Throughout the 2022 primary season, I want you to explore with me the absolutely bonkers idea of running a progressive, dare I say radical, Lefty McLefterson candidate in a Republican primary in a GOP stronghold district. A kind of political thought experiment/shadow campaign, asking the question: How exactly would you sell progressive policies, in our current electoral climate, to an audience whose political DNA is dead set against those policies?
And, yes, I literally mean you – running as a Republican. The goal of said project is to persuade people to run. To make a case for why this idea, as cheeky as it may sound, is not really all that bonkers.
To that end, consider this piece not merely an introduction, but a call to action.
During the 2020 primaries, I was watching the Justice Democrats navigate their particular races, and I got to thinking about how many dozens and dozens of districts there are throughout the country in which, even if you won the Democratic primary as a serious progressive candidate, even if you could successfully maneuver past the dirty money and even dirtier tricks of the establishment Democrats, it just wouldn’t matter because those districts have either been gerrymandered into the GOP ground or are legitimately too Republican-identifying to ever elect a Democrat. Then I thought about how many people there are out there living in those districts, whose political, economic, or social vision would be categorized as being on the left, who would actually love to run but see no point. And I thought that was a shame.
That’s when it hit me. If they could just win the Republican primary, the general election would be a breeze.
And as I sat there laughing at the absurd prospect of some lefty progressive running and winning as a Republican, I started to see that that wasn’t what was actually absurd.
What was absurd was the assumption, mine and apparently everyone else’s, that a huge portion of the population would never vote for a candidate in the primary who offered policies they knew could improve their lives but would conflict with the Party’s image. That a candidate with serious and detailed proposals for better healthcare, education, wages, infrastructure, air, water, etc. wouldn’t have a chance against the Party bosses because the Party bosses would simply forbid Republican voters from supporting those policies. That people would, in the end, put party over country, put party over family, if that’s what the Party told them to do.
But is that really true? I know plenty of Republicans who, when asked alone, prefer many left policies. The snag is that when they walk in the voting booth, they walk in as Republicans. And although I think it’s a shame so many of our political identities currently seem to be so rigid, I started to wonder. What would be the greater challenge? To change people’s party preference; in other words, to get members of the GOP base to switch over to voting Democrat. Or to allow them to keep their loyalty to the Republican Party but still be able to vote for these particular policies.
I personally believe it would be more difficult to persuade tens of thousands of die-hard Republicans to magically paint their district Blue than it would be to offer them a candidate whose policy platform was truly progressive, but would still let them say that they voted for a Republican, and to know that if that candidate were to win the primary and the general, they could still be proud their district elected a Republican.
Now, I’m sure my fellow lefties might find all kinds of wrong with that kind of thinking. And that’s ok. I also believe there’s much to be critical of concerning this type of allegiance. But that’s not really the question. The question is: What matters the most? Party affiliation or the policies being proposed? If you had an elected Republican politician proposing policies so progressive they put Democratic leadership to shame, would it matter that that politician was a Republican?
Seriously, who gives a shit? If it’s an extra vote towards modernizing our healthcare system or rescuing us from the worst of Climate Change, does it really matter whether there’s an R or a D next to their name? Because, remember, the districts I’m talking about are already solidly Red districts. They’re going to produce Republican Representatives anyway. Wouldn’t you at least want the votes and support on progressive bills?
Furthermore, we can spend all day critiquing the mindset of Republican loyalty, but maybe it’s not just about them. Maybe it’s about us. Why does the Left cede half of the population to the Republicans? Are we not giving into the same label-defining-your-identity nonsense that we so often ridicule? Why do progressives allow gerrymandering to dictate whom we reach out to, as if conservatives don’t deserve the same policy offerings?
And then I thought, “Lonnie, you’re making it too complicated.” The real question is: Why not? Why not run a progressive in the Republican primary? Conservatives have been running and winning in the Democratic Party for decades. So why not try it the other way? The worst that can happen is you lose, which you would have lost running a Democrat in these types of districts anyway. On the other hand, even if you do lose, can we imagine some real gains that might be made by the mere act of running such a campaign?
Now, I know what a lot of you are already thinking. You’re thinking, “But, Lonnie, the real action is not in the Congress; it’s in the streets.” If the people I’m trying to get to run have such a passion for affecting change, they could just invest themselves into activism or organizing. To which, I would reply, “No shit.”
That’s the hidden beauty of such an endeavor. Obviously, a campaign like this would be seen to many as a stunt. And, in a way, it is. If you look at the odds related to the conventional wisdom, this does not have a huge chance of winning. But the act itself, or the stunt if you must, may offer, outside the final tally of ballots, a tremendous amount of value to activists and organizers.
Though before I explain what that value is, I should underscore that the Left has a problem in not wanting to organize, or in some cases even speak to, those on the right. But we gotta be honest with ourselves. If we’re serious about ever seeing enough real structural transformation in this country to make the kind of positive change we believe is possible, it’s going to take a whole lot more support than what we’ve got on the left. In fact, if we’re truly forward thinking in our vision, it’ll take far more than the entirety of the Democratic Party. It’s going to take the affirmation and participation of a whole lot of those folks whom we rarely ever try to organize, speak to, or even try to understand on any level that could be considered sincere.
