Last Tuesday’s elections in Virginia and New Jersey were heartening for Democrats thinking about running for office in 2018. Perhaps a strong ground game, like that executed by Virginia’s first openly transgender elected official, coupled with anti-Trump sentiment, can be game changers in next year’s congressional and state legislative elections.
In some districts it’s hard to run as a Democrat. I know this firsthand. I sold my business to challenge a six-term Republican congressman in 2016. I fell short, as had every Democratic challenger in my district since 1969.
My loss was not for lack of trying. I ran hard. By Election Day, I was a pretty good candidate. But it took me 18 months of trial-and-error campaigning to get there.
Why trial-and-error? Because the district is so red that the national party considered it a lost cause. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) concentrated its money and resources on targeted candidates in 28 swing districts; other candidates were ignored.
With the exception of local party activists and volunteers, I was on my own. Yet I was not alone. Across the country hundreds of candidates were in similar circumstances – running in districts considered unwinnable.
We need a different approach in 2018. Democrats are declaring for office in record numbers; most are first-time candidates. To date my team has identified some 850 Democrats challenging the 239 sitting Republicans in the U.S. House. That’s more than 3.5 Democrats for every Republican incumbent. After Tuesday’s results, look for that number to grow even larger.
Most of these Democrats are running in one of the 180 districts considered “Solid Republican” by the Cook Political Report. Most were not recruited by the national or state parties. They know the odds, yet they’ve stepped up on their own.
One is Dr. Kyle Horton, an internist who has interrupted her medical career to run for a solidly Republican seat in eastern North Carolina. Another is Richard Ojeda, a retired U.S. Army officer running in a West Virginia district that Trump won by 73 points. . Anthony Flaccavento, a Virginia farmer and entrepreneur, is making his second run against a GOP incumbent who received nearly 70 percent of the vote in 2016. The list goes on and on—and on.
These candidates deserve our respect and support. But what kind of support? The DCCC has stepped up its game since last year, but their resources are limited. And donors will have to pick and choose from among hundreds of deserving candidates.
Several organizations offer candidate training programs, notably Wellstone Action, the National Democratic Training Committee, and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. Others target specific candidate groups, such as women or candidates of color.
But traditional top-down training programs don’t always meet the needs of underdog candidates. They need low-cost, high-impact ways to garner attention and change voters’ minds.
I started the Democratic Candidates Conference to fill this void. DemCanCon is an open-source three-day event built on the professional conference model: keynote speakers, a selection of breakout training sessions, sponsor/exhibitors, and one-on-one networking. The idea is to flatten the learning curve so that each candidate and his/her team can build their own unique campaign quickly and at a modest cost.
The timing is right for our first year. The business of campaigning is transforming into a highly competitive marketplace. A host of low-cost technology-based tools are emerging in the areas of fundraising, organizing, voter tracking and targeting, direct mail, and digital advertising.
Those tools are needed desperately. Last year, 97 percent of U.S. House members who sought reelection won. 2018 could well be different. We want to help Democratic challengers capitalize on the shifting political winds by working as smart as possible.
Most of the 850-plus candidates seeking to oust Republican House incumbents should not expect much help from the Democratic Party. The DCCC limits its support to a relatively small field of targeted races, and the DNC is dealing with a rash of internal issues. Candidates have nothing to lose by going their own way.
Candidates who run against entrenched incumbents are vital to our system of government. At the very least they raise issues, hold office-holders accountable, and give voters a choice. And, you know what? Some of these longshots – maybe a lot of them – are going to win.
Andy Millard is the conference organizer for the Democratic candidates conference. His eclectic background includes roles as an educator, small business owner, financial planner, author, event planner and congressional candidate.