With 2018 mid-terms looming, progressives across the country are gearing up for a full-court press on incumbent Democrats (or Republicans) who have repeatedly failed to support policies that benefit working people (but instead benefit the wealthy).
In Hawaiʻi, this is, of course, old news. Democrats have held the majority in both legislative chambers for years. Nearly all of our Governors have been Democrats.
It is this environment that has driven progressives in Hawaiʻi past their breaking point. They are ready for real change. And so am I. It is on this change that I want to focus this week.
Focusing on Where We Can Win
Progressives, bolstered by the amount of interest, anger, and action that has been taking place, believe this is their year to bring real change to city councils, and state legislatures around the country. And maybe even some congressional seats. I agree that more than 2016, next year’s elections could prove a pivotal moment for us. A lot of our success (or failure) will depend on our ability to think strategically and our willingness to be targeted in our approach.
In Hawaiʻi, for the first time in my memory, there are numerous progressive candidates running for seats up and down the ballot. Most of them I consider friends. And, sadly, not all of them will win. Not all of them CAN win.
This is not me being pessimistic. This is just a practical reality some may not want to acknowledge but remains nonetheless true.
If progressives really want to begin to claw back power from corporate elites and establishment politicians, we need to triage. We need to, however uncomfortable it might make us at times, focus on those races and on those candidates for which a win is possible. We must guard ourselves against unabashed rosy optimism with calculated laser-focus.
Building on Wins for a Marathon, Not a Sprint
Progressives need to be prepared for a long, drawn-out fight with entrenched politicians and a moneyed elite that isn’t going to give up easily. To this end, we need to think about where we can win with the resources we have at our disposal.
If progressives try to “shoot the moon,” we’re almost certain to fail.
If there are any lessons to be learned from Republicans and neo-liberal Democrats over the last couple of decades it’s this: we need to be targeted. We need to be focused on a simple and direct message. We need to identify those seats we can realistically win and the candidates that can win.
By getting through 2018 with a number of solid wins under our belt, we will build more confidence among our core and peripheral allies. We will show the public and the establishment that we can win. And then we can build on those wins.
My greatest fear for 2018 is that the abundance of energy, enthusiasm, and even optimism will be spread so thin that we will actually accomplish very little. That potential minimal success will serve, in my opinion, to demoralize progressives and young people making future mobilization even more challenging.
This will serve to work against our long-term goals; in my experience, people are easily demoralized and hard to energize.
What Targeting Might Look Like
Though I may make it sound simple here, it isn’t. As the President of Pono Hawaiʻi Initiative (PHI), it might be helpful if I could illustrate my above points with examples of how PHI plans to approach elections in 2018. I’ve been engaged in an ongoing debate for several months with my board as well as other smart and strategically-minded friends about how to strike the right balance.
Everyone has their own sense of how best to approach this question. I am still working out some details in my own mind, but here is broadly what I believe our targeting should look like.
Pick a handful of races at the state level; maybe three to six House races and two to three Senate races. Look for candidates who can be solidly counted on to support a truly progressive agenda for our State. From that list, whittle down to a select few who can prove some level of viability.
For me, that word “viability” is the key. But how might we determine whether a candidate is viable or not? In my thinking, it boils down to a combination of a few campaign metrics.
- Has the candidate built a workable campaign infrastructure?
A core group of solidly dependable volunteers including (ideally) a campaign manager, volunteer coordinator, fundraiser/finance chair/treasurer.
- Has the candidate established a searchable and interactive digital presence?
An attractive and navigable website, a strong social media presence (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) with regular updates, and a user-friendly online donation system.
- Is the candidate working?
Candidates should be door-knocking every day, attending events in the community, making calls for support (volunteers, donations, etc.)
- Can the candidate demonstrate some level of support in their district?
How much money has the candidate raised, how large is their supporter contact list, etc?
Put simply, is the candidate running a smart, effective, disciplined campaign.
These criteria, or some variation, should be the final benchmark for whether a candidate gets support (volunteers, money, etc.) from progressives and their organizations. I’ve been told this approach is somewhat clinical and that it might cause us to alienate friends. I have to concede that is a possibility.
It’s not personal. It’s business. We all need to use our best practical judgment to move our agenda forward.
And I have a lot of faith in my friends and allies who are candidates. I believe they share my goal and vision for a better Hawaiʻi. Might they be disappointed if PHI doesn’t end up supporting them? Certainly. Will they hate me for it? I really doubt it. For me, and I hope for them, it’s the cause, the broader movement that matters.
As we move forward together, we need to each do what we can to ensure maximum efficiency. Though some may hate me for saying it, our principles don’t mean much if we can’t win.