Wednesday, May 15, 2013

What Makes A Democrat Turn Bad When He Gets To Congress? Let's Ask Eric Swalwell


Q: Why does Jim Matheson vote with the Republicans all the time?
A: He's a careerist and a political coward and, after all, Romney beat Obama in his district 68-30%

Q: Why does Mike McIntyre vote with the Democrats on crucial rollcalls about as much as Walter Jones, a conservative Republican in his state?
A: McIntyre's district went 59-40% for Romney.

Q: People say John Barrow used to be progressive when he was a councilman in Athens. Why did he turn into one of the most reactionary Democrats in Congress?
A: Barrow doesn't stand for anything and never had any backbone-- and his district went 55-44% for Romney

Q: How did Ann Kirkpatrick wind up with the most Republican voting record of any Democratic freshman this year?
A: She's kind of like Barrow-- and Romney beat Obama 50-48% in her district... which isn't that daunting, so it must mostly be about cowardice and, since she was defeated in 2010 for doing the same thing, stupidity.

Q: I thought Patrick Murphy ran as a progressive; why is he behaving like a conservative Republican since she got to Congress?
A: Aside from always having been a Republican for his whole life, he's nervous because his district went for Romney 52-48%.

Q: Why is San Francisco Bay Area freshman Eric Swalwell so conservative since getting into Congress? Does he have one of those red districts too?
A: This one is tough to figure out. Either Swalwell is a Republican calling himself a Democrat for political expediency or he just hates working families and wants to wreck their lives. Obama didn't just win his district in a landslide, he won in a massive 68-30% landslide.

Swalwell, one of the most disliked Democratic freshman and one of the most disliked California incumbents in the state delegation, will have a primary to worry about next year. Not only is he way too conservative for his district, many party activists, who are much more likely to vote in a midterm than a run of the mill Democrat, haven't forgotten he primaried-- and in the nastiest way imaginable-- the district's beloved former congressman, Pete Stark. State Senate Majority Leader Ellen Corbett wanted to run for the CA-15 East Bay seat (Hayward, Dublin, Pleasanton, Livermore, Union City, Castro Valley, San Ramon, San Lorenzo), but Stark had asked her to wait another cycle. Now she's termed-out of the legislature-- and running hard against Swalwell (She had announced she would run last fall, even before Swalwell was elected).
Ellen Corbett is not Pete Stark-- in either the bad or the good ways. She is a calm, measured politician; she’s pleasant, smart, compassionate and empathetic, without being overly emotional. She is unlikely to make offensive statements on the campaign trail and give Swalwell the type of ammunition that he had with Stark. However, Corbett has been in public office for a couple of decades: first as a City Council member and Mayor of San Leandro, and then in the California Assembly and now California Senate. If Swalwell decides to run a negative campaign against her, he will probably be able to find plenty of things to criticize.

In 2012, Corbett’s advantages over Pete Stark were that her Senate district included most of CD 15 and that her views were more moderate, and thus more attuned to the voters. She’s always been a grass-roots politician, and knows the importance of one-to-one contact with voters. Voters have seen her at community events in their cities throughout the years. Since the district was redrawn, Corbett has also been seen in community events in those cities she does not currently represent: Dublin, San Ramon and Livermore.

In order to win, Corbett will have to make sure that the votes that went to Stark in 2010 now go to her and that the Democratic voters in Castro Valley and Pleasanton who voted for Swalwell, now vote for her instead. Of course, she will also have to make inroads with other Tri-Valley voters.

...Converting Swalwell voters to her is likely to be more difficult. While it’s true that many of the votes that Swalwell got were “anyone but Stark” votes, Corbett will need to make a case to the voters as to why she’s a better choice for them than the man they just put in office. Attacking his youth or inexperience did not work for Stark, so she will have to try to draw other distinctions.

So far the only message I’ve heard concerns Swalwell’s political stances. Rumors are being circulated that he has reached out to Blue Dog Democrats and to Republicans and that he is really a Republican in disguise (though that can also be said about President Obama). But rumors are just rumors and Swalwell is smart enough to know that it behooves him, at this point, to entrench himself within the Democratic party and follow Nancy Pelosi‘s lead. So far, all indications are that he’s doing just that. He has co-sponsored gun control legislation and the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act and he happily accepted being appointed an Assistant Whip, which means he is now responsible for making other Congress members fall into the Democratic party line. If Corbett wants to go after Swalwell on the issues, she will have to be ready to make strategic attacks on the party line.

