By John McNamara
In 1996, Plainville Attorney Charlotte Koskoff was the upstart nominee for CT’s old 6th Congressional District against New Britain’s Nancy Johnson, the entrenched incumbent considered unbeatable by pundits, consultants and especially national Democratic Party bosses who put only a pittance into the Koskoff campaign.
By a razor-thin margin of 1,587 votes (C-Span at one point said Koskoff had won), Johnson survived amid her evasive handling of an ethics scandal involving House Speaker New Gingrich and the GOP’s vulnerabilities on weakening Medicare and global trade induced job losses.
Koskoff, who won handily in New Britain with her brand of progressive politics, credentials and genuineness, made two other attempts to oust Johnson before another upstart, Chris Murphy, came along in 2006 to end Johnson’s incumbency as one of the last of the “moderate” Republicans. Murphy, by the way, was Koskoff’s 20-something campaign manager in the tight ’96 race, demonstrating his ability to mobilize Democrats and Unaffiliateds across the district that won him the House prize in 2006 and the U.S. Senate in 2012.
Twenty three years later Charlotte Koskoff isn’t done with Congressional politics, not for herself, but to put progressive Democrats into Congress in districts where Democrats aren’t supposed to win or need a boost to break through.
Koskoff is the co-founder of Save Democracy 2020, an independent organization that targets races around the country where Democratic challengers are making that uphill climb. Save Democracy 2020 is not a political action committee (PAC) doling out donations for its chosen candidates. Instead it shines a light on candidates that need the help to be competitive and directs you to give directly to their campaigns and to help in other ways. Koskoff formed the group with George Poulin, a labor leader from the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW) who shares Koskoff’s commitment to social and economic justice. Former State Comptroller Bill Curry, who write commentaries for Salon, The Daily Beast and other publications, is an advisor.
Fundamental to Save Democracy is a “50-state strategy” for Democrats that says the party needs to have a presence and run in all 435 districts. You may not win everywhere but by being everywhere you broaden the base and make the right wing and GOP expend resources in their “safe” districts. Democratic candidates in red districts are “doing the heavy lifting.” They aren’t preaching to the choir but gaining converts and deserve support that pundits and inside-the-beltway, lobbyist-influenced elements of the Democratic Party ignore.
This strategy was proven right when Howard Dean became Chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 2005. Dean was scorned by the likes of corporate Democrat Rahm Emanuel and Clinton’s Carville-Begala team. But in 2006 Nancy Pelosi won her first Speakership as Democrats regained the House majority.
Declares Democracy 2020: “We are The National Coalition for Democratic Congressional Challengers, a small, self-funded, grass-roots group acting on our conviction that the public policy debate and political culture in this country will not fundamentally change until Democrats and progressives have a working presence in each Congressional District After years of hearing national Democratic leaders proclaim that they were now committed to a “50 State Strategy,” but do nothing, 2018 moved the needle. In 2018, we closed the gap, and turned the House Blue, only 3 Republicans ran unopposed”
Last month Save Democracy got an early start on 2020 recommending Democrats in two special elections in North Carolina, a state prone to voter suppression and GOP gerrymandering
In North Carolina’s 9th District Democrat Dan McCready narrowly lost by 1,000 votes in a district marred by the GOP campaign’s voter fraud in the 2018 general election and with district lines stacked against him.
For 2020 Save Democracy plans to choose ten candidates to promote among non-targeted Democratic Congressional challengers and campaigns. “In choosing our races we consider personal strengths of the candidates and the vibrancy of their campaigns, says Koskoff. “We are especially drawn to strong challengers from rural and agricultural districts. Family farmers and their communities have been struggling for years, and right now their crises are acute. Our strong, rural Congressional challengers tell their stories with credibility and eloquence. If elected, they could be catalysts and leaders for meaningful change in national farm policy. And they could win. Their districts used to be full of Democratic voters. It’s time to bring them back. We also look at the power, far-right activity, and rhetoric of the Republican incumbent/challenger. With regard to some of them, it’s a moral imperative, as well as a tactical one, to mount strong electoral challenges.”
In 1996 Charlotte Koskoff was a candidate with “personal strengths” and a “vibrant” campaign that came up short because she wasn’t one of the “targeted” races when a modest boost from her party’s Congressional campaign committee and the DNC would have toppled the “unbeatable” Johnson. Groups like Save Democracy had they been around then could have been the margin of victory. Koskoff remembers. Through her grassroots, national organization, she and her associates will help 2020 challengers as they push the Democratic Party to leave no district behind in turning red to blue.