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‘What the hell are we doing?’: Democrats are letting beatable election-denying Republicans cruise to reelection

A party desperate to protect its narrow majority in Congress is leaving key races in Michigan, Ohio, and Florida virtually uncontested.

A Democratic nominee for Congress, Joseph Alfonso, knocks on doors around downtown Plainwell, Mich.Daytona Niles for the Boston Globe

KALAMAZOO, Mich. — If you want to gauge the Democrats’ chances for holding on to their wafer-thin majority in Congress this fall, consider a pair of House races in southwest Michigan.

In the Third Congressional District, in the Grand Rapids area, you’ll find what is by now a familiar story.

A talented, well-funded Democrat, former Justice Department official Hillary Scholten, is riding public anger over the Supreme Court’s abortion decision to the top of the polls. And John Gibbs, the antiabortion election denier whom Republican voters couldn’t help choosing over a moderate incumbent in the party primary, is struggling to catch up.

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But the Fourth Congressional District, just to the south, is the site of a less chronicled and, for Democrats, worrisome phenomenon — one that could stall the party’s momentum and allow an increasingly dangerous GOP to eke out a majority in Congress.

Democrats here, in what is a surprisingly common occurrence, simply failed to recruit a candidate with a realistic shot at winning.

Instead, they wound up with the one person who stepped up to run: an ex-Marine named Joseph Alfonso who has struggled to raise money or build name recognition. And without much competition, the district’s own antiabortion, election-denying Republican — six-term Representative Bill Huizenga — is cruising to victory.

A few months ago, ceding the Fourth to the GOP might have seemed like an unfortunate but not terribly consequential mistake.

A dirt road is lined with cornfields in Allegan County.Daytona Niles for the Boston Globe

The district, which stretches from the Lake Michigan shore through the cornfields of Allegan County to the small cities of Kalamazoo and Battle Creek, leans right; Donald Trump carried the area by 4 points in the 2020 presidential election.

This is the sort of place where Democrats, weighed down by President Biden’s poor approval ratings, seemed to have little hope of success.

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Politics are fickle, though. The Dobbs decision overturning the federal right to an abortion galvanized prochoice voters.

And the party might have taken full advantage of the moment if it had been better prepared.

But in the Fourth and at least a dozen other districts like it — reddish but winnable for Democrats under the right circumstances — the party hadn’t recruited a strong candidate.

That could cost Democrats their majority in a narrowly divided House — teeing up two years of GOP obstruction of the Biden administration. And maybe far worse.

With Trump edging toward another presidential run, the country could soon find itself in another democratic crisis. And the outcome of that crisis may rest on who holds the levers of power in Congress.

Huizenga, the Republican facing scant opposition in the Michigan Fourth, is one of 126 House members who signed on to an amicus brief supporting an audacious lawsuit filed by the State of Texas that aimed to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

Carlos Giménez of Florida, another Republican in a right-leaning district with a weak challenger, objected to the certification of electoral votes on the day of the Jan. 6 insurrection. So did Richard Hudson, who is coasting to reelection in a potentially competitive district west of Fayetteville, N.C. And Pennsylvania’s Scott Perry played a key role in Trump’s plan to oust his acting attorney general and install an obscure Justice Department official sympathetic to his election denial.

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Perry’s Democratic opponent, in a Harrisburg-area district that Trump carried by 4 points, had only $55,983 in cash on hand at the start of the third quarter.

In all of these districts, Democrats have hard-luck stories to tell. In Pennsylvania, a well-known Democrat expected to challenge Perry passed on the race in February and left the party flat-footed.

But chalking up this problem to a series of bad breaks would be a mistake. There is something larger going on.

The Democratic Party and its allies have made a conscious decision to invest only sporadically in light-red America — choosing instead to maximize their advantage in bluer parts of the country.

It’s a strategy built for our polarized politics. As such, it has an intuitive appeal.

It’s not clear, though, that it’s actually the best plan for winning majorities. And it’s certainly not good for American democracy.

But there is another way. And Democrats ought to know.

They have tried it before.

The 50-state strategy

Howard Dean had no qualms about breaking with party orthodoxy.

He made that clear during his outsider’s campaign for president in 2003 and 2004, when he ripped the Democratic establishment for backing the Iraq War and turned the Internet into a potent small-dollar donor machine.

The former Vermont governor’s inventive tactics weren’t enough to win the party’s nomination.

But he was able to parlay his run into a second chapter in national political life — the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee. And he quickly set about challenging convention again.

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The idea behind his “50-state strategy” was to compete everywhere — to break out of a calcifying red-blue conception of American politics that insisted certain parts of the country were simply beyond the reach of the Democratic Party.

The plan was to build up neglected local parties, cultivate promising young city councilors and state representatives in conservative-leaning areas, and challenge Republicans in congressional races the Democrats had been writing off.

The first big test came with the 2006 midterm election. And it seemed to vindicate Dean’s approach, with Democrats seizing control of the House and Senate on the strength of victories in red states like Kansas and Indiana.

