I’ve interviewed at least 1,000 congressional candidates over the last 16 years, but never 16 candidates in two days.
More than 100 Democratic candidates running for the House descended on the nation’s capital a few weeks ago for candidate training hosted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. My Inside Elections colleague Leah Askarinam and I interviewed eight candidates each day.
I’ve never participated in a speed dating event, but I have to think that, for the candidates, this experience was somewhat similar: an urgency to impress in a condensed time period using a combination of personality and talking points.
Heading into the two-day conversation marathon, my emotions ranged from excitement to dread. Meeting with candidates is one of my favorite parts about being a political handicapper, and not just to listen for “Things Losing Candidates Say.”
Watch: Gonzales’ September House Race Ratings Report
It often gives us an opportunity to learn more about candidates and their campaigns than we can glean from websites and secondhand accounts. Yet I was not particularly excited about listening to platitudes for seven hours straight, going home, and then coming back to do it all again in the morning.
Each candidate brings some unique qualities to the campaign trail, and we’ll write about them individually at Inside Elections. But there were some broader themes that became apparent by the time we finished talking with the 16th candidate.
Democrats have an impressive group of challengers — retired Navy SEALs and Army Rangers, former CIA operatives, prosecutors and businesswomen and -men who have grown multimillion-dollar companies. Even a scientist who develops life-changing cures is among the fresh crop of Democratic recruits. Granted, this was a sample of candidates selected by party operatives to be interviewed. Nonetheless, these are serious individuals mounting credible campaigns.
They aren’t particularly interested in talking about President Donald Trump. Even though the polarizing president receives most of the media’s time and attention and the wrath of the Democratic Party base, these candidates were often slow to talk about Trump.
The prospective challengers, many of whom are competing in districts that Trump carried, were more focused on litigating the GOP incumbent’s record, including votes on health care legislation. We’ll see if Democratic candidates can contain themselves in months ahead, particularly if more revelations from Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation come to light. But for now, these Democrats look committed to not portraying each Republican as a carbon copy of Trump or trying to litigate the president’s sins.
Nancy Pelosi causes smart people to say strange things. Whenever we brought up the former speaker and whether she should continue to be the leader of the House Democrats, candidates were often flummoxed that we would even ask. These smart and successful challengers with advanced degrees, some of whom were involved in military operations in foreign theaters, suddenly lost the ability to think in advance and address a reasonable situation that could happen 12 months from now. Some said they had never even considered how they’d vote for party leadership, given the opportunity. Many of the Democrats were dismissive of the suggestion that the congresswoman from San Francisco would be a factor in their campaigns, which was either a rehearsed talking point or a precursor to a rude awakening when they later learn how Republicans message their campaigns.
The candidates are confident their resumes will inoculate them against partisan attacks. I’ll let you in on a secret: I ask some of the same questions in almost every candidate interview. In this case, I asked these Democrats, “What happens when Republicans call you a typical liberal Democrat? How will you respond?” I’m searching for any policy differences the candidate has with his or her party and for how the candidate will respond to coming attacks. Again, many of the candidates seemed surprised that Republicans would even attempt to paint them as rubber stamps for their party and pointed to their record in the military, public service or the private sector as evidence that such an assertion would be laughed off by voters. But those attacks are forthcoming, and voters will decide whether to look beyond candidates’ partisanship because of their profiles. I start as skeptical.
Apparently, centrism and independence are a frame of mind, not a policy position. If I took a drink of water every time I heard the word “independent” or “open-minded” from a candidate, I would have been a well-hydrated chap. They all named issues they care about, including health care, education and national security, but when asked for specific policies ripe for bipartisan consensus, many candidates struggled to come up with something tangible. Clearly, they know the swing voters they need to reach aren’t going to be enticed by dogmatic partisan rhetoric, and they hope that discussing their pragmatic personalities will speak for their ability to sometimes buck the party.
Republicans dismiss these candidates at their own peril. It’s often lost in the day-to-day coverage, but running for Congress is difficult, and maybe even more so for first-time candidates. History tells us some people who are considered top-tier challengers now will flame out, and others will lose in primaries. But after meeting with these candidates, it’s clear Trump’s election has drawn a new crop of Democratic candidates who bring substance to the House playing field. Republican incumbents need to start taking their races seriously, if they aren’t already.