(The first in a series of diaries from the oddest congressional race in America)
Woodstock high school history teacher Jeff Beals decided to run for Congress late last year. He set up a time to talk to national Democrats about his run. The call was set for four in the afternoon, just after he finished classes.
Ten minutes before four, his cell rang. A local political operative with connections to the party was on the line.
“So,” the man said. “I hear you have a call at four. OK if I prep you?”
Beals, a bright-eyed, lean-framed ex-diplomat who’d been all over the world and seen some bizarre things in his relatively young life, was experiencing the first moments of a political career. Before anyone in politics even knew who he was, he was already being coached on what to say.
“OK,” he replied.
“They’re gonna ask you two questions,” the man said. “First, they’ll ask you how much you think you can raise in the first quarter. You want to know how to answer?”
A curious Beals answered in the affirmative.
“Tell them you can raise $300,000.”
“Three hundred thousand, OK.”
“Next,” the man said, “They’re gonna ask how much you think it will cost to win the whole race. You wanna know the answer to that also?”
A dizzy Beals again answered, “Yes.”
“Tell ’em it’ll cost between a million to $2 million to win. You got that?”
“I got it.”
The man hung up. Minutes later, Beals was on the phone with a bigwig regional director from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). There was a brief exchange of niceties, but more or less right away, the man got down to business.
“Jeff, let me ask you a question,” he said. “How much do you think you can raise in the first quarter?”
“Three hundred thousand dollars?” Beals guessed.
“Good,” the man said. “And how much will you need to win it all?”
“Well,” said Beals, “I’d say I need somewhere between one and $2 million to win.”
“Great,” the man replied. There was a little more discussion and then, before Beals knew it, the call was over.
Beals tells the story of both calls in rapid-fire, caricaturized form. He had expected to be asked more about his background, his beliefs, what his policies were, what his campaign strategy might be.
The DCCC confirms that the conversation happened, but insists they asked Beals about other things besides money, including his grassroots strategy.
Beals remembers it being more about money.
Beals points also to a document the DCCC sent him. They wanted him to sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU), effectively outlining his contractual obligation to the DCCC, as a Democratic candidate for Congress.
Literally a form letter, the document read:
This Agreement is entered into on this ** day of December, 2017, between the DCCC and (candidate name) (hereafter referred to as the candidate).
Beals scanned the MOU and quickly saw that multiple obligations of “candidate name” were all about money.
Item one demanded that the candidate agree to “communicate with the DCCC on a regular basis regarding progress toward quarterly fundraising goals.”
Item two would require Beals to share his budget and finance plan with the DCCC.
Item three was the one that really threw the 41 year-old teacher:
3. The Candidate agrees to have a campaign budget completed six months prior to the primary and to focus on preserving at least 75% of funds for paid communications.
Beals was stunned. In signing the document, he believed he would be committing to spending three out of every four dollars he raised on ad buys. Essentially, he was being instructed to kick most of his money upstairs, to what he would later only half-jokingly describe as the “campaign-industrial complex.”
DCCC spokesman Evan Lukaske, when asked about this provision, said, “The DCCC believes that the best way to win an election is to talk with voters directly, whether it’s at the door, on TV, in the mailboxes or online,” and that the media requirement “is aimed at making sure that candidates spend the vast majority of their funds communicating with voters, rather than paying for high priced consultants or bloated overhead costs.”
What kind of money was Beals expected to bring in? The candidate received the first of a series of letters informing him of how much the DCCC wanted him to raise in order to be taken seriously, and/or earn the support of Washington:
Thank you for your commitment to building a stronger America and your hard work as a candidate during the 2018 election cycle.
We are setting your Q1 goal at $500,000 raised by March 31st.
This goal is tailor-made for your campaign. It is based on the cost of communicating with voters in your district and reflects our belief in your fundraising potential…
It seemed that as far as the national party was concerned, the only question that mattered about Jeff Beals was: Could he be in position to spend $375,000 on paid media by March 31st?
In a few brief communications, the DCCC had treated Beals to a graphic demonstration of a basic truth about national politics in America. If you want in, you either have to be independently wealthy, have wealthy donors lined up, or do something drastic like win the lottery or sell your house.
