Op-Ed: Who Will Bell The Cat?

There once was a colony of mice that was being attacked by a marauding cat. As the cat began to eat more and more and the mice began shrinking in fear, the colony called an emergency meeting to address the situation. All the mice had some ideas on what to do, but nobody could settle on a solution.

Finally, one young mouse suggested that they tie a bell around the cat’s neck — this would help warn the mice of an impending approach and give them plenty of time to flee. Everyone loved the suggestion, a motion was made to consider it, and applause and praise for the idea rang out around the meeting room.

Finally, one old mouse raised his voice and said “Friends, your idea sounds splendid and logical. I now have one simple question: who will bell the cat?”

That was the end of that idea.

“Run strong candidates everywhere,” goes the famous saying. And it’s true, to a large extent — you really do need to put your best foot forward in every single election. For example, had Alabama Democrats not bothered recruiting for their state’s special Senate election in 2017, it’s likely that Roy Moore would have become a senator.

The problem is that running a campaign is costly, both financially and personally. It’s exhausting to criss-cross the state for months on end, taking your family through hell and back and subjecting them to brutal advertising and opposition research. It’s even more exhausting to do this for a race that you understand as being completely hopeless, barring an extraordinary set of circumstances — and investing significant time and energy purely based on hope is often equivalent to simply buying a very expensive lottery ticket and praying. Going through the ringer to be branded as a loser may not seem like the best use of time, especially for a strong candidate who could win in a better year.

Understandably, then, there’s a school of thought that suggests parties should “save” their candidates for favorable cycles. O’Rourke should run in 2024, people say, because a rematch against Ted Cruz in a presidential year would give him better odds to win than a campaign against an incumbent governor in a Republican-leaning midterm. Joe Cunningham, they insist, should save his energy and not bother with a longshot gubernatorial bid in South Carolina. But this line of thought is exactly how state pipelines atrophy. That might not matter in areas like Hawaii or Idaho, where one-party control is all but solidified. But it does in states like Texas, which are only poised to get closer as time goes on.

That’s why these campaigns aren’t actually pointless — they help refresh party infrastructure, keep the state on the map for donors and strategists, and consolidate electoral gains for what comes next, which could help make the difference at the margins in future tight elections. For example, Stacey Abrams’ loss was extremely disappointing, but a strongly contested election in what was previously widely viewed as a red state still likely played a small role in helping Joe Biden, Jon Ossoff, and Raphael Warnock win Georgia two years later by engaging and energizing thousands of new Georgia Democrats.

There’s another aspect to this that’s far more important, however. Elections are noisy processes and although partisanship has accelerated, individual areas still have their own contours, which result in electoral quirks like Republicans holding on to state legislative seats in now-solidly Democratic areas like Connecticut, or Democrats holding on to Trump-won state House districts in Iowa. But as polarization accelerates and split-ticket voting declines, representation at all levels begins to align with partisanship, and those holdovers do begin losing their races if the margins at the top of the ballot are large enough. This means statewide candidates can lose decisively and still have enough regional down-ballot strength to carry several new challengers across the finish line in districts where the realignment has yet to hit fully.

In fact, this was what Jack Ciattarelli did in New Jersey in 2021, where he won several Trump-won, Democratic legislative districts by a margin large enough to see Republican challengers unseat Democratic incumbents. Ciattarelli was never expected to win, but his regional coattails, even in a loss, ended up causing the downfall of the Senate president Steve Sweeney at the hands of Ed Durr, a truck driver who spent a measly $153 on his campaign. At the beginning of the cycle, if anyone would have given New Jersey Republicans the prospect of dethroning the Senate president and making significant state House gains, they would have taken it in a heartbeat.

Meanwhile, Beto O’Rourke’s 2018 Texas Senate campaign helped the state’s congressional Democratic candidates earn 47% of the two-party vote (their highest share since 1992). This helped them flip two battleground House seats that they then held in 2020 in a much less favorable down-ballot environment, which proved to be vital in a House of Representatives decided by just five seats. The examples of Ciattarelli and O’Rourke are just part of a larger trend — the nationwide decline in split-ticket voting means that down-ballot candidates in swing seats will undoubtedly benefit from closer margins at the top of the ballot; running good candidates statewide often means the difference between losing and winning in several of those tight down-ballot races.

That’s why candidates like that should be praised by their parties, even when they lose — going through the grind of a campaign for the betterment of their party is not a trivial thing. These races are not attractive propositions to run; winning would be, at best, a long-shot for even the most talented of candidates. But in the wake of increasing polarization and the nationalization of contested elections across the country, their performances cannot be judged by binary win/loss outcomes.

Judging the out-of-power party’s performance in these elections becomes a matter of “how much do you lose by”, rather than “did you win or not”. What these campaigns accomplish, even if they’re not victories, is in improving down-ballot results, preventing the infrastructure and apparatus of the party from atrophying, and ensuring that the state doesn’t fade from the spotlight. They focus on holding as many of the gains made as possible from previous years, and they focus on moving the states left relative to the nation.

There’s real future value in this too. Consider that Texas was 10 points more Republican than the nation in 2020. Now, if Beto loses Texas by 10 points or less in a year where the nation is R+3 as a whole, Texas would have moved 3 points more Democratic relative to the nation in the span of two years and immediately becomes a sleeper target for Democratic strategists and campaigns in 2024 — in a similar environment to 2020, Texas would probably be within 2 points either way and would be at the top of the list for both parties as a battleground.

That’s why it’s really not about whether or not you win these races. It’s about how much you lose by. And one of the tricks to losing by less is running the best candidate you can in every possible race, instead of saving them for “better” environments — even when your chances of winning are nonexistent. Candidates who take the plunge in tough races should be celebrated and commended, not ridiculed.

After all, someone needs to bell the cat.

I’m a software engineer and a computer scientist (UC Berkeley class of 2019 BA, class of 2020 MS) who has an interest in machine learning, politics, and electoral data. I’m a partner at Split Ticket, handle our Senate races, and make many kinds of electoral models.