The Democrats are beginning to resemble the Philadelphia Phillies. They're always retooling, always in search of a winning formula, and when they finally take the field, they always seem to wind up a tad short on the scoreboard.
It happened again last night, in an affluent congressional district on the north side of San Diego.
All the elements of a stunning victory seemed to be in place: A special election was being conducted, to fill the seat vacated by a Republican congressman, Duke Cunningham, who had just been hauled to the slammer for taking $2 million in bribes. Cunningham seemed like the ideal poster child for the Democrats' national "culture of corruption" message - the argument that the ruling Republicans on Capitol Hill deserve to be ousted from power because they have been egregiously abusing it.
The Democrats seemed primed to exploit Republican voter disenchantment, not just toward Cunningham, but toward the Bush administration and the GOP Congress in general (for the missteps in Iraq, and the failure to hold the line on federal spending). Moreover, in this special election, the Democrats were unifying around one well-financed candidate, Francine Busby - while the Republicans were fielding 14 candidates, most of whom were busy beating each other up.
In short, Busby seemed poised to win more than 50 percent of the vote - in a heavily Republican district, no less - and thereby send a national message that the GOP was indeed facing big trouble in the November elections.
It didn't happen. And until the Democrats actually win something big some place, their promises of a big Democratic year amounts to nothing but hype.
Busby got 44 percent of the vote. She finished first, but, under California rules, she now has to face the number-two finisher, former Republican congressman Brian Bilbray, in a June runoff. When that happens, Bilbray won't have to share the Republican voters with the 13 GOP rivals who crowded the special election "open" ballot.
Clearly, the Democrats best shot at swiping a Republican seat was last night. So what went wrong for the Democrats, this time?
Above all, they needed a big turnout in that district from their own voters, and they didn't get it. The Democrats can't claim that 2006 will be a "change election" until it can demonstrate that angry voters are rising up in large numbers to demand change.
Supposedly, grassroots Democrats are outraged at Bush, and anxious to send a message by punishing his party. Yet they didn't show up en masse in the 50th congressional district. Granted, it's springtime in southern California, a place where voting takes a back seat to surfing, and this week is spring break for many California families, but wasn't this election billed as a big chance to bloody the Republicans, right after the district's congressman was sent to jail?
Markos Moulitsas Zuniga is in despair today. The proprietor of Daily Kos, the popular liberal website, assails the party leadership for failing to whip up those supposedly outraged voters. The party's leaders, he complains, "do nothing to motivate the Democratic base to turn out and vote. My sense of pessimism for November's elections only gets deeper the more elections show lower and lower turnout. Our supporters have stopped giving a (darn)."
Here's one way to measure the underwhelming result: In the 2000 presidential election, Al Gore won 43 percent of the district's voters. In 2004, John Kerry won 44 percent of the district's voters. Last night, Busby hit the same ceiling - and this is with 14 Republicans divvying up the GOP vote on the open ballot.
A sunnier interpretation for Democrats can be found here, but even the author, grassroots Democratic activist Chris Bowers, adds this proviso:
"We still haven't put together the pieces for a landslide election in the House....Our basic problem seems to be that turnout is low....It is entirely possible that running on Republican corruption could be a double-edged sword that depresses Republican turnout, but also depresses all turnout, as people grow disgusted with politicians in general. There probably needs to be more work from good field people to really determine if we are facing a turnout problem, but there also needs to be more work done to motivate Democratic voters."
The official Democratic line, naturally, is that everything is great. Consider this statement today from Democratic congressman Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, who heads the '06 effort to retake the House: "In a Republican district, Busby showed that Democratic candidates for change can and will make status quo, politics-as-usual Republicans fight for their political lives in every corner of this country.”
But until the Democrats actually win something, words are mere bluster.