“They want me to rob my friends and family,” Beals says. “Or sell out. Or both.” He sighs. “Preferably both.”
In the end, Beals tossed the MOU in the trash. “Never even wrote back,” he says. “What’s the point?”
The Democrats are facing perhaps the most crucial midterm-election season in the modern, post-civil rights incarnation of the party’s history. The sitting president, Donald Trump, is not just a Republican and an unprecedented new species of political monster, but recent events like the apparent outbreak of peace on the Korean Peninsula have his approval rating improbably ticking up.
It was not long ago that we were talking about the Republicans as a party on the verge of political pseudo-extinction, as demographic analyses in the afterglow of Obama’s two victories had pundits talking about the “permanent Democratic majority.”
Instead, the Democrats have plunged into a bizarre decade-long slide, losing both houses of Congress and upwards of 1,000 state legislative seats since the beginning of the Obama era. The shocking loss of seeming presidential shoo-in Hillary Clinton in 2016 spoke to something gone horribly awry in the “permanent Democratic majority” narrative, making 2018 a vital test of the party’s ability to stop the mysterious bleeding.
Many Democrats want to retake the House in order to impeach President Trump. The idea seems to fire up the blue base but doesn’t seem to have majority support among all voters, a dichotomy that has made potential impeachment oddly both a Democratic and a Republican talking point going into the fall.
Either way, the Democrats desperately need to win every swing district they can, and as time has gone on, more and more divisions have emerged within a party still finding its way after the great Hillary-Bernie schism of 2016. There have been numerous open battles between the national party and its more progressive, grassroots flank. The story about the DCCC dropping an opposition research memo on Texas progressive Laura Moser is only the best known of these increasingly bitter disputes.
A recent New York Times story described how the national party first urged physician Mai Khanh Tran to drop out of the California 39th district race on the grounds that she could not win, then openly backed former Republican Gil Cisneros when Tran refused to step aside. The same story talked about similar disputes in Arkansas and upstate New York.
Many of these stories tend to involve crowded primary fields in swing districts. The New York 19th, which features six Democratic candidates in addition to Beals, and is widely considered up for grabs, is just such a setting. And here, too, the divisions that threaten the party have come out in the open. Money is one dividing line. Another is residency.
There are only two Democratic candidates in the New York 19th race who have lived in the district long enough to have voted there in the last election. Beals is one. An Ulster County trial lawyer (and ordained Methodist deacon) named Dave Clegg is the other.
Clegg has been in the district for 37 years. His résumé reads like something out of a Frank Capra movie, or an application to the Vatican for sainthood. Over the years, he has engaged in almost every kind of civic-oriented activity one can imagine, from teaching in prison to working in a soup kitchen to coaching basketball to working for the Boy Scouts to clerking for the NAACP, sexual abuse victims and countless other pro bono clients.
But Clegg’s campaign home page, with the slogan “FIGHTING FOR PEOPLE – NOT CORPORATE INTERESTS,” suggests that he, like Beals, is confrontationally populist. Possibly for that reason, possibly because he came to the race late, he’s not sure – “I may be too progressive for them, I don’t know,” he says – he hasn’t exactly felt the love from the national party. This is despite the fact that he’s clearly got the deepest roots in the district out of all the candidates.
“[The DCCC] gave me all of 20 minutes in a back room,” he says. “They really haven’t taken the time to get to know us up here.”
Clegg remembers the DCCC asking the same questions Beals got about funding.
“Ultimately they ask you, ‘How much can you contribute to your campaign?'” he recounts.
As for the memorandum of understanding, with its rigid ad-buy requirements, Clegg wasn’t impressed.
“We don’t have the resources to do it the way they want to do it,” he says. “So we’ll do it another way.”
Clegg, whose wife has long been a teacher in the area, claims to have three times the volunteers of any other candidate. So he’s knocking on doors instead of buying commercials. He didn’t sign the MOU.
From the party’s perspective, they feel like they’re in a no-win situation with certain kinds of voters. If they support an establishment candidate, there are complaints that they’re interfering. At other times, they take criticism for failing to support progressive candidates. So which is it – should they interfere, or not?
As far as the 19th goes, the DCCC insists it’s sticking with the Prime Directive and not pushing anyone. “We have not put any candidate on Red to Blue [the party’s program to support “top-tier” candidates] and we are not working directly with any one candidate,” Lukaske said.
