Reflections and Takeaways from Sri Kulkarni

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It has been almost a week since the election and I want to say thank you one more time to all the supporters, the staff, and especially the volunteers who worked their heart out over the last three years. Some of you have asked for my reflections on the campaign and Tuesday’s result, so I offer them here. (I will give my thoughts on the legacy of the Trump era later.)

The most common question is, “What happened?” I honestly can’t say I know the answer yet. All the data (polling, modeling of voters, turnout numbers for youth and first-time voters, conversations with independent and former-Republican voters who had swung our direction, feedback from polling locations etc.) did not match the results on Tuesday night. Our final poll showed us up by five points. (According to the results on Tuesday, we lost by more than seven points. That was at least four points worse than our worst poll of the campaign, and our final poll was off by more than 12 points.) 

On top of that, our opponent didn’t appear to be running a serious campaign. For most of the campaign, he only had two issues on his website. (His original top issue was “Standing with Trump.”) He never even addressed the top issue for voters, containing the coronavirus pandemic, or the #3 issue, protecting our healthcare. (We were endorsed by the American Hospital Association, the American Nurses Association, and every major physicians’ association). On the economy, we had many more local business owners donate to our campaign than he did. We were endorsed by the Houston Chronicle and numerous other organizations. He barely had any public events at all or ever answered any questions on the record. Losing by more than 28,000 votes against this campaign was a real shock.

However, when all the results came out, we realized it wasn’t just us. An unexpected “red shift” occurred across Texas and the country. Every single one of the 8 targeted Congressional races in Texas lost, and did much worse than their polling suggested. After flipping 12 state rep seats in 2018, we netted 0 gains across the state, despite Republican pollsters themselves freaking out (and the GOP frantically trying every voter suppression method possible to stem a blue wave they thought was coming).

And not just in Texas. Across the country, Democrats did not capture any of the state legislatures they had invested so heavily in and polling looked so promising for. In the Senate, Michigan Senator Gary Peters was winning in every single poll over the last two months by a minimum of five points and some as high as 15 points, but he barely squeaked by and almost lost. Some people think this is because of the “shy Trump voter,” which pollsters can’t capture. But, in most of these places Trump did worse than the down ballot candidates. In Maine, for example, Sara Gideon was leading in every single poll in the last month of the campaign, by as many as eight points, but she lost to Senator Susan Collins by NINE POINTS…in a state that Biden won. Perhaps the entire science of polling is useless. 

However, if that was the case, you would expect some of the results to have gone more Democrat than the polling suggested. However, in not a single competitive House or Senate seat in the entire country did a Democrat unexpectedly beat a Republican. Perhaps there is a systemic bias against the GOP/MAGA in polling? But in both 2016 and 2018 in Texas, the polling underpredicted Democratic performance, not overpredicted. Did the bias somehow invert in the last four years? (If anything, the pollsters adjusted the other way to account for shy MAGA.) No, something very strange happened on Tuesday night, and we have to do some serious analysis to understand what it was.

Regardless of what happened across the nation, I do have fourkey reflections as we look to the future of organizing and campaigning here:

MONEY

It’s a crime. Not literally, but it does have such an outsized and central role in our politics, in a way that does not advance democracy at all. This is independent of party. First, the entire party campaign model (at the Congressional level) says the most important element of a campaign is advertising. (Here I’m not talking about the relentless negative attack ads, which were funded by Super PACs on both sides, but the principle is the same: the main way to communicate with over 500,000 voters in TX-22 is on TV so the advertising basically IS the campaign). The result of this framework is that I, as a candidate, spent 25-40 hours every week just making calls to rich people asking for money, before I even started anything that I would call real campaigning. I did this every day for 19 months continuously, and it killed my soul. Our finance team worked ourselves to death for two years mainly to make three commercials and put them on TV. (Btw, our opponent did not raise even one third as much as us, but dark money Republican Super PACs just made up the difference by dumping millions into the attack ads against me).

The problems with this system are: a) if you spend so much time just speaking with the 0.27% richest people (who can afford a $2,800 donation), how can you get a feel for middle class concerns? b) all of the time spent on fundraising can’t be used actually doing the work (organizing for the campaign or legislating in Congress) and most importantly c) middle class people cannot run for office in this system. Not all of us are rich (like Kathaleen Wall) or have a job which will pay us a 6-figure taxpayer-funded salary while we campaign full time (like Nehls). In my case, the only legitimate option I saw was to take out my entire retirement to live off of while I fundraised/campaigned 60-80 hours a week, three years straight. No one should be expected to use up their life savings to run for office and a middle-class person SHOULD be able to run. (A single teacher, for example, CANNOT afford to run for Congress in our current system, but she should.) We MUST fight for publicly financed campaigns.

