Millennials Rage Against the Machine (and Lose)

Nathan L. Gonzales June 17, 2016 · 10:24 AM EDT

Alex Law came to our candidate interview with three interns, and I think one of them was wearing shorts.  

Some of my colleagues chastised me for scheduling a meeting with a 24-year-old kid challenging Rep. Donald Norcross in a Democratic primary in New Jersey’s 1st District, considering Norcross comes from one of the Mid-Atlantic’s most powerful political families.

But after seeing a wave of surprising victors in 2006, and after Dave Brat knocked off House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a 2014 Republican primary, I’ve lowered my threshold considerably for the type of candidate I’ll sit down to interview.  

In case of the New Jersey 1st District primary, I could have been a little more discerning.  

I met with Law in August 2015, when he was just a couple years out of New York University business school, had just left his job at IBM, and wasn’t even the constitutionally required age to serve in the House.  

Law had a scenario: Norcross hadn’t had a serious race in years and voters were tired of the establishment, and machine politics. It didn’t sound completely absurd, but I knew I was in trouble when he started talking about running a grassroots campaign, since that’s one of the Six Things Losing Candidates Say .

Through May 18, Law raised a total of $67,000, spent $56,000, and had $13,000 in the bank for the sprint to the June 7 primary. Norcross raised nearly $1.6 million, spent $1.1 million, and had $468,000 on hand. Patriot Majority USA spent another $215,000 on behalf of the congressman.  

Norcross won the race, 70 to 30 percent. Law surpassed his goal of 20,000 votes (he received more than 23,000), but he completely missed the likely number of total primary voters as Norcross topped 56,000. He also expected Norcross to legitimize his candidacy and raise his name identification through attack ads. That didn’t happen. And Law, who was endorsed by The Philadelphia Inquirer, accused Norcross of being a loyal Republican. President Barack Obama subsequently endorsed the congressman.  

Everyone wants to be the next Dave Brat.  

But no one seems to remember that two years ago, Brat raised more than $200,000 up to his pre-primary FEC report. Brat was a surprise winner, but he still did some traditional things, such as raise money.  

Law wasn’t the only millennial to challenge the machine this year and get trounced.  

In California’s 2nd District, 25-year-old Democrat Erin Schrode challenged Democratic Rep. Jared Huffman in the state’s all-party primary on June 7. Schrode received considerable national attention, with articles in Glamour , Marie Claire , and Teen Vogue   and from various Jewish publications .  

But she raised a mediocre $48,000 through the middle of May (compared to Huffman’s $669,000 haul) and got mauled at the ballot box, finishing third with 8 percent while Huffman (69 percent) and Republican Dale Mensing (16 percent) moved on to the general election.  

Pennsylvania Democrat Lindy Li, 25, faced the wrath of the political establishment in a different way.  

Li was running in the suburban 7th District against GOP Rep. Patrick Meehan until it became clear that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recruited and preferred pastor Bill Golderer. Li, who raised an impressive $513,000 through March 31, saw the writing on the wall and switched to the neighboring 6th District, where she was from.  

There, Li faced Mike Parrish, who was the establishment’s preferred candidate, but was either unwilling or unable to raise money. He raised $144,000 through the end of March and didn’t meet expectations in a variety of ways. But instead of focusing on fundraising, Parrish put everything he had into challenging Li’s signatures, and she eventually dropped out of the race. Meanwhile, in the 7th District, Golderer was clobbered by 2014 nominee Mary Ellen Balchunis 74-26 percent. She had $17,000 in the bank on April 6 and faces Meehan and his $2.5 million in November.  

Elsewhere, in California’s open 24th District, young Republican Justin Fareed received a modest 20 percent in the primary, but that looks to be enough to make the general election against Santa Barbara County Supervisor Salud Carbajal, a Democrat.  

Fareed faced a field of credible contenders, but he built on a previous loss in 2014, raised over $1 million for this race, and put himself in a strong position to finish in the top two.  

Knocking off Norcross, whose brother is South Jersey powerbroker George Norcross III, was always going to be difficult. But Law failed to capitalize on a potential opportunity that could have helped.  

Law endorsed Bernie Sanders early in the presidential contest, before it was cool, and introduced the Vermont senator at a rally in Collingswood, New Jersey, Law’s hometown. But the congressional candidate apparently couldn’t get the senator to reciprocate. Sanders lent his name to the fundraising cause of Lucy Flores in Nevada’s 4th District and netted the struggling candidate at at least $400,000 .  

The rules of the election game might be changing, but candidates still have to run serious campaigns. And the New Jersey race confirmed that it takes more than an army of interns to defeat a congressman.