Positions Available: Candidates for 1998
Dubuque grandmother Donna Smith was innocent enough to believe that winning elections in America had more to do with raising issues than raising money. Her naivete almost got her elected to Congress.Outspent by a margin of ten to one, matched against one of Newt Gingrich's top lieutenants, abandoned by the national Democratic Party, Smith committed herself to a populist platform that rendered her of no interest to the special interests. The pundits wrote her off as a political nonentity. But on Election Day, 1996, she won almost 48 percent of the vote, nearly defeating Jim Nussle, the entrenched Republican in charge of managing Newt Gingrich's takeover of the House."We were on our own. We didn't have any consultants telling us what we couldn't do," says Smith. "So we went back to the grassroots and ran the kind of campaign Democrats should be running."The story of Smith's challenge to Nussle is more than a hopeful anecdote from the never-ending campaign trail. It could serve as a model for grassroots progressives."The system is far more vulnerable than Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gingrich would let on," says Bernie Sanders, the independent U.S. Representative from Vermont. "I think there are openings. Not easy openings. But openings for progressives to run class-based, grassroots campaigns that challenge not just Republican incumbents but the whole system."Walter Holden Capps mounted one such challenge. In 1994, the University of California at Santa Barbara religion professor was the Democrats' sacrificial lamb in the race for a California seat that the GOP had held since World War II. Badly outspent in a district famous as the scenic spot where Ronald Reagan maintains a ranch, Capps defended the rights of illegal immigrants, endorsed same-sex marriage and gays in the military, and called for broader protection of the environment. Asked about proposals to eliminate welfare, Capps said, "I wouldn't eliminate programs that are the reason we have government -- to help those families and individuals that can't help themselves."Political consultants labeled the Capps approach a roadmap to oblivion. But the professor, who had never before sought public office, got 49 percent of the vote in the face of the 1994 Republican landslide. He came back in 1996 and won the seat with ease. Tragically, Capps died of a sudden heart attack in October 1997, but his wife, Lois, who is equally progressive, appears to be a frontrunner to hold the seat in an early 1998 special election.Other progressive candidates have broken the mold.In 1996, Clem Balanoff capitalized on grassroots labor support to gain 48 percent in an Illinois race. Kim Tunnicliff ran a populist campaign that almost unseated entrenched Michigan U.S. Representative Nick Smith. New Mexico's Shirley Baca built a coalition of Hispanics, labor activists, Native Americans, and environmentalists that upped the Democratic percentage by 12 percent in her New Mexico district. And the Green Party's Carol Miller fared better than expected in a 1997 New Mexico special election. Even if they did not win, they placed and showed in districts where they now could emerge as 1998 victors.There is an opening for new candidates as well. One such candidacy could be that of Margarethe Cammermeyer, who successfully fought the National Guard's attempts to discharge her for being a lesbian. She is planning to challenge U.S. Representative Jack Metcalf (Republican of Washington), an ideologue who dwells on the far-right fringes of the Republican caucus.These openings exist, in part, because Democratic Party hacks are having trouble recruiting the sort of centrist candidates they prefer. A headline in Congressional Quarterly, the bible of Capitol Hill insiders, says it all: "With Major Issues Fading, Capital Life Lures Fewer: Both parties are struggling to fill campaign rosters for '98 races as potential candidates find reasons for staying home."The November 1998 election will determine control of both houses of Congress, as well as the majority of governorships and state legislatures.Even so, of twenty-nine Senate incumbents expected to seek reelection in 1998, "only a handful have as yet drawn a truly threatening rival," says Congressional Quarterly's Alan Greenblatt.In competition for the House, it's even worse. "Recruiters for House races are struggling," says Greenblatt. "Once the obvious targets have been accounted for, the crowd of potential candidates thins out quickly. In at least a dozen districts where the current seat-holder won with 52 percent of the vote or less in 1996, no one has stepped forward to carry the opposition banner in 1998."Two years ago, one of the closest Congressional races in the nation played out in central Illinois. In a House district long held by the Democrats, Republican John Shimkus squeaked out the narrowest of victories -- winning the seat by a bare 50.3 to 49.7 margin.Come next November, Shimkus ought to be in for the fight of his life. But with just weeks to go before the Illinois filing deadline for Shimkus's seat, he had no opponent.He is not unique. At least six House Republicans elected in 1996 to represent formerly Democratic districts had no challenger one year before Election Day. This was true even though all six of the Republicans fell within the political danger zone -- having won by less than 53 percent of the vote.Why don't Democrats want to come out and play politics? It's not that 1998 is shaping up as a great year for Republicans, whose eleven-seat House majority is vulnerable at a time when polls indicate that Newt Gingrich remains the most unpopular figure in American politics. One problem may be the common belief that only candidates with huge amounts of money can compete.Another is that the Democratic Party's good-old-boy network actually discourages grassroots progressives from running."Don't expect any help from them," Smith says of Democratic insiders. "Washington is just for sale, and they're as much a part of it as anyone else. If you see House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, ask him what happened to the help he promised me."Smith learned not to count on Democratic strategists when Washington Democrats discouraged labor groups from contributing to her campaign. Smith raised just $67,000 -- as opposed to her opponent's $680,000.So Smith campaigned guerrilla-style. The Dubuque county supervisor, who identifies herself as a Democrat in the "anti-Vietnam war, equal rights for women, Kennedy, McGovern" tradition, called Nussle "Georgia Jim" to emphasize his ties to Gingrich. When the incumbent, who had always been on good terms with the religious right, announced he was getting a divorce, Smith joked that it was no surprise: He had divorced the district when he started voting with Gingrich to cut subsidies for farmers.Rather than play it safe on the issues, Smith and her band of grassroots supporters went for broke. They sounded populist themes that brought in more volunteers.But isn't this sort of do-it-yourself politics futile? Hardly.Consider what happened in the 1960s, when anti-war radicals such as Robert Scheer started entering Democratic primaries. Their candidacies paved the way for the election of anti-war House members Allard Lowenstein, Ted Weiss, Pat Schroeder, and Ron Dellums. With Dellums departing Congress in February, the need to replenish the ranks of the left-liberal wing of the House Democratic Caucus is pronounced. Yet that will only happen if progressive candidates mount challenges to politics as usual."Go into the Democratic Party primaries and challenge on the basis of a program you believe in," says G. William Domhoff, a sociologist at the University of California -Ð Santa Cruz. "Notice what I'm saying here: I'm not saying I think Clinton's a good guy, I'm not saying you ought to support the best liberal. You ought to do it yourself."Newt Gingrich understands that.In 1974, at the height of the Watergate controversy, when he was a European history professor at West Georgia College, Gingrich ran an unwinnable race for a rural House seat that had not elected a Republican since Reconstruction. He ran again in 1976, and lost again. Each time he expanded his base of volunteers. In 1978, he won the seat.Could progressives do the same thing? Organized labor obviously thinks such a strategy has appeal. The AFL-CIO is launching a "2000 in 2000" drive that aims to get 2,000 union members to run for elective posts in the millennium election. But that approach is unlikely to achieve its full potential unless a base is built in 1998.Donna Smith says she is considering running again in 1998. And she is encouraging others to take up the challenge."Grassroots campaigns are a little grueling on the individual candidate. It's harder work than running a campaign that's just fundraising and commercials," she says. "But I would definitely tell people around the country to take a shot at these races. We need change in Washington desperately. And it's only going to come from us."John Nichols is an editorial writer for The Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin. He writes about electoral politics for The Progressive.