But it was hard to tease out the impact of the 50-state strategy when Democrats had also benefited from broad discontent with Republican President George W. Bush. And the party establishment never really bought in to the project.

Before the election, Paul Begala, an old Clinton hand, dismissed it as “just hiring a bunch of staff people to wander around Utah and Mississippi and pick their nose.” Even as the news of the Democratic sweep was breaking, celebrity pundit James Carville was publicly grousing that the party could have taken more seats if Dean had just focused on the standard approach of piling resources into the most competitive districts.

Dean left the DNC a few years later.

And talk of broadening the battlefield subsided as the long-developing trend of geographic sorting — with liberals congregating in cities and conservatives in more rural areas — seemed to harden the country’s political divide.

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In 1997, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report identified 164 “swing seats” in the House. By 2020, that number was down to 72. And the national parties and their allies were concentrating their political spending in a smaller number of races.

An Ideas analysis of the 2020 House elections shows that outside spending topped $1 million in just 66 of 435 House districts, not counting pricey intraparty fights in deep-blue or deep-red districts.

The big money went to an even smaller set of contests, with just 31 races drawing investment of $10 million or more — including a New Mexico slugfest between Democratic Representative Xochitl Torres Small and Republican challenger Yvette Herrell that saw outside groups drop almost $25 million.

If the top spenders have settled on a relatively narrow approach — targeting the most obviously competitive races — they will take some chances on the margins.

Democrats and their allies will go after some Republican-held seats, for instance, if the national political environment is favorable.

Still, they’ll only venture so far.

While “you want as deep and as broad a battlefield as you can get,” says Steve Israel, who served as chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015, “you’re limited by resources.”

A venture capitalist approach to politics

Liam Kerr, a Boston-area Democratic strategist who wants the party to compete more broadly, doesn’t buy that argument.

In 2000, candidates, political parties, and outside groups spent $2.9 billion on congressional races, adjusted for inflation, according to OpenSecrets.

By 2020, they were spending $9.9 billion.

The money, Kerr says, is there. And more of it should be allocated to recruiting and funding candidates in places that Trump won by 6 or 7 points — or even more.

There is plenty of evidence, after all, that Democrats can prevail in these places with the right kind of candidate.

Senator Joe Manchin, a pro-coal moderate, has won repeatedly in deep-red West Virginia. Rumpled Senator Sherrod Brown has had success in Ohio. In 2018, a tattooed ex-Marine named Jared Golden won a sprawling House district in northern Maine that Trump had carried by 10 points just two years before. And just over a month ago, Democrat Mary Peltola scored an upset victory over former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin in a special House election in conservative Alaska.

These politicians tend to be treated as curiosities. But with Congress so closely divided and so much riding on who controls the place, Kerr says, they should be treated as models. Democrats should be obsessed with finding the next Golden or Peltola.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and allied groups have wide-ranging recruiting operations.

But the party’s failure to come up with viable candidates in so many reddish districts, cycle after cycle, suggests a more concentrated effort is required.

“How many full-time people are working these districts, focused on this? Zero,” Kerr says. “What the hell are we doing?”

What he is calling for is a sort of venture capitalist’s approach to politics — identifying and betting on a bunch of long shots with the expectation that many will flop but a few will produce spectacular returns.

That’s the aim of an organization Kerr cofounded called The Welcome Party.

And he’s cultivated donors like Reid Hoffman, a cofounder of LinkedIn and partner at the venture capital firm Greylock Partners, and Charles Ledley, who bet against the housing market before the 2007 crash and was featured in Michael Lewis’s best-selling book “The Big Short.”

The organization is still quite small; its political action committees have raised about $1.9 million since they launched last summer. And The Welcome Party doesn’t yet have a signature recruiting victory.

But if you’re looking for confirmation that its big idea is worthwhile — that someone should take a shot at building a professional recruitment infrastructure in these reddish districts — you only have to spend some time on the ground in a place like southwest Michigan.

Tom Hunter, who owns Hunter's Western Auto, places a bike outside his sporting goods store in downtown Allegan. Hunter is a Democrat but told the Globe he wasn't familiar with Joseph Alfonso, the Democratic nominee in his congressional district.Daytona Niles for the Boston Globe

‘We don’t have the capacity’

When Michigan’s independent redistricting commission finalized the state’s congressional map in December, two Democrats’ names surfaced right away in the newly drawn Fourth Congressional District.

One was former Kalamazoo state Representative Jon Hoadley.

After all, he’d run against long-serving Republican Representative Fred Upton in this part of the state in 2020.

That run, though, had been painful.

The National Republican Campaign Committee repeatedly referred to Hoadley as a “pedo sex poet,” turning out-of-context snippets from blog posts he wrote in college into what one LGBTQ group called the “most homophobic campaign against a gay candidate anywhere in America right now.”

The attacks put him on antidepressants. And he lost by 15 points. He needed a break from politics.

