National Parties Invest in Local Outcomes
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It's another round of primaries today, with voting in Arkansas, Kentucky and Georgia, plus runoffs in Texas. The big headline race is the battle of the Staceys: the Georgia Democratic gubernatorial primary between Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans. There’s also a relatively low-key runoff among Democrats for Texas governor and quite a few contested U.S. House races, plus the usual down-ballot stuff.
I’ve talked before about the Democratic primary in Kentucky’s 6th House District as an example of the nationalization of state and local races. Fifty years ago, there really were no national parties. In some states, there was hardly any coordination between one city and another, or between urban and rural areas. Formal national parties were rudimentary at best until maybe the 1950s, and even then they were hardly central to anything. And while there were long-term ties between state parties in some cases, there were few purely national party actors for a very long time. National parties mainly existed at the quadrennial national conventions and, to some extent, through the presidential campaigns that followed, but that was about it.
No more. It’s not just that the formal party organizations — the Republican and Democratic National Committees, and each party’s House and Senate campaign committees — are now well-established organizations. It’s also that thousands of political operatives — campaign and governing professionals — are nationally, not locally, based.
So when you hear that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has intervened against one candidate, as it did in Texas’ 7th District against Laura Moser, don’t assume that means the national party is on one side. As it happens, another Democratic Party-aligned group, Emily’s List, has supported Lizzie Pannill Fletcher in that race, but there are a number of other national groups that have gotten involved, including the Bernie Sanders-derived Our Revolution and national-party-aligned interest groups. Even those groups that organize locally, as the Indivisible groups have, are usually nationally networked as well.
Parties are defined through nominations. Nominations are determined, in large part, by the choices of various party actors — some individually, others in groups; some nationally based, some organized at the state or local level. There’s nothing wrong at all, and nothing unusual, with conflict among these people and groups. There’s a lot at stake: not just the policy preferences of the party’s politicians, but also their priorities about what policies they’ll actually act on when they have the chance. Sometimes party actors can work this all out among themselves and one candidate gets overwhelming party support, but sometimes they can’t, and it goes to the primary election voters.
None of that is inherently unhealthy, nor is it undemocratic. The results, however, are often extremely complex. Obviously the first step to sorting it out is to realize how complicated networked parties can be. But then, understanding that complexity can be tricky. Conflict simply doesn’t necessarily sort out along the lines that the national media expect. Good local reporters will often be good guides, but in many areas there really aren’t good local reporters anymore. There certainly are good national reporters who learn what’s going on, but it’s not always obvious which ones can be trusted. And even the good national reporters and analysts are just going to find it difficult to balance a deep understanding of individual contests and the need to generalize across all elections.
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