It is a political campaign maxim, particularly for non-incumbents, that campaigns must jealously focus on their own race to win – and that any ‘distraction’ from their campaign comes at great or even unbearable cost. While examples may exist, how often have you heard of an underdog congressional campaign taking their volunteers to canvass for a neighboring congressional candidate? Perhaps more uncommon, how often have you heard of a congressional candidate taking their volunteers out of state to canvass for a presidential candidate in a party primary? It may be unconventional strategy, but 13th Congressional District Democrat Scott Harper has taken campaign volunteers to support neighboring 14th District Congressman Bill Foster in his historic win, and just last weekend was canvassing for Barack Obama in Lafayette, Indiana with his volunteers.
Scott Harper may be in a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) “targeted race,” indicating that the party thinks he has a real chance of winning, but under traditional campaign standards one has to ask – is what he doing lunacy?
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While not without risk, the unique circumstances Scott Harper’s campaign finds themselves in may justify this unique strategy. Consider:
- Only small parts of DuPage have had any Democratic state-level representation in recent memory – and with the exception of State Senator Don Harmon, the current elected officials (State Senator Linda Holmes and State Representative Paul Froehlich) have served Democrats under two years; and
- “Serious” DuPage Democratic challenges at the federal and state-level have been very few and far between until two years ago.
Scott Harper has the burden of proving viability in a way that few candidates do, in a district that only became majority Democratic this year. One way to “prove” viability is to show that candidates like Congressman Bill Foster can win – and to support them during an ‘off-time’ special election in the hopes of support (perhaps from “maxed out” donors among others) during the general election.
A second issue for the Harper Campaign is how to motivate the record number of Democrats voting in DuPage (more than half of the 13th District) to continue voting Democratic down ballot in the general election. By aligning himself with Illinois’ U.S. Senator and Democratic Presidential Candidate Barack Obama, Scott Harper hopes to gain many of those Democratic votes from a popular senator who won DuPage with 64% of the vote in 2004.
DuPage represented almost 54% of 13th Congressional District votes in 2006 (109,411 votes) when Democrat Joe Shannon ran against GOP Congresswoman Judy Biggert. If Scott beats Congresswoman Biggert in relatively conservative DuPage, even by a percent or two, it’s unlikely that she will win. Shannon got about 40% in both DuPage and suburban Cook County, and his stronghold was in Will County, the second highest vote total (64,247 or almost 32%) where he got over 45% of the vote. Suburban Cook voters cast 29,623 votes in the election (under 15%). Scott Harper is a different candidate than Joe Shannon, but Scott already has more money than Joe did, Harper runs in a DuPage County that has gone Democratic for the first time in memory, and Scott Harper has a bigger, more professional organization than Joe Shannon, who lacked permanent management, field and fundraising staff. Joe Shannon worked very hard, but his effort was part-time. While allowances might be made for Joe Shannon being a more conservative candidate than Scott Harper, Shannon’s numbers based on very limited resources are best viewed as a baseline for Harper’s full-time effort.
If Scott Harper looks like the best chance Democrats have had in a long time to capture the 13th Congressional seat, that doesn’t mean it will be easy. That’s what makes Harper’s gambit to help his race by helping others so intriguing. Will Scott Harper compensate for limited/new Democratic Party infrastructure by strategically leveraging goodwill gained in two other ongoing campaigns? It’s a counterintuitive approach that may make the difference in the 13th District race.
One knowledgeable campaign source summarized Scott Harper’s strategy this way,
“Not only does Scott support both Bill Foster and Barack Obama but there’s also an advantage for us when and if they both do well. People saw Bill Foster’s victory as evidence that the collar counties are changing and that we can win back these seats. If a Democrat can take Former Speaker Hastert’s seat in a worse Democratic performing district than ours, then surely Scott can win as well. And as for Senator Obama, Scott absolutely backs him but also understands that having him on the ticket will greatly help us as well.
“[T]hough we’re mostly focused on Scott, we understand the value of being team players.”
The Scott Harper Campaign “team player” strategy may be unconventional, but the timing may be right. We’ll know in November.