Measuring Electoral Success

David Sirota

In the March 3 special primary election for the 5th congressional district seat in Illinois, formerly held by White House Chief-of-Staff Rahm Emanuel, many progressives voted their hopes, supporting Tom Geoghegan, a Chicago labor lawyer and author.

There is a value in backing long shots, even if those long shots lose.

Geoghegan’s candidacy had been endorsed by The Nation columnist Katha Pollitt, Salon’s Joe Conason and Open​Left​.com, among others. (Disclosure: I wrote a fundraising letter for the campaign.) Yet in the end, reform-minded Cook County Commissioner Mike Quigley won the Democratic primary with 22 percent of the 55,000 Democratic votes cast. Geoghegan placed seventh out of a field of 12, with 6 percent of the vote.

Geoghegan was a movement progressive who faced a steep uphill climb in his first race for Congress. Tom would have been a great representative, who would have helped our movement in Congress as he does in his writings and his practice of labor law. But his loss doesn’t make our contributions to his campaign a waste.

Sometimes we support candidates we may not like, but just because they’re in an important contested race for a Republican seat, we’re willing to give our labor or dollars to push them over the goal line. Other times, we give out of movement solidarity to people we fully admire, knowing that they probably will lose. 

We need to recognize both contributions are worthwhile. In the first example, they can help win an important seat. In the latter, they help develop solidarity and build a network for future campaigns.

There is a value in backing long shots, even if those long shots lose. In Geoghegan’s case, many progressives supported someone who has been an important voice on so many issues, and who has had the courage to fight the good fight. He got beat by a pool of mostly career politicians. Does that mean their work and money are a waste? If we categorize it as such, progressives risk becoming a bloodless investment fund – a typical PAC.

That strategy hasn’t worked for the institutional players. The Service Employees International Union spent $300,000 backing who it considered to be the more electable” candidate, state Rep. Sarah Feigenholtz, who got 17 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, the AFL-CIO put its cash and troops at the service of another electable” candidate, state Rep. John Fritchey, who got 18 percent. What might have happened had unions joined forces and thrown their support behind the race’s unquestioned champion of labor? Would it have possibly made him electable”?

Geoghegan backers helped build a support system for future progressive projects and campaigns. Such a culture of participation and engagement is necessary to let other progressives know that that they can count on the movement’s rank and file when they decide to risk a run for office, even if they aren’t a frontrunner or a career politician. 

It’s true that winning only moral victories” – rather than electoral ones – gets old. But a short-term moral victory” often leads to concrete gains down the road. Indeed, every victory is won on the experience of past defeats, and the setbacks and long hours worked on a campaign, even an unsuccessful one, feed into a bank of know-how and savvy that will serve future campaigns for years to come. The friendships and relationships formed on a campaign provide the basis for a social network that nurtures and supports future initiatives. 

We need to be ready and eager for the next progressive fight – even it is yet another losing skirmish. Why? Because it is all part of a bigger battle, one that we are finally beginning to win.

David Sirota is an awardwinning investigative journalist and an In These Times senior editor. He served as speech writer for Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign. Follow him on Twitter @davidsirota.
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