On Running Races and Pointing Fingers
Thu, 01/18/2007 - 8:57pm
UPDATE: We interviewed David Van Os, where he spoke on his reaction to the 2006 campaign cycle, his race, and his response to this article. You can hear the Van Os interview here.
As Democrats, we are a big-tent party. We pride ourselves on letting a broad spectrum of opinion come to the table for discussion. We believe in Holmes' marketplace of ideas, in letting all voices be heard. So it stands to reason that one could take personal affront when they feel like their particular voice is not getting equal time in the discussion.
David Van Os wrote a letter to one of his supporters recently, which was published with his permission on the Burnt Orange Report. In it, Van Os levels the charge that the Texas Democratic Party "played favorites" with statewide Democratic candidates in the 2006 election. He makes it clear that he's not talking about the distribution of TDP money - he is talking about "the party promoting an environment of support and confidence about the candidates and their messages through its public and press communications," since "money follows excitement and hope." He does not believe the party made a "conscious and deliberate" attempt to support Democrats all the way down the ticket.
David Van Os ran for Attorney General. I ran for no position. I am sure his experience with the Texas Democratic Party is far more extensive than my own.
I had the good fortune to sit down and talk with Van Os - as I'm sure many of you have as well; he's a very personable man - when he stopped by Denton County on his "whistle-stop tour." I found his "voice of the people" style to be engaging, and his grassroots populist message resonated with my idealist side. I instantly liked the guy. I did wonder to myself exactly how he had time to raise the sort of war chest he would need to compete with someone like Greg Abbott when he was busy zooming around all 254 counties, but that concern was easily put aside - surely someone running for one of the highest positions in Texas would have that covered.
Then I started thinking about that a bit more. I hadn't heard a thing about David Van Os, other than a comment or two in a county meeting about his running, before I received his "whistle-stop tour" flyer in September. At the time I was Communications Director for the Denton County Young Democrats, so I was fortunate enough to be in a position where I would at least hear about pretty much any event or issue that a Texas candidate chose to publicize. Yet David Van Os's camp had been silent for the majority of the election, and save that one flyer, remained silent until election day.
That is not to say Van Os didn't have exposure - a group of Denton Democrats, whose affiliation to Van Os's campaign remains unclear to me to this day, raised enough money to get a billboard put up on a high-traffic area of I-35 for the last month of the campaign. The billboard was very well-done, and I was impressed that they raised that kind of money. I have no idea where it came from, since I hadn't seen the campaign put out any information on themselves before their tour appearance late in the election cycle; good job to them for rounding up some late donors without any real prior exposure. That must have been a difficult task.
Van Os notes that "money follows excitement and hope." I would note that excitement and hope imply foreknowledge of there being something to be excited and hopeful about. Where were the weekly press releases one would expect from an up-ticket candidate? Where were the reports on early fundraising efforts? Where were the per-county organization efforts? The high-profile events? Ice cream socials and hot dog suppers are fine and dandy for a Justice of the Peace candidate, but they're not the scale a state-wide operation needs to be working with to fundraise.
Van Os seems to hold the state party responsible for not encouraging "...an environment of support and confidence" in down-ticket Democratic candidates. I find that strange, because I do not remember in the twenty years I've lived here seeing an environment in Texas more filled with support and confidence for Democrats - candidates, organizations, what have you - than in 2006. And it showed, in the races of those candidates that ran a politically savvy race. Harriet Miller ran for the Texas House District 102 seat against an entrenched state representative, Tony Goolsby. She raised around $300,000, which is right about where she needed to be to really compete in that house district. And she ran a fantastic race. She didn't get a lick of money from the state party, HDCC, or anyone else Van Os made cited until the last month or so before the election, and even then, she received $8100 in in-kind contributions from the TDP and a $16000 contribution from the HDCC -- assuredly a help during the last month of her campaign, but in total only about 8% of her general election fundraising. Let me reiterate: Harriet Miller, running a race for a Texas House seat, managed to raise nearly double what Van Os raised for a state-wide campaign without resorting to the state party for help. Small wonder, then, that the HDCC would help chip in for the final push of her campaign. Do you imagine she could raise that kind of money in a hostile environment, one without the "support and confidence" Van Os was looking to get? In District 85, Joe Heflin, without significant state support, ran an underdog race in one of the reddest areas in Texas, raised real money, ran a real campaign, and won. Where was the negative environment there?
