Life in the Third Tier: Primary Day
by CA Pol Junkie
Disclosure: I am related to, and volunteering for, Steven Herr in the Democratic primary for Wisconsin's 1st Congressional District
We hear alot about the top tier House races - the ones where candidates can raise alot of money and the pundits rub their chins to impute which way each race is leaning. On the second tier, there are candidates in marginal seats who are promoted by the blogs or receiving some institutional support. The top two tiers account for roughly 60 seats considered in play. Wisconsin's first congressional district, from the southern Milwaukee suburbs south to Illinois and west 1/3 of the way across the state, has a mild Republican tilt (Bush got 51% and 53%), which would ordinarily put it squarely in the second tier in a Democratic year like this one. The problem is that the Republican incumbent, Bush rubberstamper and Social Security privatization champion Paul Ryan, has $1,463,001 in the bank. That money, much of which is from insurance, pharmaceutical, and investment banking PACs, has scared off potential high profile Democratic challengers. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel summed up the race nicely when it endorsed Steven Herr in the primary:
It's probably a testament to Rep. Paul Ryan's strength in the 1st Congressional District that no Democrat elected official or major player opted to challenge the Republican congressman. But voters will still be able to make a solid choice in the Democratic primary when they go to the polls on Tuesday: Five concerned citizens took up the challenge dropped by their party leaders and are vying for the Democratic nomination to face Ryan in the November general election.
Since there is a contested primary, the Democratic Party infrastructure is staying neutral. Since all the candidates are basically just regular people who decided to run for Congress, donors are hesitant to give until the wheat is separated from the chaff. The race is complicated by a perennial candidate running for the seventh time, even though he got the nomination the last three times but never received more than 35% of the vote against Paul Ryan.
Lacking the money for professional staff, TV advertising, pollsters, etc. has made today's Democratic primary an exercise in 100% grassroots democracy. For the candidates, campaigning means shaking hands at county fairs, union events, and festivals celebrating various agricultural products. It means forums at local high schools and on local public radio, meeting with Party activists, having volunteers knock on doors, and putting up lots of yard signs. It's rather sheltered politics, with no dirty tricks, little negative campaigning, and no special interest money. Of course, the winner gets thrown into the buzzsaw of national partisan politics, but at least until the polls close tonight at 8:00 it's good old-fashioned democracy.
It's hard to say who will win today's primary in Wisconsin's 1st Congressional District - after all, none of the candidates can afford a pollster. If Steven Herr wins today, he'll be on the phone the next few days lining up institutional support and donors to improve upon his $185 cash on-hand, and move his race up to the second tier. There are lots of candidates like Steven who are following the vision of our founding fathers to "set down the plow" and serve their community as their representative. They might not be polished like a professional politician, but it would be great to have more citizens with their perspective in Congress and in state legislatures across the country.