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A Centrist Insurgency (Of Sorts)
Time for better election ratings, more focus on volatility, and Revenge of the Normals.
We’ve seen enough. Democrats should win CA-41.
The election ratings agencies — like Cook Political Report, Sabato’s Crystal Ball, and Split Ticket — have all rated this GOP-held district in the least competitive category (or left it off the board entirely).
But the agencies are wrong.
Since WelcomePAC launched ten months ago, we have focused on undervalued districts where strong Democrats can take out anti-democracy incumbents. In The Bulwark, NBC News, Slate, and here on Substack, we’ve named 30-year GOP incumbent Ken Calvert as one of the most quietly-endangered members of Congress in either party — even if neither party (nor the ratings agencies) seemed to notice.
But the data is now too clear to ignore. In March, our polling showed Calvert’s re-election number at just 17% — a figure so jaw-droppingly bad that the (literal!) 2022 Pollster Of The Year did a double take. And last week, Calvert’s performance in California’s top-two primary was so poor (under 44% with all voters and not breaching 50% even with all GOP votes counted) that NPR’s Election Editor said it “made me do a double-take”.
It is time for the ratings agencies to do a double-take, followed by pro-democracy donors nationwide.
As the New York Times outlined last week, the race between Calvert and insurrectionist-prosecuting former Schwarzenneger aide Will Rollins is at front lines in the battle for our democracy.
It’s also a potential model demonstrating how early investment in an undervalued race missed by ratings agencies can knock out a GOP incumbent — and how focusing on voter volatility, not polarization on the extremes, can fuel a “centrist insurgency”.
Putting Democracy on Offense
Since WelcomePAC’s launch, CA-41 has been one of our priority case studies that met the three main criteria for an undervalued district to in which to put democracy on offense:
An anti-democracy GOP incumbent, as measured by the Republican Accountability Project Report Card along with other baggage
Representing a district the elections ratings agencies deem safe, but within reach for a strong challenger with cross-partisan appeal that contrasts compellingly with the incumbent
Assets already existing within the district that could drive a volatile electorate away from the incumbent
The Times picked up on this thread last week. The race may not be considered a front line contest (yet), but it’s certainly on the front lines in the war to save our democracy. In last Friday’s “On Politics” newsletter, Blake Hounshell framed the race for CA-41 as a referendum on whether or not Jan. 6th can be a winning political issue for Democrats:
“In California’s newly drawn 41st Congressional District, a pro-business Republican who voted to overturn the 2020 presidential election faces a primary for a House seat against a Democratic former federal prosecutor who worked cases against several alleged Capitol rioters. No race provides a starker contrast between voters’ usual kitchen-table concerns and what the leading challenger cast in an interview as a battle for ‘the future of democracy.’”
The contrast is stark between Calvert, who went all-in on Trump undermining democracy, and Rollins, who prosecuted insurrectionists. Check out this local TV news story to get a flavor.
Beware Polarization Porn
Regardless of whether or not January 6th matters to voters, it should certainly matter when it comes to how Democrats allocate their resources.
We wrote last week on how inefficient resource allocation leads Democrats away from investing early and heavily in potentially winnable districts. Prime among the undervalued investments are pickup opportunities like CA-41. These districts are mispriced in the political marketplace because for several reasons, including:
Asset allocators are risk-averse and have strong incentives to be with winners (even if the marginal dollars do not deliver strong returns)
Institutions prioritize defending incumbents over picking up seats, even if the latter has higher ROI
An overemphasis on polarization and underemphasis on volatility adds to the mistaken impression that there is no point in investing in lower-probability races, something we covered in “What the Polarization Hawks Aren’t Saying”. If the consensus among pundits holds that we’re polarized past the point of no return and the volatility of the electorate is ignored, why should Democrats bother trying to flip Republican-leaning districts?
We were quoted in Hounshell’s Times piece last week on why the pundits and political hobbyists have it wrong: “People are consuming a lot of polarization porn and underestimating how many swing voters there are out there”.