But the system doesn’t need to be a conspiracy to be askew. Maybe the oddest feature of a hotly contested primary race like the 19th is how random the deciding factors might end up being.
There’s a common misconception that the national parties put a lot of thought and planning into finding candidates to run for local office. In reality, the process can be a lot more random than the public understands.
The national party doesn’t have time for every district, not even every swing district. This is shocking, since the overwhelming majority of House races are already non-competitive – just 23 of the 435 seats in 2016 were considered truly contested races.
It’s a kind of gerrymandering non-aggression pact between the Democrats and Republicans that leaves huge numbers of people unrepresented. It has long been one of America’s dirtiest secrets.
The fact that the parties devote a relative paucity of resources to even the very few contested districts means candidates are often picked based less on merit than on absurd factors like “Who’s around who can scrape together half a million dollars in the next three months?”
Surprisingly often, the answer is “Nobody.” Which is why so many congressional races in remote districts end up featuring wandering millionaires from wherever the nearest big city happens to be.
In the case of the 19th, millions of dollars did indeed quickly pour into the primary race. As of May, north of $5 million has been raised for Democratic candidates. Both Beals and Clegg, along with an agronomist named Erin Collier, soon found themselves bringing up the rear financially against a gaggle of candidates who clearly did a better job of proving their “fundraising potential.”
To Beals, his worst suspicions seemed confirmed when he learned that the top four Democrats in the field by fundraising turned out to be, in no particular order: a defense contractor, a health care executive, a partner at a famed lobbying firm and a former press aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo. In Beals’ mind, this lineup was like a Rogue’s Gallery of centrist caricatures.
“You couldn’t make this stuff up,” he says.
Beals, like Clegg, insists most of these candidates are basically New Yorkers who have never voted in the district before this year. Of course, Beals himself has only been living and working in Woodstock since 2016.
Beyond that, in some cases, you have to look at the fine print to see the difference between Beals and his primary opponents on issues like health care, student debt and social security. There is, of course, a significant difference between “I’m for Medicare for all” and “I’m committed to fighting for affordable health care for all.” But such differences are not easy for the average voter to suss out.
Here’s something that’s far easier for voters to spot: On which side of the increasingly bitter schism within the party does the candidate reside?
The Great Democratic Divide that opened last election and has been widening ever since, and which seems on the surface to be a clash of two strident and intractable cult-of-personality movements – Bernie Bros vs. Hillbots – has really very little to do with personality at all. It is, for sure, about ideology. But it is also a prosaic argument about money and tactics.
The core Sanders argument was always that Democrats could never effectively represent people against corporate power while continuing to be sponsored by it.
The counter to that has been that Democrats can get more done working with business than against it, and moreover, they can’t afford to cede the fundraising battle to Republicans (although the Democrats out-raised Trump nearly 2-to-1 in 2016, and still lost).
Democrats have been traveling in a furious circle for two years now, fighting tooth and nail over this question in the manner of all Internet arguments, i.e. pointlessly and without end. The schism has paralyzed the national party, which, heading into the 2018 elections, still hasn’t developed anything like a coherent strategy for winning back places like the 19th.
Even one of Beals’ more well-heeled opponents, the Iraq War vet and surveillance contractor Pat Ryan – whose past business practices earned the unwelcome attention of Intercept muckraker Lee Fang earlier this year – seems puzzled by the lack of direction from the party.
“I’ve been very disappointed in the lack of leadership, the lack of message,” Ryan says.
There seems to be no real plan for taking these districts back. But if one were going to try one out, it would be here, in the 19th, a political cliff-face where one can clearly see the mass erosion that caused the Great Democratic Catastrophe of 2016.
The 19th is a geographically enormous, almost entirely rural oblong in and around the Hudson Valley and central New York. It was born of a merger of two districts, the 20th and 22nd, after New York state lost two seats following the 2010 census.
Seemingly gerrymandered to be a safely red district, it features an enrollment advantage somewhere north of 6,100 votes for the Republicans.