Of the five state rep seats we picked up in the general election, two were in the North Texas area, one in Corpus Christi, one in Austin, and one in West Texas. Support for the Democratic ticket was both clearly present and geographically distributed, state-wide. Unless the TDP released some "Don't Vote For Down-Ticket Candidates" flyer that I somehow didn't see, the Texas Democratic Party did as evenhanded a job as they could be expected of doing in encouraging Democrats across the board. Does Van Os really expect some broad statewide "feel-good" campaign actively marketing every candidate on the ticket? I like to think that he actually doesn't believe that "it's not about the money," that he didn't honestly expect the party to singlehandedly create "an environment of support and confidence" - because if he's not just bitter because he didn't get party financial support, and honestly thinks that a broad statewide pro-Democratic campaign is even remotely financially feasible, he has a much more deluded grasp of politics than I originally believed. You want the party's $400,000 to be used for that purpose? You'll need a couple more zeros, Mr. Van Os.
I'm hopeful that isn't the case, and that Van Os is more politically savvy than the points he presents in the letter would indicate, but some of his points would seem to indicate that he's going on a rant without really noticing what's going on. He cites, for example, that he doesn't want the party to be "promoting just Chris Bell for governor." Did he read his own letter? He earlier named Russ Tidwell as part of the "consultantocracy" that is supposedly running the Texas Democratic Party - the same Russ Tidwell that was lambasted elsewhere in the Burnt Orange Report for not supporting Chris Bell in the race, and instead directing key Democratic donors to Strayhorn! Bell didn't receive early support from the party - he only started getting party support after he proved himself a viable candidate by (surprise!) raising money. Chris Bell and Barbara Ann Radnofsky have that to their merit, which no other statewide Democratic candidate can claim - they both eventually acknowledged that they had to raise a significant amount of money to be viable in their races, they recognized that it is neither their role nor is it within the power of the state party to give them that money, and they went out and got it. If Van Os would have paid closer attention to Bell, perhaps he would have done a bit better with his own fundraising. Yes, money may "follow excitement and hope," but especially in political circles, excitement and hope themselves follow money.
And that's the bottom line lesson to be learned from Van Os's candidacy - the state party, having limited resources to support individual candidates (and far too limited to make a broad statewide push), have to select the most viable candidates to support. I'm not sure exactly how the "consultantocracy" controls the Texas Democratic Party - I guess that's supposed to be a bad thing, though I don't understand how taking the advice of people who have extensive experience in politics and choose to share that with the party is a bad thing - but if they were "controlling" the party by telling them "hey, you don't have much money, spend it where it counts," that sounds eminently reasonable to me. Van Os alleges that the $400,000 Boyd raised went to 17 legislative candidates, and that somehow that was - unwise? Unfair? I'm not sure. Let's pretend, instead, that every red cent of that went to Van Os's campaign for Attorney General. Okay, Mr. Van Os, after that influx of cash, you are now only a mere $1.5 million away from running a credible - not strong, but credible - campaign for Attorney General. Where do you plan to get that cash? $400,000 is not enough to fund two competitive legislative races, let alone 17 - split 17 ways, that money wouldn't make a dent. The Texas Democratic Party knows what they're there for - they spent their $400,000 on statewide voter contact programs in as many competitive regions as they could afford, doing mail buys and phone banking to get out the Democratic straight-ticket vote, benefitting everyone on the ticket. It is the candidates' job to do candidate campaigning, and to set up coordinated campaigns where all candidates for a region pool resources to reach their local targets. And frankly, our candidates did a poor job of that.
Second-guessing an election cycle where we made significant Democratic pickups in difficult regions of the state seems like a silly proposition to me. And assuming that a "voice of the people" can yield, through some democratic process, a wiser course of action than a small group of individuals chosen for their extensive political experience strikes me as akin to taking the scalpel out of a surgeon's hand and handing it to a committee of accountants. That sort of surgery may suit Van Os's populist principles, but it makes for pretty bad medicine. Democratic candidates made serious inroads in Texas politics 2006, and we won some really tough races, even though the statewide Democratic ticket included a number of people that had no concept of what a good campaign entails. I attribute that success to the hard work and diligence of those candidates, their willingness to raise money and run a sound "Politics 101" campaign, and to key late-game assists from the Texas Democratic Party. Decrying the 2006 elections as a failure simply due to individual losses is a childish game, and one we as a party don't have time to play.