One area in which Eric Swalwell and the Democratic leadership are particularly weak is the protection of civil liberties. Swalwell approves of the Patriot Act, going to war with Iran and  has dodged questions about whether he supports US Presidents having the power to assassinate American citizens (which would imply that he does). Swalwell, moreover, has made it explicit that he doesn’t believe in a separation of Church and State and has suggested there is no place in government (or maybe even America?) for non-believers. While those positions may play well with his conservative base in both parties, they will make many voters on his district-- both in the Democratic left and the libertarian right-- very uncomfortable.  Indeed, his support for gun control legislation is already losing him support in the Tri-Valley. Corbett could seize on this and develop a strong civil liberties agenda that would put all those voters in play. Indeed, this would also draw her closer to her potential colleagues to the north and south, Barbara Lee and Mike Honda, both staunch civil liberty advocates. That said, Corbett has not focused on civil liberties in the past and seems to be in favor of stronger federal gun control measures.

Corbett has two other big hurdles to clear: money and support. It’s almost impossible to win a Congressional campaign without money. Candidates need to put their names out there and that involves sending out mailers and putting out radio and TV ads, all of which are very expensive. A crafty candidate can save some money by manufacturing news events and getting free media coverage, but Corbett has not exhibited those media skills. Corbett started the year with only about $100K in her campaign account for Congress, that’s less than a tenth of what she will need in order to run a competitive race. And it’s not clear where her funds will come from. Her previous campaigns have been funded almost exclusively by PACs, so she doesn’t have a network of individual contributors on whom to rely on (by contrast, 85% of Swalwell’s contributions came from individuals). PACs, however, are unlikely to support her unless she can give them something that Swalwell can’t or won’t.

It’s also unclear how much support Ellen Corbett will be able to get from the Democratic party, labor and other groups.  She is extremely entrenched within the local party, while Eric Swalwell has received the cold shoulder-- at least publicly-- from local politicos.  But Corbett is not without her detractors: it’s hard to be in politics for so long without making enemies. She also has a reputation for not paying back her political debts, something which may come back to haunt her.  She does, however, have a good shot at winning the party’s endorsement, though it’s definitely too early to know how that will play out.

Local Democratic insiders seem to be under the impression that Corbett’s gender will play in her favor. Some believe that Corbett will get the support of Nancy Pelosi because Pelosi wants to see more women in Congress. While I’m sure she has that goal in general, I will note that in 2011 she participated in fundraisers for Ro Khanna, who at the time was planning to run for CD 15 against Ellen Corbett. And if Swalwell falls into line, Pelosi would have no incentive to back Corbett-- in particular, when there are plenty of more important races for her to concentrate on. It’s also doubtful whether Corbett will enjoy the support of Emily’s List, which also has more important races to focus on. Plus Swalwell has been playing it smart, not only did he co-sponsor re-authorization of VAWA but he joined the pro-choice caucus.

Even without overwhelming party support, Corbett is likely to have the support of the Alameda Labor Council. She has been faithful to labor for many years and chances are they will go to bat for her. However, it’s unlikely that the AFL-CIO will go against an incumbent Democratic candidate-- in particular, if he doesn’t do anything to offend them-- which could put local labor in a pickle. Without labor’s money and volunteers, her campaign is a non-starter.

Even with them, Corbett’s campaign has one additional problem: it has not embraced digital campaign technologies. As of this writing she doesn’t have a Facebook page, a Twitter account, a blog, a mailing list or even her own campaign website. This means that, at least online, the story of her campaign is being told by others (including me, if you search for “Ellen Corbett” you’ll see a link to San Leandro Talk). While in the digital age, it’s impossible for any politician to completely control their message; they still need to attempt to do so. And digital technologies not only allow politicians to interact with voters and maintain name recognition, but they also make it easier to run organized campaigns cheaply.

Swalwell knows all of this only too well. He has been tweeting out a storm (though he doesn’t respond to tweets), keeping up his Facebook page, posting videos on YouTube and making sure he’s seen everywhere. According to a recent tweet: “January by the numbers: 50 mtgs, 30 dist. events attended, 10 hearings, 200 guests from #ca15 for swearing-in & 9,000+ miles in the air.” He could have added his office issued 10 press releases in January, all available on his website (Corbett’s last press release is from September 2012). Moreover, Swalwell has been keeping the eyes of the media on him by hosting quirky events (e.g. “Ride with your Rep“) and vowing to try out one job held by people in his district every month.

...If a serious moderate Republican entered the race, however, things could get complicated very quickly. Roughly 40% of the votes in CD 15 are conservative/Republican votes. Swalwell got all of these in November 2010, but he would likely lose a large percentage of them in June 2014 if a serious, well-funded Republican entered the race. If Corbett was able to hold on to Stark’s votes, it’s possible that Swalwell could be eliminated in June, sending her and the Republican candidate to November (when the 60% Democratic votes would give her a win). If I was Corbett, I would be looking hard through my Rolodex with anyone with an R by their name.
Meanwhile, Swalwell has already sucked up contributions from every crooked Beltway lobbyist and corporate PAC in existence. His FEC report reads just like a garden variety Republican FEC report.

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