He would not be running this time around.

Matt Longjohn, the former national health officer for the YMCA, came a lot closer to beating Upton in 2018 — losing by fewer than 5 points.

And he took a serious look at running in the Fourth. But he wasn’t convinced that the new district was any more favorable than the one where he’d lost four years earlier. The mapmakers had cut loose some conservative areas to the south, but they’d added some new ones in the north. And there was some uncertainty about whom he would face in a general election.

The redistricting commission had put two sitting Republican congressmen — Upton and Huizenga — in the Fourth. And a third potential GOP candidate for the seat, a Trumpist state representative named Steve Carra, was also in the mix.

South Kalamazoo Mall Street in downtown Kalamazoo.Daytona Niles for the Boston Globe

Carra would eventually drop out and Upton would announce his retirement, leaving the GOP field to Huizenga.

But Longjohn had made his decision: He was passing.

Party insiders were growing concerned. They’d have to find someone else.

But there was no grand recruiting apparatus at their disposal. No crackerjack team of professional operatives to turn to. The well-meaning volunteers of the local Democratic Party had only themselves.

The person nominally in charge of the effort was Elanor Riley, a web developer who chairs the local Democratic congressional committee.

But when the final district map came down in December and the chatter about who might run picked up, she was otherwise occupied: She’d had a baby and was taking three months off.

And when she returned, she didn’t personally engage in the candidate recruitment process. It didn’t feel right. “I don’t want to force anybody to make a decision,” she says. “It has to be something that person decides, because in the end, you end up putting your whole being into it.”

Other committee volunteers were more focused on the task. Rick Catherman, a retired teacher and former city councilor who heads the group’s recruitment effort, says he spoke with several former congressional candidates in the area and pursued a few other leads. But there were some people, he says, that he didn’t get to — like the Democratic state legislators in the area. And in the end, he wasn’t able to find anyone.

No one else did either.

That’s left the party with Alfonso, the ex-Marine.

Joseph Alfonso (right) campaigns at the Allegan County Fair.Daytona Niles for the Boston Globe

He has a good story — he grew up mopping floors alongside his immigrant father. And he has a bit of a motor — zipping around the district on a diet of Jimmy John’s sandwiches and nacho-cheese-flavored Bugles.

But he doesn’t have much political experience. He lost the one local race in which he ran.

And he’s had trouble getting traction, raising only a few thousand dollars and leaning on his brother-in-law, a delivery driver by day, to help manage his campaign.

Jill Dunham, the chair of the Allegan County Democrats, says she’s pulling for Alfonso. She respects him for stepping up to run when no one else did. But the lesson from this campaign season, she says, is clear: The local party needs help with recruiting and campaigning.

“We don’t have the capacity in southwest Michigan,” she says. “We just don’t have a lot of trained Democrats.”

You’ll hear versions of that lament in other right-leaning but not-out-of-reach districts where the party failed to mount serious challenges this cycle.

Zachary Zugelder, executive director of the Montgomery County Democratic Party in Ohio, says one promising young candidate eager to take on long-serving Republican Representative Michael Turner this year thought he’d find “a pot of money . . . and 1,000 volunteers” waiting for him when he jumped into the Dayton-area race.

But he didn’t find either. And he wound up losing the Democratic primary to a perennial candidate with no shot of winning in the general election.

“That was hard,” Zugelder says.

Miami-based political consultant Fernand Amandi says the situation isn’t much better in South Florida.

He was part of an ad hoc group that tried to recruit a local celebrity — a Miami Zoo spokesman who frequently appears on television with a bird perched on his shoulder — to challenge Giménez, the congressman who objected to the counting of electoral votes on Jan. 6.

When that effort fell short, he says, there were not a lot of options.

The pipeline just wasn’t there.

What’s required, Amandi says, are “longer-term recruitment efforts” that “don’t start in the election year but in some cases years — or many years — out.”

Joseph Alfonso (right) walks around the Allegan County Fair with Austin Marsman, who is running for commissioner in Allegan.Daytona Niles for the Boston Globe

The future is faction

Defeating election deniers like Giménez and Huizenga would strike an immediate blow for American democracy.

It would mean fewer norm-corroding voices in the halls of power.

But it would serve a broader democratic purpose, too.

The Democrats most likely to succeed in light-red America are not conventional Democrats. They’re ex-military. Or small-business owners.

Maybe they part ways with the party on a social issue or two.

The Democratic Party could use more of these voices. So could the country.

We are in the midst of a dangerous clash between left and right. And the best way to tamp it down is to rebuild the political center — to reconstruct the moderate factions that were once substantial parts of our two major parties.

A Republican Party still in thrall of Trump seems unlikely to lead that effort.

But if Democrats build a moderate wing in red-state America, if they start to win more races there, then Republicans will be forced to respond.

They will have to put up their own slate of moderates.

They will have to talk more about compromise and civility.

And if we get a few more politicians talking like that, well, we might have the beginnings of a different kind of politics.


David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe.