Richard Stallings had everything going for him during his four terms as Idaho’s 2nd District congressman.
He had friends in high places and plenty of influence to boot. Colleagues admired and respected his ability, as a Democrat, to hold onto his seat in one of the nation’s most Republican congressional districts.
Things have changed dramatically over the years, and after a string of election defeats. During his run for his old congressional seat last year, the elder statesman felt more like a discarded pair of socks. People who he thought were his friends, such as Congressman Steve Hoyer of Maryland and Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, were not returning his phone calls.
His only “friend” from the past was Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada. But he received nothing from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which is supposed to help candidates.
Nels Mitchell, who ran against Sen. Jim Risch last year, and A.J. Balukoff, who ran a spirited race against Gov. Butch Otter, had similar experiences with their respective national campaign committees.
“They barely gave me the time of day,” Mitchell said.
Balukoff said some of the national groups he met with, such as the National Education Association, were friendly, “but they didn’t do anything to help.”
Stallings has a simple message to the national Democratic organizations. “I’m saying the hell with them,” he said. “I’ve given money to the DCCC for years, and some to Senate and gubernatorial candidates. Why should we, as Idahoans, put money into these organizations if they are not going to reciprocate?”
Democrats had credible candidates in a year when Republican factions were fighting among themselves. Stallings, given his long experience in Congress, certainly was a viable candidate to go against Rep. Mike Simpson. The same goes for Balukoff, who put up about $4 million of his own money to run against Otter. Shirley Ringo, a longtime state representative, was a longshot against Rep. Raul Labrador, but at least was familiar with the legislative process. Mitchell didn’t have the name recognition of the other three candidates, but he was running against Risch and his high negative rating.
“I thought A.J. had a good shot at it, but they wouldn’t even talk with him,” Stallings said. “The national party gave money to candidates that didn’t have half the chance A.J. had.”
Stallings encourages Idaho Democrats to continue contributing to local candidates, “but those three campaign committees do nothing for us.”
Stallings is well aware how the campaign groups function, and especially the DCCC. “First, they go with incumbents, which drives me nuts. If incumbents can’t raise money on their own, then they don’t deserve to be there. After that, they look at viable challengers for open seats, then give a few dollars to selected longshot candidates taking on incumbents. I didn’t even get on the radar.”
In his race, Stallings said, $25,000 to $50,000 might have closed the gap. And if Howard Dean had been the national chairman, Stallings might have gotten a generous contribution. “But the new group views Idaho as a wasteland.”
Mitchell thought he had some connections when he first went to Washington. He ended up with a rude reality check.
“When you meet people face to face, you get a sense of whether they are paying attention,” he said. “A young man I was talking to at the DSCC (Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee) was not paying attention, and when I tried to follow up with telephone calls and emails, no one responded.”
Adding insult, the DSCC didn’t even acknowledge on its website that Idaho had a Democrat challenging for a Senate seat.
“Republicans had every race listed on its website, even the ones they knew would lose,” Mitchell said. “Democrats ignored about 10 states. It was like fighting with one hand tied behind my back.
“Republicans did a better job on the Senate side. Democrats put their heads in the sand and decided to write off a large part of the country,” Mitchell said. “And we’re supposed to be the party of inclusion.”
Balukoff said Democrats nationally may not have taken his candidacy seriously, but Republicans did – funneling about $1.2 million into Otter’s campaign. Overall, the national Democratic groups seemed to do more harm than good for the candidates running.
“It does seem like a one-way street,” Balukoff said. “I don’t know what the incentive is for Idaho to help the national party, particularly when the national party is more liberal than Idaho.”