Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Final Wrap Up Analysis of the 37th District Race

Bwana posted an excellent analysis of why Ken Cuccinelli won the November 6th election. It’s up at his joint, as he would put it. In reading it, I couldn’t help thinking it was a wonderful companion piece to my post on why Janet Oleszek lost that election even though the 37th District is trending Democratic.

As Bwana said:

But all this wringing of hands in Democrat land overlooks one thing-Republican state Senator Ken Cuccinelli ran the ideal campaign, and he should be congratulated on that. I do not mean perfect-there were glitches along the way, like the failure to have any presence at all at Day 2 of the Burke Centre Festival. But Cooch set up a fundamental plan, put it in motion and stuck to it. He did not make elementary mistakes, not did he make mistakes that created an opening for Hoot to jump in. While both sides went on the attack, Cooch used Hoot’s verbal stumbles to argue she was not ready to be a state Senator without casting her as a bad person. He also did not respond to fishing expeditions by Democrats trying to create issues, nor did he do anything stupid that gave Hoot an opening to come after him-compare that with the JMDD-Chap! mailing thing.
The truth is that Janet had an excellent ground game. As Bwana notes, the Cooch did not have any presence at the 2nd day of the Burke Centre Festival while Janet’s troops were out in force. Her campaign also mailed a ton of campaign literature. Like Ken, she was at my house numerous times and left door hangers because I was never home when either candidate was in my neighborhood.

What Janet’s campaign proved was that it’s not just getting out your message but the content of the message that counts. Her constant emphasis on the abortion issue was talking past what voters were concerned with. I’ve already made the point in the previous analysis and won’t harp on it here.

I think Bwana is also right that Ken refrained from personal attacks on Janet and stuck to capitalizing on her verbal gaffes and stumbles in the debates to argue that he was better suited to serve in the Senate. He made her competence the issue, which is fair game. But he never implied in any of his attacks that she was a bad person despite the fact that they are diametrically opposed on his most passionate issue, right to life. That’s an issue where people can really get vitriolic. For every time she called him an extremist, he could have roused his base by returning fire and saying that she was an immoral baby killer. But he refrained from that and simply stuck to the issues on which the voters were most focused.

The important thing is that no matter how much more conservative than his district Ken is, he’s the one whose message connected. He certainly isn’t showing any signs of moderating his position. Right out of the gate, he’s already vowing to oppose Governor Kaine’s attempt to end abstinence only sex education (here and here).

But on the campaign trail, he addressed the issues about which voters cared most including transportation, education and mental health care. He didn’t shy away from his stands on abortion and that issue didn’t help him. It probably cost him votes and made the race even closer. But enough people either agreed with him – let’s face it, there really are some pro-life people even in the most liberal areas of the 37th District – or didn’t consider it the primary issue of the campaign. My take is still that it only motivated the most committed of the base on either side. Others simply don’t feel threatened that they are going to lose reproductive rights. And with Democrats in power in the Senate and the Governor’s mansion, they probably feel more secure so barring the overturn of Roe v Wade, this should be even less of an issue next time.

If Ken can work to solve their more pressing problems – or if he is perceived as working to solve them – they really don’t care that they disagree with him on one issue.

Meanwhile, the important take home lesson for Democrats is that no matter how great your team is at the mechanics of getting out your message, you first have to have the right message that connects with voters. And more work on debate prep wouldn’t hurt either.

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