There’s nothing like a big city anywhere in the district. The 19th snakes south through counties like Duchess and Ulster, north to Montgomery, Otsego and Rensselaer, and west to a bit of Broome, all while carefully sidestepping urban areas like Albany, Schenectady and Poughkeepsie.
Boasting lush landscapes within weekend-home range of Manhattan, the 19th contains a few upscale communities like Woodstock and Hyde Park (the ancestral home of the ultimate silver-spoon Democrat, Franklin Roosevelt). But the district as a whole is actually below average in terms of both median income and higher education.
High school educated, white, rural: exactly the kind of place where Democrats saw their worst slides in 2016. The 19th followed this pattern.
Barack Obama won handily here, twice, beating John McCain 53-45 in 2008 and Mitt Romney 52-46 in 2012. But Hillary Clinton lost this district 51-44 to Donald Trump, a 15-point swing. What happened?
Part of the answer might be found in the fact that Clinton didn’t just lose here to Trump. She also lost badly to Sanders. The Vermont senator won 35,022 votes here in the 2016 Democratic primary, to just 24,621 for Clinton. Coupled with Trump’s performance, this seems an indication that displeasure with the political establishment was at least one factor for voters on both sides in the district.
This detail is relevant to Beals, who is endorsed by a national organization of former Sanders staffers, the Justice Democrats (Sanders has not endorsed anyone in the race). In fact, it makes Beals’ story even stranger. If Sanders won so handily here, why would the national party not work harder to cultivate someone like him? Why isn’t there room in the congressional caucus for both major brands of blue-state politics?
Policy-wise, Beals is a Sanders doppelgänger. He preaches Medicare for all, forgiveness of student debt, free higher education and a guaranteed jobs program. Also, just like the Vermont senator, he frequently rails against the tepid incrementalism of centrist Democrats, for instance comparing their approach to health care to the famed Zeno’s paradox of antiquity.
“You know, the one where if you go half the distance each time, you never actually reach your destination?” Beals says. “It’s the same with Democrats and health care. It’s like: ‘We’ll start with an opt-in, then we’ll try this other thing…’ But they never actually get there.”
If you squint hard, Beals’ profile even vaguely resembles that of a young Sanders. Conspicuously absent is the hardscrabble childhood, or the rabbinical seriousness that Sanders exudes when he talks about things like income inequality and corporate corruption.
Beals is, however, idealistic, quick-witted, Jewish and unabashedly anti-establishment. He is the grandson of four Auschwitz survivors, and his parents, in their youth, were service workers in the hotels and resorts of the Borscht Belt, which might be why he reaches for the one-liner more often than Sanders does.
Where he differs from Sanders in the most extreme way is in his path to politics. While Sanders was an anti-war and civil rights activist practically in the womb, Beals began his professional life as a CIA intelligence officer and diplomat. He started off working in the West Bank and the Gaza strip, but ended up in the Iraqi War theater, working for a time out of Saddam Hussein’s occupied palace and even helping American viceroys draft the Iraqi Constitution in the Bush years.
This part of his bio has been something of a millstone around Beals’ neck, as Internet sleuths and opponents alike have used it to portray him as everything from a deep-state plant to an outright “manufactured, faux-progressive candidate” surreptitiously inserted into the race by forces loyal to Hillary Clinton.
According to a theory espoused in Counterpunch, Beals was designed to so perfectly imitate a progressive campaign that evil Clintonites are “using the Beals campaign as a laboratory for [a] strategy of winning elections without raising millions of dollars.”
If Beals is really in deep cover, trying to look like a broke-ass history teacher running a threadbare campaign in order to undermine progressivism by failing to raise money or national party support, he’s doing a hell of a job. The motive for such a plan seems elusive, but such is life in the conspiratorial 2010s.
Beals, for his part, is actually at his most convincing and interesting when he talks about his past life in the Middle East. He describes it in a kind of daze, like he can’t believe he actually experienced it.
He was once a patriotic scholar and Arabist who believed what he’d been taught – right up until he found himself in the middle of some of the most momentous transactions in the recent history of American foreign policy, and realized it was madness.
“I was brought up in this tradition,” he says. He describes being handed in his student days The End of History and The Last Man, the infamous Francis Fukuyama tome that essentially describes Western neoliberal capitalism as the un-improvable apex of human social organization. “I was handed an apocalyptic religious text,” he says, “and told it was international relations! It’s incredible. That actually happened!”