There’s a flip side to rising polarization that no one seems to be talking about: in today’s electoral environment, volatility among the small but still substantial population of depolarized voters in the middle becomes increasingly vital in deciding the outcomes of close elections.
Question the Ratings Agencies
Unfortunately, top political ratings agencies like Cook Political Report and FiveThirtyEight play a central role in sustaining this polarization industrial complex, giving cover to the lack of competition in our democracy.
Here’s an example: FiveThirtyEight rates Colorado’s 3rd congressional district as R+15. But in 2020 incumbent Lauren Boebert received just 51.4% of the vote (under slightly less favorable district lines). And under the newly redistricted lines, Donald Trump received less than 53% in the district.
How can a district be rated as R+15 while Republicans barely get a majority of the vote?
FiveThirtyEight explains their system here and it has some intellectual appeal (plus, we have to give them credit for having the then-floundering Celtics as NBA title favorites back in mid-winter). But for political practitioners, abandoning districts in which Republicans did worse than they did in the district of Rep. Jared Golden (D-ME) seems like a bad idea. There’s a reason we title our quarterly reports “Conceding Democracy” — the stakes are very high! Especially when the value of a single house seat has grown to upwards of $100 million.
There should be an all-hands-on-deck effort among Democrats to support brand-differentiated candidates who can escape the gravitational pull of the party’s toxic brand among swing voters and flip Republican-leaning districts.
There aren’t dozens of districts like CO-03, but there are enough to make a meaningful contribution to winning a majority and building a more effective Big-Tent Democratic Party. CO-05, which neighbors Boebert’s district, is rated as R+18. But Trump also got 53% there — and it’s represented by scandal-plagued GOP Rep. Doug Lamborn, who’s like a Ken Calvert Lite. No Democratic challenger has raised even $100,000 in CO-05.
In districts like CO-03 and CO-05, both statistics can be true: Nate Silver can say the GOP has a double digit advantage and Democrats can win the seat by supporting a strong candidate with the crossover appeal necessary to win volatile voters in the middle.
A Centrist Insurgency
, Of Sorts
Back to Calvert and CA-41. As Hounshell articulated in his piece last week, the effort to support Will Rollins is the first battle waged by a new “centrist insurgency, of sorts”:
“Official Democratic Party groups, daunted by President Biden’s low approval ratings and by a national map that is forcing them to defend dozens of seats, have yet to show interest in the race.
But Rollins has drawn … support from Welcome PAC, a relatively new Democratic-aligned outfit that applies insurgent tactics to support center-left candidates in swing districts.
Liam Kerr, a founder of the group, said that Rollins was the committee’s first major investment because Calvert had rarely faced a serious challenge, and because the district ought to be winnable for the right Democratic candidate.”
The term “centrist insurgency” may sound oxymoronic: centrists, moderates, and institutionalists are far from being insurgents by nature. But for years, the mainstream of both parties has been getting stuffed in proverbial lockers while anxiously avoiding anything that might piss off the suddenly-powerful bullies on the fringes.
Today, the real insurgents in our politics are in the middle.
California Dreamin’ (Coming True)
The major ratings agencies all had five or more California districts rated as competitive — but they all also had CA-41 in the least competitive category heading into last week’s primary. In the state’s unusual top-two nonpartisan primaries, all candidates (regardless of party) run on the same ballot. This makes simply adding up the vote totals for all candidates of each party the most common means of assessing partisan strength in Golden State districts.
How did Republicans fare in CA-41? Worse than in any other competitive district in the state.
But we have not seen any changes from the ratings agencies — and at least one FiveThirtyEight analyst has already deemed it “safe” for Republicans, despite the party falling below 50% in the primary (lower turnout is usually more advantageous for the GOP).
Maybe they’re stuck watching too much polarization porn.
If the ratings agencies won’t make the change, more “centrist insurgents” will have to strike harder in November — and make sure that the “of sorts” is dropped from the headlines by then.
It is time for a “Revenge of the Normals”, starting in California.