Monday, May 14, 2007

The value of primaries

I am a believer in running aggressive and hard hitting primary challenges against Democrats for a multiplicity of reasons. The first is to replace a corrupt or completely incompetent individual with someone who is at least vaguely competent and not under investigation or indictment. This is my primary reason for supporting so many challengers in the Greater Pittsburgh region, the local municipal Democrats in power tend to fall into the corrupt, stupid or incompetent categories. This is why I like Patrick Dowd and Mike Kraus for tomorrow's Pittsburgh City Council races as they are challengers to local hacks.

The second reason is to inflict significant costs on individuals who harm the party while seeking their own advancement. I supported Ned Lamont for the Democratic nomination for Connecticut's Senate seat because Joe Lieberman's entire political existance has to been to play political arbitrage from the right against the rest of the Democratic Party and liberals for his own personal gain. This challenge inflicted a significant cost on Sen. Lieberman, although it would have been more effective if national Democrats stepped up and pressured Sen. Lieberman to respect the informal social norms of respecting his party primary. Thanks for nothing insiders. However the Lamont primary win produced a strongly desired result of marginalizing Sen. Lieberman and his cult of faux bipartisanship while also injecting some spine into the rest of the Democratic leadership for the stretch run of last election.

A third reason to run a hard primary challenge is to inflict costs to persuade an incumbent to change their behavior. This is the type of primary campaign that I believe I will support the most this cycle. Representative Jane Harman (D-CA) is a national security hawk who supported the AUMF on Iraq and had been a reliable supporter of George W. Bush's national defense policies until she received a vigorous challenge from her left. She won the primary and cruised to re-election but her behavior has changed. She recently wrote at TPM-Cafe a set of statements that she would never have conceived as being either good in and of themselves or at least politically beneficial three years ago:

It is al Qaida, not Iraq, that is our biggest problem, and we need much better strategies for dealing with it. It seems to me that restoring America's core values and proud legal traditions are a big piece of any strategy for improving our tarnished international standing and winning the argument with the next generation of would-be terrorists.

That's why restoring habeas corpus, reining in the use of national security letters, and shutting down the prison at Guantánamo Bay are so important.
[h/t AmericaBlog]

The recent vote on the McGovern Amendment to mandate a fully funded withdrawal of US ground combat forces from Iraq provides a pretty good starting target list of potential Democratic primary challenges for the upcoming cycle. I do not believe we should target everyone on that list, as we would face both resource constraints, good candidate constraints, and most importantly we would be knocking off some incumbents that we need to hold onto to maintain a Democratic majority that has a chance in hell of passing liberal and progressive legislation in the 2009-2012 time frame.

Instead, we should apply the following decision tree that I wrote up last year to figure out which Democratic incumbents should be high value targets for a behavior modification primary challenge. Winning the primary is always desirable but a hard primary with subsequent changes in the target and the target's peers' behavior is a sufficient win to justify the effort.

I would hazard that the following guidepoints be used in evaluating whether a Democratic incumbent should be challenged. If the answer is "YES" then the case for a challenge strengthens

1. Does the incumbent routinely trash other Democrats and embrace conservative framing
2. Does the incumbent come from a safe district with a high Democratic PVI advantage?
3. Is there significant localized grass roots strength in the district/state?
4. Have these grassroots run successful proof of concept/proof of capacity campaigns the recent past? [Tight losing efforts such as the Cegalis campaign in Illinois would count in this case]
5. Is there at least one credible and experienced progressive candidate willing to step forward?
6. Is this candidate willing to be a serious candidate and challenger, remember that running for a federal office is often an 18 month 12 hour day, 7 day a week full time job.
7. Does the campaign have a realistic plan to leverage the early netroots interest, money, capacity, staff and buzz into a broader campaign that can utilize traditional sources of local power and influence?

I think that if you can get five early yeses, and no obvious roadblocks, then a challenge should be considered and some very early seed money and effort should be devoted. However I believe that all seven of these yeses would be needed for challenges to be worth significant backing

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