Meanwhile, incumbents rise above it all, using their public office to run a Rose Garden-like campaign, stressing their credentials as statesmen above the odious partisan sniping taking place on the other side of the aisle.
Already in the 2006 election cycle, Democrats face two potentially nasty primaries in eminently winnable U.S. Senate races. In Montana, state Senate President Jon Tester and state Auditor John Morrison are both running to replace Republican Senator Conrad Burns, who has been damaged by his connections to, among others, scandal-ridden lobbyist Jack Abramoff. In Rhode Island, Secretary of State Matt Brown and former Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse are facing off for the right to challenge Senator Lincoln Chafee, a vulnerable Republican incumbent in an overwhelmingly Democratic state.
Now, a third primary could take place in another battleground state: Ohio. Over the course of the last week, the state has gone from having no one to run against Senator Mike DeWine to potentially having two top Democrats square off for the chance to challenge the pathetically weak incumbent (DeWine received a 42-percent approval rating from Ohio voters in a recent poll).
One candidate is Paul Hackett, the Iraq War veteran who came within a hair of winning a staunchly Republican congressional district in a Cincinnati special election earlier this year. The other is Congressman Sherrod Brown, a former statewide elected official who now represents the Akron area in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The potential matchup may strike some as strange, considering Hackett and Brown's close relationship. It was Brown, after all, whose "Grow Ohio" project helped Hackett raise about a half-million dollars in Hackett's special-election race. But Brown and Hackett gearing up for the same race is, in reality, inadvertent. Brown originally said he would not run for the Senate because of various unexpected family concerns. But last week he reversed himself at almost exactly the same time Hackett was planning to announce he would run in Brown's place. It was a true case of bad timing.
That leaves both candidates and the Democratic Party with a simple question of what to do. It is safe to assume no one on the Democratic side wants to see two promising candidates destroy each other in a primary in a state that is not easy for Democrats to win in any event, especially against a well-funded GOP incumbent. So who is the better candidate for the Senate race, and what is the best that Democrats can hope for?
To figure this out, we can analyze the major challenges faced by any Democratic candidate in this race and then see which of the two candidates is better equipped to deal with those challenges.
General Fund Raising
The first obstacle for any candidate is money, especially in a large, multimedia-market state like Ohio. Brown currently has more than $2 million in cash on hand, having smartly spent the last years in Congress building a war chest for a bigger statewide race. Brown's foresight is not without precedent; Chuck Schumer did exactly the same thing as a New York congressman, patiently raising money for years as a safe-seat House member in order to have the huge resources needed to successfully run for the Senate in his (also large) state.
Hackett is no slouch, though. As a first-time candidate in 2005, he raised more than $1 million for a congressional race no one thought he had a chance to win because the district is so Republican. Much of Hackett's resources came from a stellar national Internet fund-raising operation, showing that Hackett clearly knows how to navigate and ride the technological wave fueling today's Democratic politics.
Equally as important is the difference between the two candidate's fund-raising experience and skills. Hackett's fund raising inarguably benefited from the fact that he was competing in a special election taking place at a time when no other balloting was occurring (the seat was unexpectedly vacated by incumbent Rob Portman when he was nominated to be the U.S. trade representative). Democratic donors, who might not otherwise have contributed to such an uphill race, were willing to focus solely on Hackett's campaign because nothing else was going on. Additionally, donors knew that an investment in even a close-but-unsuccessful special election was worthwhile because it would provide a high-profile platform on which to attack President Bush and the war in Iraq (more on that later). Unfortunately for Hackett, none of these circumstances will be the same in a 2006 general election, where scores of candidates will be competing for dollars. Hackett will certainly still be able to raise money, but it will be far more difficult than before (especially if he runs in a primary against Brown).
That's where Brown's strength comes in. He has been able to consistently raise serious money in his far lower-profile elections — elections that don't usually excite donors. He has, in other words, shown an ability to raise not just onetime, lower-hanging fruit like Hackett but to consistently raise the harder-to-earn dollars that could ultimately mean the difference between a winning and losing campaign.
This isn't to say that Hackett's compelling story and impressive political skills were not a factor in his fund raising. And it isn't to negate the fact that any Democratic nominee opposing an incumbent as weak as DeWine will find low-hanging fruit for fund raising in a general election. But it is to say that Brown has a far stronger record in terms of being able to raise the extra, hardest-to-raise cash that inevitably makes the difference in close, hard-fought Senate races.
Harnessing the Netroots
The Democratic netroots (a.k.a. Internet activists) can play a critical role in party primaries both in terms of fund raising and grass-roots organizing. In particular, they can make a serious impact when activists strongly embrace one candidate over another because of ideological differences. In Montana, for instance, Senate candidate John Tester has been embraced by some of the largest Democratic blogs that both gravitate to his rural populism and chafe at John Morrison's closer proximity to the conservative Democratic Leadership Council. Though the jury is still out on which candidate will win the primary, most agree that Tester is reaping at least some fund-raising benefits from the Internet dynamic.
