Capitol Police sent cops to a guy's door for somebody else's tweet
And the elephant's weapon in the room
This week Rachel Cohen and I took a close look at House Democrats’ underperformance in 2020 and specifically at their poor showing among Latino voters. Almost always left out of that conversation is the role of campaign consultants, who make millions crafting messaging and running and analyzing polls and focus groups. It matters who those people are, how they make the rest of their income, and what their background is. Generally, they come up through the ranks of party committees like the DCCC or DSCC, then they leave and form a consulting firm. Next their deputy gets promoted to replace them, and the deputy sends business to the consulting firm, knowing that when they leave and found a firm, their deputy will do the same. We started the piece with this example:
IN A 2018 House Democratic primary, Gina Ortiz Jones fought her way through a crowded field of congressional hopefuls and emerged as the nominee to take on the vulnerable incumbent, Republican Rep. Will Hurd, in Texas’s 23rd District. She seemed like the perfect candidate, as if molded in a lab: an openly gay Iraq war vet and former intelligence officer who could neutralize Hurd’s nine years at the CIA.
In March of that cycle, the national Democratic Party celebrated her primary win in the border district. “The future is female. And Latina too! Felicidades @ginaortizjones,” the party’s account posted to Twitter. “Onward to November!”
It was an inauspicious beginning: Ortiz Jones is actually Filipina — and this misstep by the party was only the most visible symbol of its “close enough” approach to race and identity. Indeed, she had identified professionally for years as Gina Jones before switching to Ortiz Jones for the campaign, an advantage if voters believed she was Hispanic. It helped in the primary, but Hurd ended up winning the sprawling West Texas district by fewer than 1,000 votes in the general election.
Not looking for a rematch, Hurd retired, and in 2020 Democrats were extremely bullish on picking up the seat. Ortiz Jones moderated her message, dropping her support for Medicare for All and swapping in calls for lower drug prices and improvements to Obamacare. Rep. Cheri Bustos, the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, was confident things were moving Ortiz Jones’s way. “More than anything, it’s changing demographics,” Bustos said, “and I would say over the next, you know, one, two, three cycles, that that state’s going to look very different.”
To execute its strategy in the Texas district, the party and its affiliated super PAC had turned to MVAR Media, Waterfront Strategies (a cutout of the D.C.-based giant GMMB), and Pescador Public Strategies, a new Hispanic political media firm. Heading into the election, Democratic consultants and pundits had been confident. The conventional wisdom was that Donald Trump was a toxic figure for voters of color, and he was also rapidly losing support among upper-middle-class white voters with a college degree, many of them situated in the nation’s ever-expanding suburbs.
The party’s polling showed that voters supported lower prescription drug prices and wanted to ban insurers from discriminating against people with preexisting conditions. Ortiz Jones leaned into it. “It was health care this, and health care that,” said Ernest Bromley, whose consulting firm, Pescador Public Strategies, worked on the campaign. “We stayed on the health care message all the way through.”
Against her, Republicans ran Navy veteran Tony Gonzales, who warned that Ortiz Jones was a socialist who was pushing a “transgender agenda,” blasting her for living in Washington, D.C., where she had claimed a homestead deduction on her taxes. The DCCC and its allied operations hit back by tying Gonzalez to Donald Trump. “Es un títere de Trump,” blared one ad from the party’s super PAC affiliated with the DCCC, complete with puppet strings, followed by alternating images of the faces of Trump and Gonzalez.
There was just one problem with that strategy: Trump won the district. “That’s a pretty big mess-up,” said a flummoxed Republican operative who worked on the race. “We were not running ads hitting candidates for their support of Biden in seats Biden won. That’s elemental.”
Hopes of expanding the Democratic majority were dashed as the votes rolled in on the night of November’s general election, and voters of color gave Trump and House Republicans a significantly higher share of their votes than four years earlier. Ortiz Jones lost, this time by 12,000 votes. When the smoke cleared, the party’s 36-seat cushion had become just a nine-seat majority. Republicans flipped 14 Democratic seats — 15 counting former Rep. Katie Hill’s district, which Democrats narrowly lost in the special election following Hill’s 2019 resignation, and then lost again in November, both times to Republican Mike Garcia. In seven of the districts Democrats lost to Republicans a majority of voters were people of color, precisely the kind of electorate Bustos had believed Democrats had on lock. The New York Times reported on Sunday that Democratic erosion among Latinos was even deeper than originally understood.
Bromley said the losses in 2020 show the party still has a lot to learn about Hispanic voters. “They did spend more money in ’20 than they did in ’18 and so forth targeting Latinos,” Bromley said. “But on the other hand, we had an interesting Trump effect that was in operation on the field. And with things like socialism, things like defund the police, things like pro-life, you know, that gets into this Catholic value thing. … And was that adequately answered? I don’t think so.”
“There’s not a whole lot of research that’s out there on the voters themselves and the role of language and values in their voting decisions,” he said.
I also wrote this week about the elephant’s weapon in the room that nobody talks about even as there’s been a ton of (appropriate) focus on voter suppression laws. In 2012, House Democrats won more than 51% of the vote, yet because of gerrymandering, Republicans comfortably won the House. Unless Democrats ban gerrymandering, that’ll happen again this cycle. Here’s why.
For this week’s Deconstructed, I interviewed Rep. Veronica Escobar, who represents El Paso in the district vacated by Beto O’Rourke. It was a follow up to last week’s, which explored the parallels between the emigration from Ireland during the potato famine and the ongoing emigration from the Northern Triangle. Escobar explores the question of why we have police in the form of Border Patrol having responsibility for children at all. We shouldn’t, she argues.
I’ve also been following a bizarre and troubling story out of California, in which a podcaster was visited by California Highway Patrol, saying they were dispatched by Capitol Police to investigate him for threatening Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Except he hadn’t. The Capitol Police have since told me that somebody else tweeted something -- they won’t say what -- that has since been deleted, and “tagged” him in it. The Capitol Police confirmed they had coordinated with CHP and told me in a statement that Ocasio-Cortez did not request the investigation, and the department “monitors open and classified sources to identify and investigative threats.” This feels like the beginning of what should be a massive scandal: Capitol Police simply should not (and I would argue do not) have the authority to interrogate everybody “indirectly involved” -- their words -- with somebody else’s tweets. If they have more information that puts any of this in a different light, they should provide it. As it stands, it looks like an outrageous overreach. The FBI also recently visited somebody for a tweet they sent about Ted Cruz. This comes after journalist Max Blumenthal was arrested based on a flimsy and since-dismissed allegation from a subject of his reporting. After failing to spot the Capitol storming that was being planned opening on Facebook, they appear to be overcorrecting, and that can’t stand. More to come on this story.