Ever since first considering running a primary campaign against a quite prominent traditional, corporate-oriented House Democrat, I've naturally been prepared to be outspent by say, 30-1 as I have been through the first three-quarters of this year. But I assumed that if and when I was outspent by that kind of margin, it would be by the incumbent. And, indeed, the incumbent has seriously outspent me but by a greater margin even greater than that. What I didn't expect was being outspent 30-1 by another progressive Democratic challenger. On the one hand, I'm kind of okay with that, but I do think it raises some questions.
The immediate history here is that last year two challengers running to our incumbent's left were striving to be the first Democrat to make it past the hurdle of an open, i.e., nonpartisan primary in order to face the incumbent in the final in an overwhelmingly Democratic district. But then, in the last week that it was possible to do so, a third progressive Democrat joined the field, after which the three (along with a couple of other progressive non-Democrats with smaller vote shares) divided the vote to the point where a Republican took second place with only nine percent. And the three spent $225,000 doing so.
Not wishing to be party to a replay of that sort of fiasco, when I decided to make the race, two things seemed obviously to be in order. The first was that ideally the district's progressives could develop a process for uniting the left behind a single challenger, with the candidates agreeing to accept the results. The second was that the progressive candidates should moderate their spending in the intra-left portion of the race and hold their powder for a final run against the incumbent.
The problem is, of course, that spending restraint runs absolutely counter to the basic campaign rule of "spend every dollar you can raise." Could there be a place, or an obligation perhaps, for any kind of solidarity among progressive candidates who might even be running against one another solidarity, if not with each other, then perhaps with the people who supported them and whose contributions they solicited?
As time has passed, there has lately been some tentative progress on the idea of progressives coming together to consider a joint stance in this race. So far as spending, an entirely independent matter campaign-to-campaign, the only way I could see avoiding repeating last year's dollar competition was simply not to engage. I'd try to do the first round as inexpensively as possible, reasoning that if all the candidates did this, we'd spend a lot less money fruitlessly, whereas going all out would obviously cost the candidates' collective contributors a whole lot more.
As far as campaign logic goes, I was opting for a radical stance. No one would be asked for more than $200; I would not hire a fundraiser; I would rely upon my own labor as much as possible. You might call it something of a "solidarity campaign." The question is whether you can actually get anywhere adopting that sort of stance.
For one thing, this tack turns out not to be an easy sell, even on the left. For all the traction that this consideration got me with one major left group, I felt I might as well have been pitching it to Republicans. When asked about how much money we had raised, the right answer was clearly always more, not less.
This year, we again have three candidates on the left last year's late entrant who's become this year's big spender, and two of us new to this fray. While I know that my argument does accurately speak to the collective overall interest of the district's progressives, I do wonder if it is doomed to fall on deaf ears.
Which is why I only say that I'm "kind of okay" with being outspent 30-1. I'll stick by the logic of the low spending argument, but I also do know that a 30-1 spending edge can buy you a lot more organization and publicity. Certainly it has already done so in this race. And excess will drown out restraint any day. As anybody who runs knows, there's a whole industry built around campaign spending with mouths to feed. There ain't one around the idea of not spending.
Furthermore, so far as agreeing to the idea of potentially withdrawing from a race in the interest of promoting possible progressive unity, the more you spend, the more you'll likely dig in your heels because you'll feel obligated to the larger number of people who invested in your campaign and the more likely you'll feel obligated to see it through. As someone said to me recently, "A candidate who raises $200,000 is not going to drop out." In fact, they eventually tend to come to prefer even avoiding debate with their less well fed rivals.
Instead of flying south to assess the asylum situation at the border, I've driven my '98 Volvo around our very compact district and promoted the idea of a Marshall Plan for Central America. Can an approach like this actually work in the real world? It's not for me to say.