If I had to do our campaign over again, I would have put my foot down about the time I personally spent on fundraising vs organizing. Meanwhile, the Republicans were beating us on the ground (partly because they were knocking on doors when we were not), and I really wish we had run the organizing-first model of campaign I had envisioned back in March 2019. I truly believe that this is how we get past politics as normal and get to the community organizing that will restore faith in our democratic institutions.

IMMIGRANT OUTREACH is a DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD.

We made national headlines for our 27-language outreach to specific minority linguistic, ethnic, and faith communities which have never had any representation here before (despite immigrants being 1/4 of our population). However, engaging with immigrant groups involves dealing with “diaspora politics.” One example is that immigrants from places with communist/socialist governments (like Vietnam, Cuba, Venezuela, Kerala etc.) are especially susceptible to messages from the GOP that anyone in the Democratic Party is “socialist.” (Joe Biden is not a “socialist” by any definition, but that attack line still proved to be effective with these folks regardless.)

In our district, the Hindu-Muslim tension over events in India was exploited by Republicans perfectly. They sent messages to Hindu voters that I was a traitor to India for being too pro-Muslim and simultaneously sent out messages to Muslim voters that I was a “fascist” who had the blood of Indian Muslims on my hands. It was disgusting and hate mongering, but it was also very effective, especially when groups on the left (regarding the Hindu nationalist attacks) picked up the attacks and ran with them. Almost anything we said to either group would cause a negative reaction from the other group. All of this played into our opponents’ hands perfectly because it not only lost us votes from both the Hindu and the Muslim community, but additionally it created a huge drain on our time and resources, as Indian politics essentially became our #1 issue…in a Congressional race in Texas.

Despite the fact that today’s GOP is undoubtedly the anti-immigrant party (threatening foreign students, H1-B recipients, DACA recipients, refugees, family reunification applicants, etc.), Democrats need to be prepared for Republicans to exploit diaspora politics for partisan advantage. In order to counter this, we must develop networks of surrogates (especially young leaders) in these communities or risk conflicts from the old world destroying coalitions here.

IF SOMEONE SAYS “F*** YOUR FEELINGS” DON’T BELIEVE THEM.

This phrase (without the asterisks) is commonly used in MAGA circles, implying that Democrats are too emotional. In fact, just the opposite is true. Republicans are much better at playing on feelings and emotions, while Democrats frame too many things around “the issues.” In 2018, I ran on a more progressive platform and got within 4.9 percent. In 2020, I was advised to go more “centrist” and garnered the endorsements of groups like the Blue Dog Democrats, and lost by 7.3 percent. While the change in platform definitely helped with more conservative donors, I don’t think it helped us with voters at all. The ads against us labeled me as a “reckless liberal socialist” regardless, and because my opponent refused to debate, there was little chance to actually compare our platforms.

If we simply voted on policy issues, like in a Greek direct democracy, I believe Democrats would win because our policies are actually much more popular. (For examples, look to initiatives on felons regaining their voting rights, legalizing marijuana, a $15 minimum wage etc. which all won with voters even if those voters voted for candidates who opposed these things.) On issues, Democrats are more in line with the majority of people. But people DON’T vote for candidates on issues. In our race, most of what our opponent put out in terms of positive messages consisted of pictures of himself in a military uniform or a cowboy hat, and vague descriptions of being “conservative.” He never offered any solutions for healthcare or the coronavirus, for example.

On the negative side, the GOP mainly attacked me for having been arrested when I was 18 years. old, going to a music festival and some pictures of me in a costume for a Halloween Party (they spent MILLIONS on just this). They also put out tons of inflammatory mailers about killing babies (despite the fact that abortions decrease dramatically more under Democratic administrations than Republican ones, and the evidence shows that increasing access to education and reproductive health, rather than reducing it, is how you reduce total abortions). As mentioned above, Joe Biden has been labeled a “socialist” in most of the GOP messaging. He (and most Democratic candidates) oppose “defunding the police.”

