Ralph Burns Down the House

While the nation focuses on the still-contested presidential election Ralph Nader threw into question, the effect his campaign had on Democrats running for Congress has gone largely unnoticed. From the outset of his effort, Nader argued that even if his candidacy stole votes from Al Gore, it would mobilize progressive voters to support Democratic congressional candidates once they'd pulled the lever for Nader. "I would prefer a Democratic House," Nader assured voters as recently as September. "I really would."

But Nader abandoned this message in mid-campaign and began attacking even the most liberal congressional Democrats with a vehemence that echoed his disdain for Gore. In the closing weeks of October, Nader declared "war" on all Democrats and voiced a desire to lead the Greens "into a 'death struggle' with the Democratic Party to determine which will be the majority party." The candidate went on to claim, bizarrely, that the best strategy for progressive reform lay in running Green candidates against the very liberals who were poised to enact progressive agendas as chairmen of key committees if the Democrats won back the House of Representatives.

Nader's late decision to campaign against Gore in battleground states (after promising that he wouldn't) had the expected effect not just on the vice president but on other races in these states. In Michigan's Eighth Congressional District, for example, the Green candidate drew enough votes from Democrat Dianne Byrum to swing the election to Republican Mike Rogers. (Byrum lost by slightly more than 500 votes and will contest the results.) In Minnesota's second district, a strong turnout for the Independent candidate, who attracted the Nader vote, allowed Republican Mark Kennedy to oust the Democratic incumbent, Representative David Minge, by fewer than 600 votes. (Minge, too, will ask for a recount.) In New Jersey's 12th district, Democratic incumbent Rush Holt is tied with Republican challenger Dick Zimmer, after the Green candidate drew nearly 6,000 votes.

Even in districts where no Green candidate was running, Nader's trickle-down approach to aiding Democratic congressional candidates never worked. Florida is a prime example. Although Nader easily drew enough votes--97,000--to cost Al Gore a victory on election night, supporters of the self-styled reformer were unable to elect Democratic candidates to any of the four House seats that political experts believed were among the most winnable in the country. In fact, not a single Democratic candidate in the state was elected to the House of Representatives. (Florida Democrats did gain a Senate seat when Bill Nelson defeated Republican Representative Bill McCollum, one of the House impeachment managers. But Nelson is a professed New Democrat, and thus wouldn't have excited progressive Nader supporters.)

"If Nader brought out the progressives on election day, they certainly didn't vote for the progressive candidates," observed one liberal pollster.

Maybe Nader never intended to help Democrats retake the House. After all, his stubborn insistence on escalating his attacks following the election suggest that his goal was not to lead the Democratic Party to the left, as he once claimed, but to destroy the party outright.

Nader was long a pillar of progressive idealism and rectitude. And his followers supported him in part because he promised "action, not rhetoric." Surely costing the Democrats the presidency and a shot at the House of Representatives was not the "action" they had in mind.