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Focus on regular villains to find heroes
GOP Rep. Ken Calvert is the most beatable Trumper you’ve never heard of — or donated against.
“We get so caught up on the super villains that we don't focus on the villains.”
WelcomePAC co-founder Lauren Harper succinctly captured a challenge of our political marketplace — and an opportunity for achieving lasting change — in CNN this week.
Democratic political professionals and hobbyists are intimately aware of who the super villains in politics are, and a marketplace thrives off of the sense that individuals can help take them down. As Lauren recently wrote in The Bulwark, nowhere has this fixation been more apparent — or more unproductive — than in the (futile) battle to topple Marjorie Taylor Greene:
“Every Democrat fantasizes about seeing Marjorie Taylor Greene go down in flames. But the reality is that she won her district by a landslide in 2020 and is on track to do the same in 2022. Trump won in her newly-drawn district with 68.1 percent of the vote in 2020—a bigger vote share than he got in the very red states such as Idaho (63.9 percent), Mississippi (57.6 percent), or Nebraska (58.5 percent).
There is no Democratic pathway to victory in Greene’s district.”
But that inconvenient fact is not communicated effectively to the hordes of online Democratic donors who flooded the coffers of MTG’s top Democratic challenger, Marcus Flowers, with more than $4.6 million in 2021. The latest Q1 campaign finance reports show that Democratic donors are continuing to incinerate their money against MTG, showering Flowers with an additional $2.5 million in the first three months of 2022.
Regardless of reality, Democratic hobbyists wanted a super hero to take on a super villain they despised — and they certainly found one in Flowers.
But while spending to defeat GOP electorally impenetrable super villains like MTG might be futile, it’s not too late to turn our attention to the regular villains who can be beat this year.
Meet Ken Calvert, the most beatable Trump-aligned candidate you’ve never heard of:
Last week, WelcomePAC released a poll of Calvert’s newly-drawn Southern California district conducted by top Democratic pollster Tulchin Research — the first poll of his district in 10 years. To put it mildly, things aren’t looking good for Calvert: not only is the 30-year GOP incumbent in trouble with his own constituents, but he’s got a strong Democratic challenger with the chops to beat him in the general election.
The bottom line: in a challenging midterm environment, Calvert makes for a rare opportunity for Democrats to pick up a Republican held seat. Democrats might not be able to beat super villains like MTG this cycle, but we can certainly take down villains like Calvert.
More on Ken Calvert and the new poll below, but first a few things our team was reading and talking about last week.
Sunday Reading in the Big Tent
1. G. Elliott Morris in Democracy by the Numbers on whether Democrats can avoid a looming electoral disaster:
“Democrats cannot save democracy if they are locked out of power in the medium-term. And if current trends persist, there is a decent chance they do not control the Senate for longer than 2 years at a time for the foreseeable future. The only real option the party has is to figure out how to regain some of its identity as a pro-(white)worker party that cares more about lifting Americans up economically than it does about satisfying the anti-gun, open borders social agenda of coastal elites (NB: using their terms — I recognize that’s not entirely true). It is going to have to figure out how to do that while remaining pro-democracy.”
2. Ruy Teixeira in The Liberal Patriot on how to fix the Democratic brand:
“The reality is that Democrats have failed to develop a party brand capable of unifying a dominant majority of Americans behind their political project. Indeed, the current Democratic brand suffers from multiple deficiencies that make it somewhere between uncompelling and toxic to wide swathes of American voters who might potentially be their allies. I locate these deficiencies in three key areas: culture; economics; and patriotism.”
3. Eric Protzer and Paul Summerville in Persuasion with a call for the left to focus on economic opportunity rather than redistribution to win over the disenchanted:
“To win back these disenchanted voters, the left must do away with the misperception that voters in high-income countries today want aggressive redistribution. In reality, voters do not want to eliminate the possibility of success but rather have a fair chance at it. One 2017 study neatly articulated this truth by reviewing a variety of findings on infant, child, and adult behavioral psychology to demonstrate that ‘there is no evidence that people are bothered by economic inequality itself. Rather, they are bothered by something that is often confounded with inequality: economic unfairness.’”
It takes a hero to beat a villain
Rep. Ken Calvert has topped WelcomePAC’s list of targets since August. Based in California’s Riverside County and now running for re-election in the newly-drawn CA-41, the 30-year incumbent has managed to fly under the radar for a decade despite racking up a lengthy resume of scandals and ethics investigations. (Calvert’s last close race was back in 2008 when he found himself under the microscope for “questionable land deals he engaged in and how they tied into earmarks he requested during the appropriations process”.) Oh, and he has gone to the end of the Earth for Donald Trump and his big lie about the 2020 election.
In other words, Calvert is the kind of low-profile Republican villain who does just as much damage as super villains like MTG but manages to escape public scrutiny or ire.
Until this cycle.
WelcomePAC’s new poll with top CA pollster Tulchin Research (and the first of Calvert’s district in 10 years) reveals that Calvert is highly vulnerable heading into November.
Only 17% of likely voters in the new district said they would vote to re-elect Calvert at the time of the poll, a damning figure that’s especially staggering given Calvert’s three decades of incumbency in the region.
Things get even worse for Calvert when voters are given a direct choice between villain and hero. Calvert’s top Democratic challenger, Will Rollins, is a former counter-terrorism prosecutor who is running on a pragmatic, big-tent, anti-extremism platform.
There’s a ton to like about Rollins: not only is he charismatic, energetic, and running to be the second ever openly gay Representative from California, but he has the crossover appeal necessary to win swing voters and already touts support from a growing number of Independents and center-right Republicans in his district. In other words, he’s the kind of hero well fit to take on a backwards-looking, democracy-undermining curmudgeon like Calvert.
If you haven’t seen it yet, check out Rollins’ campaign launch video:
According to the poll of 600 likely general election voters, Rollins narrowly defeats Calvert in a head-to-head matchup (42% to 41%). That lead expands by four points (47% to 43%) when respondents read positive bios for both candidates.
The poll memo is available here.
In an election year likely to be filled with disappointments, focusing on beatable villains like Ken Calvert (and the heroes who can beat them) is the best way forward. All that’s left for Democrats to do is roll up our sleeves and invest our time and energy into getting these heroes elected.
As we’ve written before, Democrats donate to long-shot campaigns against super villains quite simply because the act of doing so feels good. It’s cathartic to donate to Marcus Flowers’ campaign against Marjorie Taylor Greene — but it’s not pragmatic.
So what does pragmatism look like in practice? As we’ve also written, growing polarization places an increased value on depolarized swing voters — and the candidates who can mobilize them — in competitive races:
“Meet us on the flip side: growing polarization also means that volatility among the shrinking (yet still substantial) population of swing voters in the middle still determines control of government. As more Americans become diehard partisans, we should place increased value on those depolarized voters — and the candidates who can reach them.”
It’s one thing to focus on the super villains like MTG who capture our attention and outrage — and the super heroes like Marcus Flowers who inspire us and capture our imagination. It’s another to focus on the regular villains and the heroes who rise to the occasion and harness volatility to stop them.
In a recent Twitter thread, Matt Yglesias discussed what he saw as the failures the Democratic #resistance movement. In synopsis, he argued:
But Yglesias’ understandably gloomy post-mortem doesn’t have to be destiny.
2022 is going to be a challenging midterm year for Democrats, we know that. But it’s not too late for a center-left normie renaissance.
That renaissance begins with the candidates who build winning cross-partisan coalitions and defeat villains like Ken Calvert.