Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Warning bell for the Democratic party

By Libby

Here's an interesting development from my old home state. I see they held a special election to fill Rep. Marty Meehan's vacated seat and the Democrat in a solidly Dem district, in a overwhelmingly Democratic friendly state, barely eked out a victory. There's quite a bit of speculation on why Niki Tsongas failed to emerge with a clear victory. Having previously lived in the state myself for almost 30 years, I'd say Josh Marshall's reader has a good read on why the candidate showed so poorly.

Among progressives there was a lot of resentment that 1) Tsongas beat out a great progressive candidate in the primary and that she 2) was essentially crowned by the local Democratic machine, without having done anything whatsoever to deserve it.

And Chris Bowers nails the larger problem that should have the entire Democratic establishment concerned.

The whole thing reeks of an ineffective, local Democratic machine that operates based on loyalty rather than merit or ideas, and which hasn't been tested by any serious opposition in a long time.

That's it exactly. Having lived in Western MA, I don't know much about Meehan other than he was tireless advocate for sensible drug policy reform, and I'm not familar with his district but I assume he was able to safely advocate for the issue because of its progressive population. I don't doubt it was disgust among the progressive branch of the party that prevented Tsongas from scoring a decisive win. In fact, this is precisely how Massachusetts ended up with Mitt Romney as governor and one can trace the seeds of the progressive's discontent back to the primary that ended up anointing another heir apparent from a politically connected family, Shannon O'Brien, as the Democratic candidate then.

The exact same dynamic played out in that election. Robert Reich was the strongest contender against Mitt and he was cheated out of the nomination by the party machine, beginning at the caucus level. He entered the race late and the conventionally wise said it couldn't be done. They underestimated the power of the progressives who organized around his candidacy.

His supporters heeded the 11th hour call, flooded the local caucuses and got him on the ballot. Unfortunately, most of the delegates were newbies, who didn't understand the caucus machinery and left too early. Thus the machine was able to dilute the field by adding on three other strong candidates and a couple of spoilers that would draw votes mainly from Reich. In the end, after a divisive primary, Reich lost by only 8 points despite the fact he had no money and his campaign was almost entirely driven by true grassroots supporters. He carried the entirety of WMA and large portions of the east. If the state had IRV elections, he would have won. Many voters acknowledged their second choice was Reich.

Shannon ended up winning without a mandate and the manner in which she was handed her victory by the machine left a lot of progressives bitter about the process and unwilling to work on her behalf for the "good of the party" that had just betrayed them. In the aftermath, they began to seriously organize outside the party structure in order to mount future challenges to the party establishment.

I believe this same dynamic came into play in this election and we will see it manifest in a larger context in 08. A growing of segment of the electorate are disgusted with career politicians and tire of supporting candidates hand-picked by the machine who talk a good game on the campaign trail but don't deliver on the votes once they got comforatable in their seats of power.

I've said this before, and I'll say it again. The Democrats shouldn't get complacent on the basis of generic polling. This election is not an anomaly. There will be no cakewalk in 08. They cannot depend on coasting in simply by being the not-Republicans. They discount the discontent of the voters at their own peril. The voters are primed to express their disgust with politics as usual at the ballot box and it will hurt Democrats more than the Republicans.

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