Why Aren't Bernie Sanders-Style Democrats Getting More Support from the Party Leaders in Washington?
Since losing the presidency to a Cheeto-hued reality TV host, the Democratic party’s leadership has made it clear that it would rather keep losing than entertain even the slightest whiff of New Deal style social democracy.
The Bernie Sanders wing might bring grassroots energy and – if the polls are to be believed – popular ideas, but their redistributive policies pose too much of a threat to the party’s big donors to ever be allowed on the agenda.
Even a symbolic victory cedes too much to those youthful, unwashed hordes who believe healthcare and education are human rights and not extravagant luxuries, as we saw when the Democratic establishment recruited Tom Perez to defeat the electorate-backed progressive Keith Ellison for DNC chair.
The Democrats demonstrated this once more this week when, in a special election triggered by Trump’s tapping of Mike Pompeo for CIA director, a Berniecrat named James Thompson came painfully close to winning a Kansas Congressional seat that had been red for over two decades, and his party didn’t even try to help him.
If Thompson’s picture is not on the Wikipedia page for “left-wing populism,” it really should be. Following a difficult upbringing during which he was homeless for a time, he joined the Army and attended college on the GI bill. He went on to graduate from Wichita State University and Washburn University before going into practice as a civil rights lawyer. He owns guns and looks natural in a trucker hat.
In a Reddit AMA, Thompson said he was “inspired to run by Bernie” and talked about “progressive values” like universal healthcare, education, and a $15/hour minimum wage. He also spoke in favor of taxing and legalizing marijuana, regulating Wall Street and overturning Citizens United. It’s no surprise he received the endorsement of Our Revolution, the progressive political action organization spun out of Sanders’ candidacy.
After beating an establishment Democrat in the primary, Thompson promised to take on Trump and the Republicans, as well as the state’s unpopular Republican governor Sam Brownback and Kansas-headquartered oligarchs the Koch brothers.
In one campaign ad, Thompson shoots an AR-15 rifle at a target before delivering a broad, class-based appeal: “People of all colors, all races, all religions, they want the basic same thing … they want to be able to provide for their family, provide a good education for their kids. We’ve got to get back to this country being about the working class family.”
While his candidacy initially seemed like a long shot in a district that had re-elected Pompeo just last year with 60.7% of the vote, in the weeks before the election, the race grew unexpectedly close.
This led to a sudden infusion of cash from the National Republican Congressional Committee to Thompson’s opponent Ron Estes, who in the end raised $459,000, $130,000 of it from the NRCC. He also received massive donations from representatives of big business and help from such national figures as Paul Ryan, Mike Pence, Ted Cruz, and the president himself, who tweeted about the race.
Estes spent much of his money on TV attack ads, like the one that claimed Thompson supports using tax dollars to fund late term abortions, as well as abortions performed because parents don’t like the gender of their baby.
Given our current political climate, you’d think the Democrats would have jumped at the chance to take back a Congressional seat and demonstrate opposition to Trump, but you’d be wrong. While Thompson managed to raise $292,000 without his party’s help, 95% of which came from individuals, neither the DNC, DCCC, nor even the Kansas Democratic Party would help him grow that total in any substantial way. His campaign requested $20,000 from the state Democratic Party and was denied.
They later relented and gave him $3,000. (According to the FEC, the Party had about $145,000 on hand.) The national Democratic Party gave him nothing until the day before the election, when it graced him with some live calls and robo-calls. He lost by seven percentage points.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Perez confirmed the DNC would not be giving Thompson a dime. “We can make progress in Kansas,” he said. “There are thousands of elections every year, though. Can we invest in all of them? That would require a major increase in funds.” Fact check: the DNC has a fund just for Congressional elections, of which there are just ten this year.
Contrast this with what Perez said just a few months earlier when he promised “a 50-state strategy” complete with “rural outreach and organizers in every zip code.” In a post-victory interview with NPR, he specifically name checked Kansas as a place Democrats could win. Why the sudden about face?
In defending their decision, party mouthpieces have taken the absurd line that giving Thompson money would have actually hurt his chances of winning, because then everyone would have known he’s a Democrat, and Kansans hate Democrats. (Let’s take a moment to appreciate these are the same people who keep saying the party doesn’t need a new direction.)
“You do not get to the single digits in a district like this if you’re a nationalized Democrat,” DCCC communications director Meredith Kelly told The Huffington Post. “End of story. That’s just the way it is. There are just certain races where it is not helpful to be attached to the national D.C. Democrats.” End of story, idiot.
Nobody must have told Kelly that Thompson was already attached to the “national DC Democrats” by virtue of being in their party, a fact Estes was happy to exploit in an attack ad that showed him waist deep in a literal swamp he hoped to drain.
“The liberals are trying to steal this election by supporting a Bernie Sanders backed lawyer, because they know he will vote how Nancy Pelosi tells him to,” he claimed. Seems Thompson got all the bad parts of being a Democrat this time around, and none of the good ones.
One person the party does not think will be hurt by their help is Jon Ossoff, who is running in a similarly red, but much wealthier, district in Georgia. To date, the DNC has raised some $8.3m for him and has committed to sending nine field staffers to organize on-the-ground efforts.
Although he is young, he’s an acolyte of the Democratic establishment, having worked for Representatives John Lewis and Hank Johnson, and he endorsed Hillary Clinton in the primary. He went to Georgetown followed by the London School of Economics and speaks fluent French. He has the support of several Hollywood celebrities.
Democrats think Ossoff is just the guy to bring his affluent suburban district back into the fold. (Clearly, losing a national election was not enough to reverse course on that most doomed of 2016 strategies: trading blue collar whites for wealthy, suburban ones.)
Georgia Democratic Party spokesman Michael Smith said this is the state organization’s chance to “deliver the White House its first electoral defeat.” Liberal bloggers are wetting their pants over this “weather vane” of early Trump backlash. It’s like Thompson’s campaign never even happened.
By refusing to fund the campaigns of anyone but centrist, establishment shills, the Democratic Party aims to make the Berniecrats’ lack of political viability a self-fulfilling prophecy: starve their campaigns of resources so they can’t win, then point to said losses as examples of why they can’t win.
If that means a few more red seats in Congress, so be it. The more they do this, though, the less of Bernie’s “political revolution” will be absorbed by the Democratic Party and the more will go shooting off into third parties and direct action.
Feel free to keep eating your own, Democrats. At this rate, we’ll have a socialist party in no time.
*The original version of this article referred to Joe Pompeo. It has since been changed to Mike Pompeo.