"Montana special election? Oh, I didn't know about that." This is what one of the most influential Democratic Congressional Committee members, South Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn had to say about the Montana Congressional special election. The quip told much about why the Democrats are still in big trouble in trying to figure out how to beat Trump. The very first step toward doing that is to start winning some congressional seats in the run-up to the 2018 mid-term elections. This won't happen until Democrats stop running scared about races like the one in Montana. Their terror is based on the wrong-headed assumption that they can't beat a GOP candidate such as Greg Gianforte in a Deep Red State such as Montana.
But look at Montana. All the ingredients to win were there. The Democrats had a candidate, Rob Quist, with money, household name recognition in the state, had a populist message, barnstormed through the state pounding the GOP on its ludicrous, and bogus health care plan that would dump 70,000 Montanans back in the uninsured cold.
They had a lot of young, fired up Democratic activists who were eager to work for Quist and the party. Then they stumbled badly. They paid no attention to early voting organizing. This is crucial. In Montana, more than half of the voters had already cast their votes long before Election Day. Where were the phone banks, the volunteer canvassers, the social media blitz weeks ahead of time to sell Quist and insure that many of those early votes were for him? No, instead much was made about Gianforte's alleged assault on a reporter. The horrible assumption was that this would create enough anger and backlash against him to cripple, if not sink, his candidacy. Again, this is more of the same old thinking that the Democrats can rely on a GOP opponent to shoot themselves in the foot and that will make the difference. In other words, your opponent will do your job for you. This thinking didn't work so well with Trump. But did the Democrats learn anything from that?
Quist got lots of locals out for his rallies in small towns throughout the state, many were mad as heck about the GOP's phony health care plan. They were ripe voter fodder to build and expand the local Democratic county committees. That meant you had to have experienced DNC and State Committee organizers on the ground there to provide direction and resources, and most importantly, give them something to do beyond just screaming at the GOP at rallies. Where were those national organizers? The only name Democrat who seemed to pay any attention to the race was Bernie Sanders who endorsed Quist and held rallies with him. Now contrast that with Trump. He and Pence did robocalls in the closing stage of the campaign touting Gianforte. This meant a lot.
Then there was the question of money. Quist had his own. He had the luxury of providing a lot of his money for his campaign and grabbed a lot of dollars from small donors fired up by his candidacy. However, the big bucks weren't forthcoming from the DNC and national donors until late in the campaign. The money should have been there when it could have made a real difference. By the time the party spent the money it was too late.
The Democratic National Committee was by any standard a wreck and a ruin during the 2016 presidential campaign. It got pounded for misstep after misstep that included: poor, and disconnected leadership, leaked emails, gross favoritism, petty infighting, blatant manipulation of the primaries, and gross cluelessness about the Trump threat. There were clearly hard lessons to be learned from this. One, was do not rely on Trump's fumbles, bumbles, and idiocies to be literally the trump card for repairing the electoral wreck and winning lots of races. This has proven time again to be a fatal mistake.
The other, is that don't throw in the towel on any of the congressional races, no matter how Deep Red the state is. Montana is a textbook example of the folly of that. The state has a Democratic governor and a Democratic senator, and that's no aberration. Democrats hold state and national office in many Red States. So obviously with the right messaging, hard work, and money, more Democrats can win races in those states.
The Democratic National Committee is tasked with the chore of spotting and recruiting able talent to run as Democrats for office, then helping to raise money for the Democratic candidates and incumbents, putting volunteer and paid professional boots on the ground for their campaigns, and mounting an all-out get out the vote blitz in the weeks leading up to the election to put Democrats locally and nationally over the top.
This takes a well-oiled, well-coordinated ground game to put as many Democrats as possible in Congress and to keep the ones who are there in office.
Montana was ripe for the Democratic pickings. If not an outright win, at least it could have served as a test for the Party's campaign mettle for 2018. It flunked the test--again.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is an associate editor of New America Media. His Latest Ebook, How the Democrats Can Win Again in the Trump Era (Amazon Kindle). He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.