“The amount of money you raise is a mirror to your chances of winning” an election, says former Wyoming Secretary of State Kathy Karpan in 2016 documentary “Charlie vs. Goliath.”
That’s a mirror worth smashing, adages of bad luck be damned.
“Charlie vs. Goliath” follows the 2014 US Senate campaign of Charlie Hardy, who refused to believe that money would ultimately determine if he won or not. Hardy was the Democratic, underdog candidate to 3‑term incumbent Republican Mike Enzi.
As noted in the film, Enzi himself isn’t Goliath, it’s the system that he represents and which supports him that is the true opponent.
Hardy ran a grassroots campaign that refused to take money from PACs or corporations. While this earned him respect and the moral high ground, unfortunately it is money that really has the impact on votes these days.
Hardy raised just $62,468 for his campaign, compared to $3.3 million for Enzi. But all of Hardy’s money was donated by individuals, whereas the vast majority of Enzi’s donations were from PACs, many of which weren’t even in Wyoming.
The story of Hardy’s campaign is the story of everything that is both best and worst about American campaigns.
The best of it is seen in the moments shared among Hardy and his volunteer campaign staff of three, all of whom are essentially living out of a 1970 school bus as they crisscross the state going to small town parades and town halls.
Hardy is a former priest in his mid-seventies who seems easy to like as he has conversations with folks throughout Wyoming. He has concern for the everyday people who are struggling to get by in a job market dominated by the service sector.
Partly out of economic necessity, Hardy’s campaign hinges on how many people he can connect with directly, as he does not have the funds for TV or even radio ads. Yet his opponent Enzi runs plenty of TV ads with his pockets full of PAC money.
But it is not just Hardy’s lack of campaign money that holds him back; in solidly-conservative Wyoming, the mere fact that he is a Democrat is a giant barrier in itself.
“Our Lord Jesus Christ couldn’t get elected if he ran in Wyoming today as a Democrat,” said Karpan, in perhaps the most hilariously honest statement in the film.
While that may be true, shouldn’t our system of elections at least give every candidate a chance to be judged based on thier clues, positions, and yes, their party, without the amount of money they have preventing them from even getting their name and ideas out there?
That’s the question we must address, and soon, if we want to maintain our democracy. Passionate, principled candidates like Hardy should be the norm, and not immediately at a disadvantage because of big money polluting our election environment.
Another interesting aspect of “Charlie vs. Goliath” is the aforementioned campaign staff. Providing the 1970 bus for Hardy’s campaign was his campaign manager, Bruce Wilkinson. He quit his job in Olympia, WA and came out to Wyoming, bringing along a few of his friends to volunteer on Hardy’s campaign.
If we want to see progressive campaigns have success across the nation, progressives in solidly blue areas need to step up and help out in areas that are not. I’m not saying everyone needs to quit their jobs and go to Wyoming and live in a bus on the campaign trail for 6 months. But we can and should donate to progressive campaigns in areas where the path to victory is more challenging than it is in Western and urban parts of Washington and Oregon.
Make a point of engaging with friends and family who live in less progressive areas. If they are progressive, ask them how you can help support them in working on campaigns in their area.
If they are not necessarily progressive but are moveable, talk to them about your progressive values and how they apply to the issues in their area.
If you are going on vacation to an area where progressive campaigns are struggling, get in touch with a local campaign office before you go and see if you can sign up for a volunteer shift or two for while you are there. These actions may seem small, but if we all commit to do these things, we can have a large impact.
I am from Pullman, in eastern Washington. Despite Pullman being fairly progressive (it may be in a rural area, but it is a university town and therefore has a decent population of progressive folks), the surrounding area is not, and representation at the state and federal level is consistently conservative.
But this year, the race for Washington’s 5th Congressional District is looking like it is going to be competitive, with former Democratic State Senator Lisa Brown challenging 6‑term incumbent Cathy McMorris Rodgers.
The national GOP has allocated resources to help defend the seat, something they have not done in recent memory, showing their concern about McMorris Rodger’s vulnerability. I’ve already donated to Brown’s campaign, and posted on Facebook challenging my other friends who grew up in Pullman to do the same.
If you don’t have ties to conservative districts and aren’t sure where to donate, you could donate to state or national level organizations that support progressive candidates, or research what seats are being targeted most by progressives this year and support those. (Note that we can’t offer guidance on who to donate to or volunteer for, as NPI does not endorse candidates for office or get involved in electioneering for or against any candidate.)
In Washington, for instance, there are two other Congressional seats that progressives are trying to flip from Republican to Democratic in the November elections, in addition to ousting McMorris Rodgers.
One is the seat that Dave Reichert is vacating, District 8, stretching from Issaquah and Auburn across the mountains to Wenatchee and Ellensburg. There are eight Democratic candidates at the moment, one of whom will likely face Dino Rossi in the general election, the only Republican to have entered the race yet.
Dr. Kim Schrier seems to be the Democratic frontrunner. She has raised the most money so far and has a key endorsement from EMILY’s List, a national organization committed to helping pro-choice, Democratic women get elected to public office.
Also being targeted is the 3rd District in southwest Washington, which includes the cities of Vancouver, Centralia, and Goldendale. There are currently four declared Democratic challengers to incumbent Jaime Herrera Beutler.
In addition to these tangible contributions of time or money to campaigns in less progressive areas, there is also the arguably more challenging work of bridging the divide between the west coast of Washington and Oregon and the Inland Northwest, between urban and rural.
Our local issues may be different, but they are often linked together, and not just because we are all fighting for shares from the same pot of state resources. If we can all take the time to learn more about each other, our similarities and the things we share, not just the things that make us different, we can all work together more effectively for a more prosperous state, region, and nation.
Reed Lindsay, director of “Charlie vs. Goliath” and I exchanged emails on this topic as I was working on writing this review.
“Perhaps that’s a role the film could play in places like Seattle, Portland, etc.” he wrote. “There may be a need for a coming together of the blue® parts of the West with the red parts of the West. There should be more collaboration and communication because we share the same land and the same rivers and the same problems even if we face different political situations. (And of course huge parts of Washington and Oregon are the same politically to Idaho and Wyoming.)”
Watching footage of Hardy and his team of Washingtonians on the campaign trail talking to a lot of traditionally conservative folks in Wyoming is inspiring and disheartening at the same time, because they have such a great spirit and a progressive message, but you know the campaign is ultimately doomed to fail due to the lack of fundraising. It should not be this way.
Says Lindsay, “Charlie is one of the most humble, earnest, trusting and idealistic people I have ever met — the exact opposite of what it takes to win a federal election in this country… It is my hope that Charlie’s story, as told through this film, will inspire many others, in this country and beyond, to fight against money in politics or to take other actions to make the world a better place even when the odds seem exceedingly long.”
“Charlie vs. Goliath” does not currently have any screenings scheduled in the Northwest, but if you want to host one in your community, go to the filmmaker’s website and fill out the inquiry form.