Will a similar situation play out in a Hackett-Brown primary? Most likely, no.
The enthusiasm for Hackett among the Democrats' netroots is strong, a key indicator for both fund raising and grass-roots organizing. A recent straw poll of 1,900 Daily Kos readers found 85 percent supported Hackett; just 15 percent supported Brown. The poll, however, was taken before Brown officially jumped in the race, and it came in the wake of news that Brown was reversing his previous decision not to run. That's not exactly the best time to get a clear picture of the netroots' ultimate views on each candidate over many months, as activists were understandably focused first and foremost on trying to prevent a primary.
Perhaps more important is the fact that, like Hackett, Brown has also shown an ability to harness the Internet's power. His previously mentioned "Grow Ohio" project that helped Hackett was Web based, and many of the netroots leaders like Tim Tagaris that helped Hackett also work closely with Brown.
Bob Brigham, the influential blogger at Swing State Project who aided Hackett's Internet strategy, essentially acknowledges how close Hackett and Brown are in terms of grass-roots/netroots support. While Hackett is definitely a star, Brigham says, "Activists also have a lot of respect for Brown since he is the exact personification of a representative who will makes the grass roots feel a sense of pride in supporting." Democratic blogger Chris Bowers, though making sure not to endorse either candidate, put it even more bluntly. "Brown would be an absolutely outstanding senator," he said, "quite possibly the best senator in the entire country." And Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, who runs the biggest left-leaning blog of all, Dailykos, has said "it might be a good idea for Hackett to stand down" now that Brown is running.
Much of Hackett's appeal comes from his refreshing position as a political outsider. The downside of that, however, is that he doesn't have nearly the institutional infrastructure or support that Brown has spent years — and 14 election campaigns — building.
Brown's strength comes, in part, from a willingness to spend his political capital — and precious resources — on building his party. In an exposé on how Ohio politicians were using their political action committees as luxury slush funds, The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer reported on one who doesn't. Brown, the paper noted, "spent nearly all [his PAC] money by donating to Democratic candidates." On top of what he raised for Hackett, Brown this year has already donated roughly $100,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and to Democratic candidates. Last election cycle it was the same: Brown donated almost $360,000 to fellow Democrats.
This, of course, says nothing about the nonparty infrastructure Brown will be able to rely on. In the House of Representatives, there are few lawmakers with as much steadfast support from organized labor. Why? Because Brown has long been one of the strongest voices opposing corporate-written trade deals that sell out American workers, even authoring a book on the subject. Earlier this year, it was Brown who led the fight against the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), coming within one vote of defeating the pact. Hackett, meanwhile, has no proven voting record on any issue.
True, as a lawyer himself, Hackett may be able to secure some financial backing from trial lawyers. But that will never trump Brown's long-standing support from many of the influential and deep-pocketed pieces of the Democratic coalition. That includes not only labor but conservationists, civil libertarians, women's groups, and others. And who could blame them? With Brown, they know what votes they would be getting in the Senate. Though certainly not Hackett's fault, the same simply can't be said about him.
Some may say that none of the infrastructure matters. Organized labor, for instance, is in the throes of a potentially divisive transition. But unions still have both real resources and boots on the ground to help candidates — especially one of their leaders like Brown.
Similarly, the Ohio Democratic Party has been in shambles for years. But as "Grow Ohio"'s political consultant Jerome Armstrong correctly notes, "You can call the Ohio Democratic organization behind Brown inept, but the truth is, [John] Kerry gained 500,000 votes in 2004 over [Al] Gore in 2000 and [George W.] Bush gained 400,000 in 2004 over Bush in 2000" — a net gain of 100,000 Democratic votes thanks, in part, to infrastructure tied to Brown.
Been There, Done That
Anyone who has ever worked on a campaign knows that inexperienced candidates are prone to mistakes. And in one of the biggest U.S. Senate races in America, even the smallest mistakes are instantly amplified by a national Republican spin machine. Additionally, there is name identification. Especially in big states, it often takes multiple races or many years in politics for voters to become familiar — and comfortable — with a candidate. This is why candidates who are running a repeat race of the same size often do better the second time around.
Hackett is certainly in a better position to run statewide than most other candidates who have only run one unsuccessful congressional race. His special-election race generated all sorts of national and statewide media — again, both because of his compelling story and because his race was the only game in town. That built him not only better name recognition than the average candidate but also got him used to the kind of serious scrutiny a candidate will inevitably be under in a major race.
In terms of candidate profile and message, Hackett has a many assets: He is an Iraq War veteran, he is a true outsider, and he has developed an image as a straight-talking, shoot-from-the-hip insurgent. That will allow him to do things other candidates cannot. For example, Hackett can attack DeWine's complicity in the Iraq War fiasco because DeWine voted for the war, all while Hackett's military service makes him impervious to attacks on his patriotism. Hackett can also capitalize on the GOP's federal and state corruption scandals, while presenting himself as a clean candidate because he is not a "career politician."