He goes on to describe how in his diplomatic career, he watched as high-ranking Americans kept searching for a “Muslim Luther,” often elevating frauds or inadequate personalities who would win American backing and treasure by promising to reform Islam, clear out the Imams and bring the Middle East in line with American capitalist culture.
“All this made it kind of hilarious to be in Iraq, because I was literally in the room when the constitution negotiations were breaking down, the negotiations that were supposed to turn it into a democracy. And I was just sitting there thinking, ‘History’s ending, man.'” He pauses. “I was kind of the mad prophet who saw the End of History. Except, not exactly.”
When Beals came home from the Middle East, he had an offer to work in the corporate world. (An infamous petroleum company that valued his Arab language skills and diplomatic background came knocking.) But Beals, disillusioned by his experience, couldn’t bring himself to go that route.
Dispirited, he went back to his family farm in Putnam County, New York, and ended up teaching history in nearby Woodstock for a meager salary. “It’s pretty much impossible to even make a significant paycheck in the U.S. anymore without being involved in some form of criminal enterprise,” he quips, referring to the jobs he’d turned down.
For a while, he worked on a book about his experiences, hoping to lift a lid on some of the lunacy he’d seen. But a combination of inspiration from the 2016 campaign and the realization that a Sanders-style platform could do well in his district prompted him to throw his hat into the 2018 House race.
Before he knew it, pulling the veil back on Iraq was a memory. He was now witnessing something just as strange that he felt the world needed to hear about: the machinations of congressional campaigning.
Major-party politics in America, he insists, is little more than a giant protection racket. As he describes it, the party bureaucracies use local elections as forums to gobble up cash by the multi-millions, with ideology or even winning being, at best, ancillary considerations.
The need to continually raise more and more money to support party bureaucracies becomes so intense that the notion of choosing candidates based on ideas or principles becomes a far-away dream.
“It’s like The Godfather,” says Beals. “You know how Michael says, ‘In five years, the Corleone family will be completely legitimate’? It’s just one day. One day. Like, we’re not there. “
Thursday afternoon, May 3rd, Ellenville, New York. In this small town in the southern end of the district, a place where Beals’ father once lived while waiting tables at nearby resorts, the candidate is knocking on doors to spread the word with Iyla (pronounced EY-E-la) Shornstein, his watchful young chief of staff.
In between houses, Beals and Shornstein are trading jokes about the campaign.
“Did you see the latest letter from the DCCC?” Beals asks. “They raised my vig!”
Beals and Shornstein frequently joke about “the vig,” a gambling reference to the interest charged by bookies and loan sharks. In their eyes, the national party’s fundraising targets are the Beltway’s version of “the vigorish,” a tab you’ve got to pay your bookie to keep your account open (and legs unbroken).
Shornstein, an alert young woman who seems always to be checking her cellphone for campaign updates and messages from other staffers and volunteers, says she didn’t see the letter.
“Yeah. They upped it to $800K,” Beals cracks.
“You didn’t tell me that!” she says.
I ask Beals how far he’s in the hole, in the eyes of the party. The vig, he jokes, has been running for months.
“Deep,” he says. “I’m really in deep, man.”
He walks up to a door, knocks on it and adjusts the Beals-for-Congress button on his blue dress shirt. After a moment, a frail-looking woman with long white hair opens the door and cautiously looks Beals up and down.
“Hi,” he says. “I’m Jeff Beals, and I’m running for Congress. I just wanted to come by and let you know about the election. I’m running against John Faso…”
The woman, who turns out to be a teacher at a nearby prison, invites Beals inside. Almost everyone we’ll meet today whose house isn’t in total disrepair seems to be either a teacher or a prison worker. Beals later suggests this might have something to do with the fact that those are two of the last groups around here that have unions.
The candidate enters and takes a seat on a couch opposite the kindly old woman. His rap to voters is simple.
Within the first few moments, he typically tells people he’s in favor of Medicare for all, wants to raise Social Security benefits and wants to fight to stop “endless war” abroad. The line, “I was endorsed by the Justice Democrats, the national organization of former Bernie Sanders staffers” usually comes out quickly as well.
