The lesson of California-50

Are Democrats upset about being out of power? On Friday, C-SPAN viewers of the Yearly Kos convention in Las Vegas were treated to this rambling, 58-second question from a young man in the audience:

“Just in the conduct of governance,” he began, “we’ve seen that the Republicans have pretty much taken corruption and criminality to a new level. And in fact, at this stage, almost every single top Republican — if the Constitution actually still has any integrity at this point — could be indicted for any variety of things, from treason, bribery, and what not. As they start getting backed up against the potential of going to prison for the rest of their lives and for committing acts of treason and what not, what can we expect as they get more and more desperate? They’re already willing to subvert the Constitution just in running the country, but when they face all of these criminal charges, is there any limit to what they might attempt in order to avoid prosecution and in order to avoid conviction and incarceration?”

Er, yeah, they’re pretty angry.

It wouldn’t be fair to pin liberals generally with the ramblings of a tactless, sophomoric blog-reading wannabe, but it is fair — and accurate — to say that Democrats’ rage continues to overpower their good sense. Krazy Kossacks aside, the Democrats are really on the point of blowing a huge opportunity this year.

Like our friend at the Kos Konklave, they see the “corruption and criminality” of their opponents, and they think that’s enough to put them over the top. They just can’t believe that voters aren’t feeling energized by their negativity, and they continue to stagger toward the general election with an apparent lead but no direction.

Replacing the crook

Everyone agrees that Democrats’ best chance at a 2006 comeback is a takeover of the U.S. House, hence the massive coverage of last Tuesday’s special election in California’s 50th Congressional District. Bush’s approval in the district was (and is) in the tank, and even worse were the “right-track/wrong-track” numbers on the direction that district voters felt the country was going (70 percent “wrong track,” according to a Republican memo released Wednesday).

With the district’s Republican representative, Duke Cunningham, in disgrace and on his way to prison for taking bribes, it was an ideal race for Democrats to win on the “Republican Culture of Corruption” theme they have parroted endlessly since mid-2005. What’s more, the same day as the special election, California Democrats were holding a very closely contested gubernatorial primary that was sure to bring out voters, whereas Republicans had no competitive primaries and no other reasons to vote.

It seemed like a perfect storm for Democrats, yet they lost — and what’s more, they showed very little improvement over the last election, despite the new advantages. John Kerry had taken 44 percent of the vote in this district two years earlier. The Democrats’ candidate this time, Francine Busby, took 45 percent.

On the other side, Republicans had nominated a weak general election candidate from a crowded field — a moderate former congressman and lobbyist named Brian Bilbray. He raised less than half as much money as Busby and gave up 4 percent last Tuesday to a candidate endorsed by the anti-immigration Minutemen. Even as he defeated Busby on the special election ballot, he won only 54 percent of Republicans’ votes in the simultaneous GOP primary for the November election — a clear sign of conservative discontent.

Obviously, every race is sui generis, and one can only learn so much from this one. For example, Busby made a critical gaffe near the end, suggesting that illegal aliens help with her campaign. Then again, don’t forget that Sen. John McCain actually cancelled an event with Bilbray around the same time. Many thought at the time (incorrectly, my boss reports after the fact) that it was a deliberate snub by McCain, which did not look good.

In the end, adjusting for gaffes, candidates, et cetera, it’s hard to spin this one for the Democrats. What in the world happened to that groundswell of anger we were all expecting? Against the President and his “rubber-stamp” Republicans in Congress? Against Abramoff and corruption? Against Tom DeLay? Against the Iraq War and WMD lies? Against Karl Rove?

Show us the money

Of course, there is one other thing about that California special election that cannot be omitted. The National Republican Campaign Committee poured $4.5 million into that race, in addition to the $1.1 million spent by the candidate himself. This outpaced the national Democrats’ $2 million contribution to Busby’s $2.3 million effort. As several commentators have noted, $4.5 million is a lot to spend in a Republican-friendly district, and it’s not like the Republicans can do that in every vulnerable district this November.

Or can they?

At the beginning of May, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) had $22.7 million on hand, almost exactly as much as its Republican counterpart, the NRCC. The Republican number will probably get a bump in June with their big presidential fundraiser, but this still looks really good for Democrats.

But how healthy is the other big party machine — the Democratic National Committee? In early 2005, I wrote that Howard Dean would be a disaster as chairman, unable to raise money or serve as an effective spokesman. Judge for yourself what kind of spokesman he’s been — but as far as the money goes, the payroll-heavy DNC has run on-and-off monthly deficits and wasted resources on states like North Dakota and Mississippi, not to mention Dean’s unsuccessful bid to oust New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin (D) last month.

Dean inherited a DNC in January 2005 with $6 million in the bank, and 18 months later he has just $9.4 million to show and zero election victories. A hedge-fund trader could have gotten similar results without even raising money from donors (well, almost).

Compare Dean’s money to an RNC total of $44.6 million, and adjust all of those numbers upward for September. How many races can the Republicans afford to splurge on now? Of the 25 or so vulnerable GOP House seats on my map (not including Bilbray, who will easily beat Busby again in November), my guess is that they could flood at least 15 close races with enough money to do the job. If they choose their targets wisely and continue the voter targeting programs that propelled them to victory in 2004, they could even drive turnout in some states hard enough to win Senate and governor races.

The lesson of California-50 is that Democrats can’t win without an agenda that actively motivates Americans to vote for them. They lack the resources to overcome what appear to be superior Republican mechanics across the map, and their candidates could well hit the “Kerry ceiling” just like Busby did. Negativity and a “bad public mood” just aren’t enough, and their current platform of gay marriage, amnesty, higher taxes, and blocking oil exploration and refining just isn’t going to win them much support beyond the yearly Kos Konvention.

Unless, that is, they manage to win because all of the Republicans are thrown into prison between now and November.

David Freddoso, a native of Indiana, is a political reporter for Evans and Novak Inside Report.

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