Politics

Why Every House Race Will Be a National Battle

It was once unthinkable for candidates to advertise outside their districts. In 2017, it makes perfect sense.

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One of the biggest changes in U.S. politics in 2017 is the nationalization of state and local races. Consider this ad for a Democratic challenger in Kentucky's 6th U.S. House district that was making the rounds on social media this week.

When is the last time House campaign ad released nearly 10 months in advance of the primary election got your attention? Who was the last House candidate of any kind you remember hearing about in the national media this early?

Amy McGrath spends most of the two-minute clip retelling her origin story, but she also calls out Kentucky senator -- and Republican majority leader -- Mitch McConnell. Is that because McConnell is deeply unpopular in this district? No. Almost certainly, the ad is meant to reach Democrats hundreds of miles away through the national Democratic party network. The same national network which made it possible for Georgia House candidate Jon Ossoff to shatter fundraising records in his special election bid earlier this year -- his first run for office.

Forty years ago, the idea of a House challenger raising party money nationally, especially at this stage of the campaign, would have been nonsense. 1  Even 20 years ago it would have been far-fetched. 

Some of that was technology; until recently it would have been unthinkable for any House candidate to advertise outside of her own district. Now, not only is the technology available for people to easily donate small amounts to campaigns via websites and smartphones, but so are the networks to use it.

For a sense of the enormous potential power of these forces, consider how quickly Bernie Sanders was able to rival Hillary Clinton's fundraising operation despite not spending years recruiting big donors nor having a former president standing at his side. It was mostly small donations from across the country. At the presidential level, with intense media attention, those donations can be activated by campaigns themselves. But for lower offices, especially little-covered House elections, it matters a lot that party networks can amplify anything even more rapidly than the old broadcast networks used to do with their nightly news shows. 

How? In this case, the ad was made by Mark Putnam, a big-name Democratic campaign consultant who has helped win dozens of elections. It was boosted by Politico's "Playbook," one of the most influential email newsletters in politics, on Tuesday morning. 2  By Wednesday afternoon, Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress and former senior adviser to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, announced herself as a supporter and a donor:

This didn't just happen. It was by design, and the design was possible because of the national institutions of our parties and how they can exploit both new and older media.   

The last time parties were this strong in the United States, back in the 19th century, they were also almost entirely local. "National" parties only came into existence for presidential nominations and elections. Well into the 20th century, national parties were still mostly fictions; the formal party committees didn't do much (and still have only very limited importance), and local campaigns were run by, well, local people. If McGrath makes it to Washington, she will of course be responsive to her new constituents. But she'll also, like everyone else elected to Congress these days, already have a relationship with national Democrats. 

Or, to put it another way: People spent a whole lot of time over the last couple of weeks questioning the Democrats' new party slogan for 2018. But that matters a lot less right now than what donors, activists, and campaign professionals working with individual candidates are doing and thinking. And it's a national story because so many of those donors, activists, and campaign professionals are part of a national party. 3

Is that a good thing? I think so. I'm a strong supporter of Madisonian federalism, including individual House districts with members of Congress who have to be attuned to idiosyncratic local interests. I think it promotes strong, effective democracy in a way that purely national proportional representation doesn't by making representation happen on something close to a human scale. 

And yet nationalized parties also allow everyone to meaningfully participate in a process that has the power to shift national policy. Indeed, the ability of Californians and Texans to influence Senate elections in, say, Wyoming and Rhode Island partially compensates for the malapportionment of that chamber, while national participation in House elections can partially compensate for the (smaller) distortions of gerrymandering. 

Returning to McGrath: It's a terrific ad, no doubt. Indeed, it's almost perfectly timed, whether as a result of campaign skill or dumb luck, to do that. It's the beginning of August, traditionally a down month for other political news. Not only are there no high-profile elections in August or September, but Democratic small donors and activists have had a bit of a breather after the last high-profile special elections, including the record-breaking Georgia one six weeks ago. And Mitch McConnell has been all over the news, or at least as much as anyone other than Donald Trump can be, for the last couple of weeks. Pitching herself as a way to get back at McConnell? Shrewd.

I make no predictions, but it wouldn't shock me if this ad raised up to $1 million, which would be a solid sum to spend on an entire ho-hum House primary. There are a lot of Democrats out there itching for any excuse to get involved in a fight against Trump and McConnell. 

Is Amy McGrath a strong challenger? Would she make a good member of the House? I have no idea at all. She's a (very) recently retired Marine fighter pilot with no political experience at all, as far as I can tell. The district itself leans Republican, but not enough that Republican incumbent Andy Barr could feel safe in what's expected to be a good Democratic year. The expert analysts at the Cook Report don't consider it a contested seat at this point, and I doubt any single ad will change that for now. 

Political scientists are still trying to understand nationalization of political parties, but overall I think it's a positive trend -- as long as politicians still have enough incentives to care about their local jurisdictions and not just whatever the national party wants.

Plus, for those of us who are political junkies, it gives us a chance to see cool political ads even in off years. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. Of course candidates, but rarely challengers, could raise money from nationally organized interest groups, which were in some cases aligned with one party. Formal party organizations gave candidates money, but not challengers in contested primaries, and could raise "soft" money for nominees; more recently, leadership PACs allowed important members of Congress to contribute to other candidates. But appealing directly to national partisan donors, especially small donors, without formal party organization involvement? That's new. 

  2. Tellingly, Putnam's name, not McGrath's, was featured in that item. Of course, Putnam must have been impressed with McGrath to get involved in a House campaign like that; it's not that the candidate herself is irrelevant. 

  3. I'm focused here on the electioneering side of things, but parties are also nationalized through Washington-based, party-aligned governing professionals. That hasn't always been the case either; politicians would either bring their own people from their states, or (after civil service reforms) rely on neutral expertise found in the federal bureaucracy. Now, those sources of assistance are supplemented by partisan governing professionals. 

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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