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Notes from the Campaign Trail

Dec. 4, 2022

I have said too many times that to run as a democrat in western South Dakota you have to be different, whatever that connotes. I tried and failed to set myself apart not just from my opponents but from the political mainstream. Like Michael Corleone, I got pulled back into the past over and over. If I were to run again, what would I have to do to win? I got 17% of the vote. How can I go from less than one fifth of the vote to a victory?

Before I discuss strategy, I want to say again (ad nauseum) that doing what has been done before will lead to the same result: a pummeling. Going door-to-door, advertising online or hardcopy, putting up yard signs and billboards—doing anything via traditional media, customary marketing, per se—will not work. All that propagandizing is a waste of time, money, and energy. So, where should a candidate invest resources? How does an unconventional candidate define unconventional? How can I be an outsider now that I have run?

If a progressive/liberal politician has any hope of winning in a district like mine, where the ratio of republicans to democrats is more than three to one, what options are there? Besides a conventional campaign, I believe, there are three possible strategic routes to take: enraged outsider, cynical defector, or grassroots insurgent.

In the post-Trump age, a conventional campaign, regardless of ideology, can look dusty before it starts. What the orange blob did unintentionally, viscerally, counter-intuitively cannot be manufactured or reconstituted. More than anything, that misinformed, narcissistic idiot did was get lucky. Right place, right time. Do I put everything about that farcical fool in quotation marks or italics? His brutish, racist, unpolished incompetence, somehow, resonated with a faction of the electorate that felt forgotten. There will never be another him because of him.

The orange blob should never have survived his mocking of the handicapped NYT reporter. But he did. Pussy grabbing got a pass. Good people on both sides, another pass. Party leaders so feared him and his so-called base that they ignored decency. Will they be as likely to do this again? Maybe I’m being overly sanguine when I say that this behavior won’t be tolerated again.

That does not mean that someone else can’t accidentally step onto the stage and capture hearts and minds or tap into nativistic dread. It’s possible but unlikely, I hope. I’m a crazy optimist. Expectant politicians who believe they can create this fervor should be feared and stomped as quickly as they appear. On the other side there was Bernie Sanders, a smart and kind person, who developed a cult following. Could there be a decent, humane, intelligent version of the former white supremacist and chief? Maybe.

One quality that could transform a progressive in this area is fame, which can distort and overwhelm preconceived notions. Look at the Herschel Walker—dumb as concrete, a hypocrite with no political experience, who doesn’t even live in Georgia—and he is in a run-off election for a senate seat. This is due to several factors, not the least of which his celebrity status as football star, Heisman Trophy winner. Whatever. If you are famous and live in my district, please bequeath to me your star power.

The orange blob went viral, a feat that is more about timing, luck, than it is about ideas or strategy, but cannot go anywhere without the consent of cynical people not in the cult, the Lindsay Grahams and Ted Cruzes, people who will grovel to maintain their tiny bit of relevance. The point here, again, is that this fervor is impossible to conjure on demand and equally impossible to control. This is not a viable campaign option for me or anyone else who wants to seriously compete. I need to stop this for now. I will talk about the other two options next week.

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