The old saying that all hindsight is 20/20 has some truth. Now that Ken Cuccinelli has probably won the 37th District, it is time to go back and do a lessons learned for the future.
There were a few things that the Oleszek campaign could have done differently and more effectively in this very close race – one, btw which shouldn’t even have been close let alone lost.
Please understand, unlike some others, I don’t mean this as criticism or finger pointing at anybody in her campaign. The truth is if I had recognized these things myself sooner, I’d have shot an email to her or called her or Jonathan. I had plenty of access to both of them. So, I was as blind to the shortcomings during the campaign as anybody else.
However, here is the single most important thing I would have done differently now that I look back at it.
I never would have labeled Ken Cuccinelli as an extremist. There were two problems with this strategy. The first is that Ken is personable, witty, and nice. If you were an average voter and you received a piece of mail calling him extreme and then you met him, you would simply discount the mailer as political hype. Most people barely read the stuff they receive because they are too busy and they get too much junk mail. They also don’t believe half the claims in TV ads because they’re smart enough to know both sides are bashing each other because they think it will help them win.
The other problem with calling people names is that most people don’t respond well to the obvious nastiness of “toxic labeling.”
A much more effective strategy to get the same message across would be to be more factual and “show rather than tell” the voter. How do you do this?
You take a few examples of unpopular votes that Ken has cast, or bills that he sponsored, and then draw the conclusion that he is out of step with his district. But first present the evidence. And then be more moderate in your assessment. In fact, given his personality, it might even be wise to start by admitting that he’s nice, charming and smart. But he’s not really in synch with the community’s views and values. Claiming he is “out of step” resonates more with voters than labeling him “extreme.” It will also match their expectation should he actually show up at their door acting reasonable. And by conceding his strong points, it would make Janet seem more rational and believable.
The other thing that is necessary is actually matching the voters’ concerns and not talking past them.
As an example, after pointing out Ken’s anti-abortion positions, instead of promising to protect a woman’s right to choose, Janet could have pointed out how Ken was more concerned with pursuing divisive wedge issues than solving practical problems. She then could have pledged to work for solutions to Virginia’s transportation problems rather than fighting the culture wars. Putting that twist on the issue would have been a more effective way to go.
The reason for this is that most women don’t feel threatened by Ken’s anti-abortion stances. They are pro choice in his district. But the truth is that their right to abortion and birth control just doesn’t appear to be under any real threat.
Until the Supreme Court actually overturns Roe v Wade (which it very well could some time in the future), nobody is going to feel threatened. It’s simply viewed as an irrelevant issue because people feel secure about these particular rights.
But if you tell them that Ken’s dedication to that issue causes him to be distracted from finding solutions to their real problems that would stir them up. It would also show that Janet was more in touch with their real concerns than Ken.
Also, during the debates Janet needed to come up with more substantive answers to issues like transportation. Failing to do so was the big mistake that hurt her performance.
The most damaging question asked her was whether she would have voted for the current transportation plan if she had been in office. It really harmed her campaign that she refused to respond fully, insisting that she couldn’t answer hypotheticals.
It would have been more effective to simply say she never would have voted for this plan.
She should have insisted that she would have worked for a different plan, explained what she was in favor of as an alternative, and then never budged from it. If she was pressed further, then she could have said that she couldn’t answer the hypothetical because she really believed she would have been more effective at crafting a compromise and so wouldn’t have had to make that choice. Period! End of discussion no matter how many times she was pressed. Once you’ve given a substantive answer you are not obligated to elaborate on it and beat it to death just because somebody keeps badgering you. You just stick to the answer until they get tired and move on.
However, at that point, had she been the one who wanted to move on, she could credibly have turned the question on Ken. Why didn’t he work harder to craft a better compromise?
She should also have been more aggressive during the debate at pointing out that although Ken claimed to want to change the funding formulas so that NoVa residents received more of their tax dollars back from the state, he failed to deliver. She should have pressed him by reminding him that he was a member of the party in power. If he couldn’t bring home a better funding formula while the Republican Party was in charge, why did he think he would do better if the party changed hands, which everybody knew was a real possibility. She could have pushed the fact that he didn’t get along with his own moderate leadership so he surely wouldn’t be effective if Democrats took over.
And finally, there is no substitute for coming up with clear, specific positions and policies. A candidate has got to take some risks by putting out an agenda for people to see and vote on. I don’t believe Northern Virginia voters would have voted against raising money to fix problems as long as they were convinced that the candidate proposing it would be a good steward of their tax money, use it wisely and raise it cautiously.
In short, my advice to a candidate would be this.
You have to convince them that you have good judgment and won’t try to break the bank. Virginians respond to fiscal responsibility. Persuade them of that and don’t disappoint them when you are in office. Be honest about the funding you need, the limitations on what you can do with what you have and present them with a clear plan, including how much it costs, to improve things. Above all, address their real needs and interests rather than tilting at ideological windmills.
And that would be the winning formula for the 37th District. In fact, it would probably work in most areas but especially there.