The woman listens politely for a while, but seems more concerned about a movie she had been watching in the other room. Beals, noticing, gets up.
“So, can I count on your vote in the upcoming primary?”
“Maybe, yes,” she says, smiling.
Look in media analyses and in the public pronouncements of party officials, and what you’ll find is an unbroken string of apologias suggesting the party’s failures in places like these are inherently unavoidable – a problem of bad voters, not bad policies.
One common take is that a huge chunk of this America lives in Hillary Clinton’s infamous “third basket” of Trump supporters: they are “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it.”
If true – and of course it could be – then, arguendo, there really is nothing to be done. After all, one cannot expect the party of the Great Society to make dog-whistle racial appeals to win voters back (even though it did exactly this in the mid-Nineties, using the euphemistically-titled triangulation technique).
Another common take is that the Obama-to-Clinton slide is usually a problem of education, not economics. In 2016, for instance, Hillary Clinton outperformed Obama in 48 of the 50 most-educated communities.
It was the towns with the lowest college graduation rates – places like Blount, Alabama, and Pike, Kentucky – where the people abandoned brainy Clinton for the race-baiting, Propecia-taking reality star, Donald Trump.
If that’s true, the thinking goes, what can be done? Send smart pills in the mail? Offer free college education? (Well, not that).
In the rare case that the punditocracy even bothers proposing solutions to the “we are not loved by the poorly educated” problem, they’re usually cringe-inducing to a spectacular degree. An example is the New Republic’s suggestion that the Democrats could penetrate post-literate culture by recruiting celebrity candidates like Meryl Streep, Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio or Rosie O’Donnell.
When asked about defeatist analyses that suggest Democrats either can’t or shouldn’t try to regain voters in areas like these, Beals shakes his head.
“I just think it’s completely bullshit that we can’t win those votes,” he says. “First of all, what are you losing them to? You’re losing them to an anger vote … It’s not even like you lost them to a Republican agenda.”
He adds: “And then Trump comes along and wins votes on anger, and then partially steals your own script by offering them health care and draining the swamp.”
Clegg agrees with Beals on this score. “Trump hit a new low in terms of the lizard-brain fear approach,” he says. “It did actually work with some.”
Beals goes on to suggest that there’s an even more nefarious motive for the defeatist analyses. Successfully spreading the idea that the party can’t reach certain voters not only absolves the national bureaucracy of any need to change, but reduces campaigning to a blunt-force fundraising contest, a place where they’re comfortable.
“This is where things get dark, but I think there are a lot of people who want you to think we can’t win those votes,” he says. “They want us to just get back to focusing on the fundraising, and keep the cash cow going.”
Beals belongs to the camp that believes that part of what’s turned off voters in both parties is the co-mingling of corporate money and politics, and that the only way to win people back is to eschew that money. For this reason, he makes sure to work in a line about how “I don’t accept corporate PAC donations” at every door knock.
Since 2016, only a few high-profile Democrats have dared to edge within shouting distance of this point of view. Chuck Schumer’s “Better Deal,” which conceded that the “wealthiest special interests” have vastly increased power and suggested that today’s Americans are more “justified in having greater doubts about the future than any generation since the Depression,” is one relatively lonely example.
But even Schumer, himself an infamous hooverer of Wall Street money, mostly just suggested that the Democrats have done a bad job of conveying how much they have always been on the people’s side, even though they’ve been sponsored by all those same special interests.
“We… failed to communicate our values to show that we were on the side of working people, not the special interests,” he said. “We will not repeat the same mistake.”
In other words: Apart from doing a better job of marketing themselves, the Democrats don’t really need to change. From mental constructions like this, it’s a short hop to a comment like the one offered recently by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, when asked by Face the Nation what the Democrats can do differently to regain lost ground.
“I don’t think people want a new direction,” she said.
Asked to elaborate, Pelosi echoed Schumer. She said we need a “better connection of our message.”
Translation: The solution is more of the same, only better.
The paradox facing the Democrats is that in the current political climate, voters might be quicker to trust the outsider. But the system is designed to funnel money and media attention to insiders.
Is it possible to pay the vig upstairs and be a people’s candidate? Maybe some of the other candidates in the 19th field have the answer.
Next week: the field