Dean’s Dozens: Lighting a Fire, Or Just Blowing Smoke?

Posted June 2, 2004 at 4:26pm

Howard Dean’s new organization, Democracy for America, has already released the names of two dozen state, local and federal candidates who, it says, “represent the spirit of grassroots democracy” and “will all spread the message that to change America, progressives must compete.” [IMGCAP(1)]

Six of the 24 hopefuls are running for Congress. Judging by those House hopefuls, it’s clear that “electability” isn’t one of the criteria that Dean has used in selecting his favored candidates.

One of the half-dozen candidates, Illinois Senate hopeful, Barack Obama (D), is better-than-even money to capture the U.S. Senate seat left open by the retirement of Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R).

Another of Dean’s candidates, Oklahoma Congressional hopeful Kalyn Free (D), is an underdog in the Democratic primary but still a serious contender for the nomination. If she does win the Democratic primary for the seat left vacant by Rep. Brad Carson (D) — who’s now running for Senate — Free could well win the seat.

The four other hopefuls, however, have little or no chance to win seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Jeff Smith, in Missouri’s 3rd Congressional district, is an earnest young man. He’s hard-working, he’s doing a good job assembling a grass roots organization and he’s utterly committed to a progressive agenda. He also faces two candidates who are far better positioned than he is: state Sen. Steve Stoll, a favorite of many who are close to retiring Rep. Richard Gephardt (D), and Russ Carnahan, son of the late Gov. Mel Carnahan (D) and former Sen. Jean Carnahan (D), who is a sentimental favorite of some Missouri Democrats.

Elsewhere, attorney Richard Morrison is running against House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R) in Texas’s 22nd district. Then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) carried the district with 67 percent of the vote in 2000, and DeLay has never been held under 60 percent in any of his races.

Samara Barend is a 26-year-old, first-time candidate whose “life experience” includes Democratic political jobs and graduate school. She hopes to win a House seat left open by the retirement of Rep. Amo Houghton (R) in a district that went for Bush by 12 points four years ago.

The Republicans have a primary in that district, and if they nominate a weak general election candidate, a strong Democratic nominee could become a credible contender. But if state Sen. Randy Kuhl is the Republican nominee, the race is over before it has begun. Barend has yet to prove she is more than an overly ambitious twentysomething looking to change the world.

Finally, Christine Cegelis, another first-time candidate, is making a quixotic challenge against Rep. Henry Hyde, the 15-term Republican Congressman from Illinois’ 6th district. Bush carried Hyde’s district by nine points while Al Gore carried the state by 12 points. While Hyde’s district seems to be becoming less Republican, it isn’t competitive yet.

I can’t comment about the state and local candidates on Dean’s list, but more than a couple of the U.S. House hopefuls on the list aren’t even second-tier contenders for Congress. Their chances of being elected to Congress this year aren’t much better than mine — and I’m not on the ballot anywhere.

So why does Dean’s list include such long, long-shots as Cegelis and Smith rather than serious Democratic House candidates in places such as Georgia’s 12th district, Arizona’s 1st, Connecticut’s 2nd, Washington’s 8th and even Kentucky’s 3rd, where the eventual Democratic nominee will have a credential or two and at least some chance of victory?

One factor is that some mainstream Democratic candidates would rather not be pinned with the Dean label. Morrison and Cegelis aren’t in that category. They’re running in bullet-proof Republican districts and thus have virtually no chance of winning. For them, the Dean endorsement at least brings notoriety and possibly some money. They have nothing to lose by being on the list.

In some cases, certainly including Obama and Free, the Democratic candidates are ideologically so left of center that they are comfortable with Dean’s stamp of approval. Dean, who governed as a moderate but campaigned for president much farther to the left, seems to like candidates who are likely to speak for what has now become known as Howard Dean wing of the Democratic Party. And again, that’s not where many Democrats need to be.

Dean, the doctor-turned-politician, may simply want to build a farm team — or even a “movement” — that might produce one or two potentially credible candidates down the road. But some Democrats undoubtedly would argue that their party is better off if Dean limits himself — and his fundraising ability — to identifying credible candidates who have a chance of winning in 2004.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.