Indeed, if you prefer to work within the hallmark of activism, think of this as a form of extreme nonviolent protest. If we’re going to actually reach those who identify as Republicans, we’re going to have to meet them where they are. And a whole lot of them are at a place that will, more times than not, see our street protests as riots and see the taking of a knee as un-American. So I say, why not do the most American thing you can possibly do, and run for office?
Think of it as subversive resistance to the ideological labels that imprison us. To deconstruct the political identity assigned us by our party labels, and allow people to step outside this frame and ask questions they wouldn’t normally find themselves asking, would go a long way toward changing the prevailing narrative. Which could offer an opening for future organizing, making way for unprecedented political action.
Besides, the Right has been stealing Democrats for years. It’s silly to hear us going on and on about how we don’t even want to talk to Republicans. I’m not saying we gotta get matching tattoos or get our pictures taken at Olan Mills together. I’m saying that for these people to take us seriously, we have to take them seriously. If we want them to listen to us, we’re going to have to listen to them. For them to see us as something other than an enemy, we have to show them some genuine love and respect. And if we do that, I believe it’s not a matter of even changing their minds. But rather getting them to acknowledge what they already know to be true and right, and then act on it.
If you want to change the conversation, you’ve got to have a conversation. And by running in the Republican primary, I believe you have a better chance at garnering the benefit of the doubt. Whereas, if you can garner real benefit of the doubt, win or lose, you have a shot at impacting the national discussion in a way that wouldn’t happen otherwise. And, on a local level, you will have introduced yourself and the people who work on your campaign as something far from the bogeyman they might have expected before such a campaign. And they may just be willing to listen to what you have to say after the campaign as well.
Then again, forget all that. I don’t want you to run just so you can build up some street cred. I don’t want you to run just so you can contribute to the discussion. I want you to run to win. RUN TO WIN!
And just to make sure we’re all on the same page, I’m talking about running for national office. I’m talking the United States House of Representatives. Or hell, if a Senate seat comes open, why not throw your hat in the ring? The higher profile the office, the more value in running, even if the odds are totally against you.
And no, I’m not talking about trying to just win over moderate Republicans or self-described Independents who normally vote for the GOP. I’m talking about going after the hardcore. The actual GOP base. Going after the moderates is the futile project of Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi. I, on the other hand, want the hearts and minds of voters who might offer the left-leaning candidate knocking on their door directions to the nearest insane asylum. For if you can solve that part of the puzzle, the moderate pieces should fall into place.
And lastly, I’m not talking about winning these voters over with milquetoast, middle of the road, establishment Democratic nothing-burgers. I’m talking about policies that matter, progressive change that would make a fundamental difference in people’s lives.
Malcolm X said, “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out, that’s not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made.” And then he added, “They won’t even admit the knife is there.”
I’m embarking on this admittedly strange project because so many in the political class, on so many important issues, won’t even admit the knife is there. But the knife is there. And if we’re ever going to get to a place of real healing, it’s going to take some bold-ass action, some audacious-ass thinking. And what I’m advocating for in this project is just one of such actions.
Now, I can imagine some of you are reading this, thinking, “Then why in the hell don’t you run? If you think this is such a good idea, and you’re so passionate about this stuff, why don’t you take a shot at it yourself?”
The answer being, at this point in my life, I have no interest in being in Congress. And I believe that if you’re going to run, you should be prepared to win and be excited about doing the work.
On the other hand, what I would like is to assist the first group of people courageous enough to take me up on this proposal, and help them to win. In the spirit of being transparent, I don’t want to just inspire such a run. I want to be your speechwriter, or your campaign strategist. I want to make a job for myself inside a campaign that doesn’t yet exist. Consider this piece (and the subsequent project) proactive sweat equity towards your historical victory.
Accordingly, I don’t particularly like describing this shadow campaign as fictional. In my eyes, it just hasn’t happened yet. Sure, the example I plan to offer may be satirical, but it is an example nonetheless. One meant to inspire not just someone to run, but a whole lot of someones.
One candidate is a novelty. Multiple candidates is a phenomenon.
If I could spell out my dream scenario for this shadow campaign, it would be to inspire 100 candidates to run, or at least enough to give it a name and get that name in the media consciousness as not just a coincidence and not just a trend, but an organized block. The beginning of a movement. For, once you’re seen as a movement, the corporate media can no longer ignore you. And, at the very least, you know progressive media outlets will be all over you. Which may not get you voters, but will get you small dollar donations. All of which is to say, the more who run, the better it is for everyone. And if enough people run, you have a real chance of finding fire and igniting a zeitgeist.
If you’re someone who, victim to political geography, may feel as if you do not have an electoral existence, someone who’s already on board with these types of policies but lives in a district that is fifty shades of red, I implore you to take that regrettable reality and use it. Use it to illuminate just how little freedom is offered by our political parties. Use it to command attention for a campaign like no one has ever seen.
To my knowledge, no one has tried anything like this or even called for it. With all that could be gained no matter the final ballot count, and with all that is so fucked in our current electoral system, it’s hard not to ask: Why not?
What do we really have to lose?
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