None of that mattered. Our platforms didn’t matter at all. The emotional attacks did matter because they work. You can literally be a cop fired for misconduct or have half of your campaign staff indicted (or be indicted yourself like our attorney general), as long as people FEEL that you stand for law and order. The slogans work. The branding works. The messages we send out (in advertising as well as social media and direct contact) need to be simpler and more emotional to compete with the Republicans. We need to understand what people fear and what moves them to anger. Republicans do, and they exploit it well. The best way to get a handle on this is to spend more time listening to way people in the community actually talk and the feelings they are expressing, rather than just polling them about what their top issue is.

DISINFORMATION and ITS ANTIDOTE (Hint: it’s not information).

This is my last reflection, but it is perhaps the most important. In the Foreign Service, I worked on attempting to counter Russian disinformation in Ukraine. I say “attempted” because I can’t say we were successful. We had a small team of people trying to counter disinformation with facts in order to promote our policy agenda. This was not the goal of the other side. They had an army of trolls that stretched from Saint Petersburg to Bulgaria whose entire goal was to flood the zone with so much disinformation, much of it absurd (“The CIA put dead bodies into an airplane and shot it down to frame Russia!”) that some people would start believing the craziest conspiracies and lots of other people would start to feel like each side was “equally bad.” This result is a win for the bad actors and that is exactly what is happening in the US now.

In our campaign, we were the target of a disinformation campaign that told Muslims, for example that they should vote against the most pro-Muslim campaign in Texas history and vote for a guy who defends the Muslim ban, blames Islam for covering up sexual assault, and has numerous members of his team who have called for violence against Muslims. But it worked. Several thousand people got flooded with so much disinformation that they believed a vote against us was standing up to Islamophobia. Across Texas, Latinos were subjected to tons of misinformation, for example that Democrats were putting children in sex slavery pedophilia rings. This is how you get Latinos to vote for the party which has taken over 500 Latino children from their parents with no way to reunify them.

The power of disinformation is real and terrifying. However, just providing accurate information is not the fix. We tried that in Ukraine and got our clock cleaned. If you are putting out information about protecting someone’s health care and they are putting out info in the same media (traditional but especially social media) that your party murders babies and puts children into slavery, the net result is that they will gain votes.

The best way I’ve seen to counter disinformation, if you haven’t guessed from my above solutions, is stronger community organizing, specifically relational organizing. If someone is saying awful things about you on Facebook or Whatsapp, the best way to defend yourself is to have someone who knows the voter talk to them and dismiss the disinformation. With the relentless attacks on the traditional media, people have been looking more to social media for info. Especially during the pandemic, people spend more time forwarding memes than seeing their neighbors and coworkers face to face, and they certainly are not fact checking the claims on both sides. Unless we build stronger antibodies (community networks), the infection of disinformation will continue to spread and consume our entire society.

The last three years have been sobering, but I think they are instructive as to what we need to do to defend and restore our democratic institutions. In particular, the Senate under Mitch McConnell has attacked our norms and weakened our institutions, most notably by establishing the precedent that a Democratic President does not have the right to nominate their own Supreme Court nominees (like Merrick Garland) and he has already said he will block Biden’s cabinet nominations. The current 6-3 SCOTUS will almost certainly not allow us to institute meaningful campaign finance reform, restore voting rights across the country, or block the hyper-partisan gerrymandering that is coming in 2021 and will last for another decade. McConnell has also blocked any attempts to protect our election security from hacking or foreign interference.

However, we do have a small window to stop this: the Georgia Senate runoffs in January.

The runoffs for Jon Ossoff and Rev. Warnock in eight weeks will determine control of the US Senate for the next two years. If we want to institute democratic reforms (which will be good for everyone, not just Democrats) we MUST win these elections. Even with Biden having defeated Trump, as long as McConnell is in control of the Senate, the complete violation of democratic norms and the raw pursuit of power at all costs will continue. We are still in a battle for the soul of this country.

I went to Georgia in 2018 after my loss, to help with their Secretary of State runoff then, because I believed we had to fight to defend the work Stacey Abrams had put in. I am going to head to Georgia next week for at least six weeks to help with these US Senate runoffs. If you are exhausted from the last four years, I completely understand. So am I. But, if you are willing to give any part of the next eight weeks to save our democracy, please send me a private message. Regardless of whether you would like to keep going or not, I am extremely grateful to everyone who has been part of our movement for the last three years, and I still remain an optimist that America’s best days are ahead.

Photo: Vivisel/Wikimedia Commons

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