Then again, it would be laughably ineffective for Republicans to try to label Brown an "insider." This is a guy who, for instance, has gone to battle against his own party by leading the opposition to bipartisan free-trade deals. That's no small issue in Ohio, which has lost tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs. A 2004 Associated Press poll found that seven in 10 Ohio voters blamed free trade for those job losses. Hackett, meanwhile, has no record on trade — potentially ceding one of the crucial contrast points between a Democrat and Republican in a 2006 Ohio Senate race.
Brown is also a guy who has used his position on the House Commerce Committee to build a big platform for himself in Ohio as a leader against pharmaceutical-industry price gouging, oil-industry profiteering, and HMO rip-offs. It is not an exaggeration to say that on almost every major economic issue of importance to a blue-collar state like Ohio, Brown has been a state and national leader. He may be a "career politician," but he has also been one of the few on Capitol Hill who can credibly claim he has the record of a people's champion.
Even on the war Brown has been a leader in opposition. For instance, at one point in 2004, he received national media attention for verbally sparring with then-Secretary of State Colin Powell at a hearing after Powell defended the Bush administration's clear lies about the original justifications for invasion. That positioning prevents Hackett, also a war critic, from making the primary a pro-war/anti-war contrast, and means the two will have similar opportunities to use the war issue as a bludgeon in the general.
To be sure, the GOP strategy against Hackett and Brown would certainly be very different. Hackett would likely be called on the carpet for his political inexperience, with DeWine stressing his own seniority, influence on behalf of Ohio, and ability to bring back federal dollars to the state. Brown would be attacked as a "liberal," with DeWine portraying himself as a "mainstream centrist" (a claim easily torn to pieces by a seasoned pro like Brown). But, in truth, both lines of attack have equal strengths and weaknesses.
So, looking at this analysis, what is the ideal situation for Democrats in Ohio? How can they best maximize the talents of two potent candidates?
For those partisans concerned only with having a Democrat win the Ohio Senate race, there is no better candidate than Brown. He is the one who possesses the most tools to take on and defeat the incumbent, and has no major weakness in comparison with Hackett. Similarly, for activists and idealists who are concerned with putting not just any Democrat but a proven progressive in the Senate, Brown is the man. You can look at his long voting record and rest assured that to elect him is to elect one of the most committed and tenacious progressives in American politics. And for those inane pundits who think that Brown's reversal of his candidacy announcement will actually be an issue that influences voters in a primary that is six months away, get real, and take a tip from Democratic blogger Chris Bowers. "Simply because Brown changed his mind does not count as a mark against him in my book," Bowers writes. "So freakin' what? This is politics, not a game of golf."
But this doesn't mean that Hackett should just go away. He has far more political options than Brown in terms of offices he can run for (Brown has already run and won election to nonfederal statewide offices, meaning he really cannot go back and run for one again). Hackett could, for instance, keep his powder dry and wait to run for another statewide office in the future, either for another Senate seat in for a lower-tier statewide race. In the latter contest, Hackett would be a front-runner not only for the Democratic nomination but also for a general election win.
Better yet, Hackett could, in 2006, rerun the congressional race he recently came so close to winning. By election day next autumn, there will likely be an even more favorable climate for him to win that race, as the GOP's ongoing corruption scandals amplify the country's anti-incumbent sentiment. Additionally, Brown will have every incentive to once again help Hackett with resources and organizing, as an inflated Democratic turnout in Hackett's Cincinnati district could be the deathblow for Republicans in a statewide race.
Think about it: A situation like this, even by mathematical standards, is better than having Hackett and Brown run against each other or having Hackett running for the Senate and Brown holding on to his Akron congressional seat. If Brown stayed put and Democrats used Hackett to compete for the Senate seat, the party would be forfeiting any chance to pick up the Cincinnati House seat, as there is no Democrat other than Hackett who has a chance to win that district. The better alternative is for
Democrats to have Brown run for the Senate and have Hackett run for the Cincinnati House seat, with a potential net gain of two Democratic seats, not just one (Brown's current House seat, because of redistricting, is safely Democratic and would be retained).
Democrats rightly criticize the Republican Party for being an autocratic, corporate-structured entity that is disciplined to the point of squelching the democratic process — even within its own ranks. But situations like the one brewing in Ohio show that every now and again, Democrats might consider taking a lesson from their opponents and exerting some discipline of their own. That would require the party, the activists, and the candidates to swallow individual loyalties and egos to make sure the party has the most powerful overall ticket — a ticket that doesn't make primary roadkill out its best candidates and maximizes the party's chances to gain the most seats.
That ticket in Ohio is obvious on every level to any honest observer. It is a Brown-for-Senate and Hackett-for-Congress ticket that the Republican Party fears in the worst way — as long as Democrats have the discipline to make that ticket a reality.
David Sirota is a veteran Democratic campaign aide, most recently serving as a strategist for Brian Schweitzer, the first Democrat elected governor of Montana in 16 years.
By David J. Sirota.
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved