I’m sitting at a bar in Santa Fe having a drink with a friend. The time is last February and we had just come from a fundraiser for Congresswoman Xochtl Torres Small (“Xoch”), New Mexico’s first-term Democrat for the state’s Second Congressional District. It was the kind of house party that rich Santa Fe liberals love to sponsor, and the kind of event that candidates from resource-poor, red-leaning districts love to attend (NM CD-2 is mostly rural, one of the largest districts in the country, and about 100 miles south of Santa Fe). I’m chatting with the former head of the state’s Democratic party who tells me that the vast majority of donations to New Mexico Democratic candidates for national office, regardless of what district they represent, come from Santa Fe. As I cast an eye at the surrounding real estate, I reckon that most of that money doesn’t have far to travel.
Meanwhile, back at the bar, my friend and I are basking in the glow of having basked in the glow of so much wealth. Whether it was the private home’s museum-worthy art collection, the valet parking, or almost falling into the indoor pool as I retrieved my coat, I do confess an occasional fondness for a lifestyle I have no hope of ever attaining. We were stirred, however, from our reverie by a large cowboy perched two stools down. Even sitting ramrod-straight I had to look up at him, to say nothing of his hat that added another story to his height. Noticing the “Xoch for Congress” stickers still plastered to our jackets, he politely inquired if we were supporters. Smiling sweetly and with less-than-normal assertiveness, we acknowledged we were, even though we didn’t live in her district.
Worried that I might end up on the bad end of a barroom brawl, I was pleasantly surprised by the ensuing conversation. He told us that his cattle ranch was along the New Mexico/Mexico border, which made him a constituent of Torres Small. He was in our state capitol to lobby (the legislature was in session) for reduced environmental regulations. Not sensing that he was trying to be overly solicitous of our feelings, he acknowledged that he liked Torres Small and believed that she was making a genuine effort to serve everyone, even though he made it clear he wasn’t going to vote for her.
But when we asked him what he thought of environmental regulations and the border wall (the untouchable third rail in many political conversations), his posture became more rigid and his eyes averted ours. “I don’t want anyone telling me how to raise my cattle or care for my land! They are my livelihood and I’m not going to do anything to harm them. I know best, not the environmentalists!” And the Wall? “Well, I’ve found copies of the Qur’an on my ranch.” Aside from pronouncing Islam’s holy book as if it rhymed with “doe ran,” I suspected that this was more than a local littering problem for him. Trying to conceal my astonishment, I asked, “Do you mean that Muslim terrorists are infiltrating the U.S. from Mexico?” “Yup,” he responded, “that’s why we need The Wall.” After a faltering attempt to regain our cordial conversation, we eventually made our excuses and asked for the tab. In a gracious, gentlemanly manner, he tipped his cowboy hat saying, “Good night, sir; have a good evening ma’am.”
By midnight on November 3rd, the state’s media had called the NM CD-2 race for Xoch’s opponent, Yvette Harrell, whom she had beat in the 2018 election by less than 4,000 votes. This time around Xoch lost by 20,000 votes. I had made a decision last spring to direct the lion’s share of my political contributions to three, first-term Democratic congresswomen who had flipped their previously Republican districts in 2018. I was shocked to learn that in addition to Xoch, Congresswomen Kendra Horn of Oklahoma’s Fifth Congressional District and Abby Finkenauer of Iowa’s First Congressional District also lost by significant margins. As I told my son the following day, “I got bad news and worse news. The bad news is that everybody I gave money to (except Biden) lost.” “What’s the worse news?” he asked. “That money was your inheritance.”
The question, of course, is what had changed in two short years? Aside from the constant Trumpian drumbeat of lies, hate, and fear, had these previously Republican districts that voted blue in 2018 just been an anomaly? Had those voters suddenly seen the error of their ways and used the 2020 election to repent? Three highly competent and moderate Democratic women were serving their respective districts with diligence and a daintiness of ear to listen carefully to everyone – including my cowboy friend with the Islamic litter problem. Torres Small and Oklahoma’s Horn had major oil and gas interests in their districts that could not be dismissed. Consequently, neither congresswoman could embrace a wholesale fracking ban nor throw their hats into the Green New Deal ring without suffering political damage. In Torres Small’s case, she had worked so well with her district’s oil and gas industry over the past two years that she had earned a “neutral” rating from them, which for a New Mexico Democrat is like having Red Sox fans publicly admit that Yankee fans have no clinically proven psychological defects.
In Congresswoman Horn’s case, she had championed a proposal to double the Earned Income Tax Credit for working families, and otherwise maintained a moderate stance as a fiscally conservative “Blue Dog” Democrat. Her victorious Republican opponent, Stephanie Bice, brazenly touted her own support for big oil and gas interests as well as her A-plus rating with the NRA and the endorsement from the Oklahoma Right to Life chapter.
In an attempt to appeal to her district’s hunter/gatherer crowd, Torres Small tried to burnish her gun cred by running so many ads demonstrating her shooting prowess that, for a moment, I thought she was doing military recruiting spots. But even that was to no avail as her opponent Harrell used her millions in dark money to hammer home the spurious contention that Torres Small had earned a “D minus” rating from the NRA.
According to one Iowa constituent and supporter of Congresswoman Finkenauer, “Nothing Abbey did or did not do [lost her the race]. It was mostly dark money [that paid for] overwhelming ads against her. Iowans seem to not get what is happening to them, so they keep falling for deception.” Unfortunately, as much as these three Democratic gun-totin’, gas-lovin’ gals professed their willingness to work with everyone, they just couldn’t get their heads above the negative tide.
Of course, the Republicans did their almighty best to associate Democrats in these toss-up districts with “socialist” national Democrats. Ads ran non-stop that made it appear as if these smart, independent-thinking women had been lured into a coven headed by the Wiccan high-priestess Nancy Pelosi and her shifty acolyte, AOC. As the Republican ads would have you believe, a vote for these moderate Dems would lead to the downfall of respectable white women who would abandon their maternal and spousal duties in favor of wanton salsa dancing on Main Street.
And it wasn’t for lack of money that these Democrats lost. In addition to all that liberal loot flowing south from Santa Fe, millions came in from out of state for both sides. In the end, Torres Small took in $6.65 million, Harrell garnered $2.46 million, and together they benefited from a combined $21 million in outside PAC money. The cynics among us might be excused for saying that running for office these days is another form of the green new deal.
As I scratched my head at these bewildering results, I asked myself what role COVID-19 played for voters as they entered the voting booth, or, if they were voting Democrat, dropping their ballot into a mailbox. Trump certainly did his level best to divide the nation into two camps: the weenies who wore masks and the real men who show you their angry face beneath a red hat. As time went on and the toll of infected Republicans mounted, that latter camp reminded me of the “Marlboro Man” spoof that had the debilitated, horseback-riding cowboy with plastic tubes up his nostrils and an oxygen pump strapped to his wide leather belt. Torres Small had told a small Zoom gathering of us white-haired, Santa Fe donors that people in many parts of her very large rural district won’t even talk to her when she’s wearing a mask. Trump-inspired or not, the frustration with the COVID-19 lifestyle and the resentment it conjures up toward public health measures was projected sufficiently onto Democratic candidates. After all, many of these anti-mask folks are direct descendants of the anti-motorcycle helmet and anti-car seatbelt crowds. Either way, to mask or not to mask may have been the question that gave the Republicans the edge they needed in rural districts.
If Democrats retain any hope of gaining and holding seats in rural America, they will need to do more than teach their candidates to shoot straight. While my proposal to organize “Muslim Cowboys for Democrats” didn’t get much traction, I’m keeping faith that the party can carve out some pragmatic space that embraces regional differences. One-size-Democrats don’t fit all in an off-the-rack political world. What works in Queens, Detroit, or even Santa Fe, won’t work in Roswell, Oklahoma City, or Dubuque. We need commonsense, smart people with roots in their communities (like these three women) who can find hopeful common ground with those who have, temporarily I believe, fallen under the spell of the fear factor. And we need national party leaders who can celebrate and empower a diverse and robust marketplace of ideas and needs, and accordingly, candidates who can win in those marketplaces. Yes, we strive for party unity, but like a big family with many kids, we’ve got to make room for those, who for good reasons, don’t fit the dominant paradigm.
Then there is the money – oh my God, there is the money! Spending $30 million on a single congressional race may be a new high in political campaign terms, but is certainly a new low for humanity. During one, ten-minute TV segment that aired on a New Mexico station, I saw seven vicious campaign ads – four against Torres Small and three against Harrell – that dumbed down the voters, made a mockery of democracy, and ultimately, if they had the guts to admit it, demeaned those who are responsible for them. When I think of what $30 million dollars could have done for NM CD-2, one of the most impoverished and food insecure districts in the country, I get sick, especially when I realize that some of that campaign cash came from me.
While I consider it a frightful prospect, most of us have become slavishly dependent on TV and social media for candidate information. The ads on both sides are filled with distortions, misinformation, half-truths, and outright lies that in other times and other places would subject their purveyors to legitimate charges of libel and slander. If my young children had said such things about their classmates in days of yore, I might have washed their mouths out with soap. Surely, a civilization that makes its most important choices based on lies will rot from within.
Reform? Sure, but what? Shedding light on the sources of “dark money” isn’t enough. It’s not likely to stop the flow of the buckets of bucks that the rich and famous want to trade for influence. There needs to be absolute limits on the amount of campaign donations and expenditures. How much? I don’t know, but it should be more than the cost of a campaign bus and less than the cost of a new health clinic. Every recognized candidate should be entitled to a fixed number of media ads paid for by the public sector and media outlets. As to the content of those ads, it should comport with new and elevated standards of truth and facts presented in a form that doesn’t scare your children.
We must end the nuclear campaign cash race that is rapidly headed toward mutually assured destruction, not just of the candidates but of democracy. Additionally, the Democratic Party has to embrace a kind of pluralism that holds onto core principles but gives ample room for regional diversity and expression. To that end, there should be deep soul searching and research into the rural American story. The walls that have been built – both the literal one at the border and the figurative ones domestically – between metro and rural areas, so-called liberals and conservatives are based on fear and manipulations by narcissistic people desperate for power. We need to stride forthright into the belly of that fear, where I suspect we will discover more things to like than to hate. To that end, I going to go visit that cowboy and try once again to find out what we have in common.