Home Virginia Politics Learning from the 2011 Democratic loss as 2012 attacks begin

Learning from the 2011 Democratic loss as 2012 attacks begin

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by Paul Goldman

Every election has lessons for the next one. Since only future elections can be influenced, such lessons therefore are among the most valuable in politics. So let's see if we try to be the guys at Sutter's Creek panning some precious metal during the California Gold Rush.

1. In terms of the terms of statewide elections in 2013, Democrats are in their weakest position in the modern era of Virginia politics
This is simply a fact of life. This is likely to increase the pressure on Mark Warner to run for Governor in 2013. That would be a huge mistake in terms of his wanting to be President. So I doubt he would do it. This is why the party starts off the 2013 cycle in such weak shape. If Terry McAuliffee weren't interested in running for Governor – and who's to say his business commitments will ultimately allow it, as no one can predict the economy that far in advance – we would not have any candidate right now for any of the three statewide offices.

This is a serious problem that could get far more serious at any moment.

2. Democrats don't have a good statewide issue. It use to be education. I sense we have lost it.
Chuck Robb revived the Democrats with a strong pro-K-12 education platform. Baliles and Wilder built on it. Warner added community colleges, and Kaine pushed hard for pre-K. They all won. Education use to be our issue. But I don't get that sense anymore.

3. The DPVA's silly attacks – and unfortunately they are not alone – against everything McDonnell is a loser's game, has helped the Governor's popularity among independents, and is poised to hurt Tim Kaine. 
I have been saying the DPVA was following an amateurish, sucker's strategy for months, and will state the following without fear of contradiction: it  helped create the climate that cost Democrats full control of the State Senate. If there were more knowledge at the DPVA about how to win statewide elections – there is currently NADA top to bottom – this would be clear. Truth is, despite the criticisms of Senator Saslaw, he did a darn good job at trying to save 21 seats with his redistricting strategy: but for that, Democrats would have lost more seats in the Senate. He made some mistakes for sure, but he came within a 100 votes of being a genius.

As was written a year ago in this space, once Democrats missed their moment when Governor McDonnell left his right flank open with a politically misguided ABC plan – they should have taken him up on his referendum offer and split his coalition, sending him to a crushing defeat – he got a second chance.

By the DPVA and others keeping up a steady anti-McDonnell drumbeat since then, they helped the Governor use this second chance to retool and gain stature.

Result: If Florida Senator Rubio is seriously about not running for Vice President – that's what he has said in strong language – then Governor McDonnell has vaulted into the top spot (also, taking a Senator makes no political sense for the GOP presidential nominee in my view, that includes Rubio too actually, particularly given the public's view of Washington these days).

Fallout: McDonnell on the ticket greatly helps George Allen, who has made a classic blunder by trying to identify more with the Tea Party than with the most popular Republican Governor in the state's history. It reminds me of why Nixon refused ask for Eisenhower's help in 1960 according to the historians.

Tim Kaine can win this race, although it is going to be like WW1 trench warfare. The polls tell me he is the favorite – not by a lot – but by enough. George Allen is tough, and this is his last rodeo unless he can win. Allen hasn't gotten into a 2012 groove yet, still trying to ride that 1990's horsy image. Kaine gets it better, and so George seems retro right now.

Of course, Karl Rove and company will make up for what George lacks with a year's worth of attack ads. Kaine will be helped by a similar Democratic group, so let's not get too hypocritical attacking Karl. The headline in the RTD discussing the Rove AD says it shows 2012 will be "ugly." You think?

That's why the DPVA and Democratic leaders have to figure out apositive strategy for working publicly with the Governor in  2012. Otherwise, you are going to play into Rove's hands, and McDonnell's frankly. We should also not be worried about trying to help the President govern. Independents want results, not partisan rhetoric.

The idea that Mark Warner can sprinkle fairy dust on people and they are magically elected is not the case; his popularity is not transferable to another candidate, outside of the Democratic base.

LESSON: Like singer Lorrie Morgan sang, what is there about "no" that the DPVA doesn't understand? Like it or not, Virginia Democrats are too weak to follow a 24/7 attack McDonnell, or even George Allen, strategy. They need to up their positive image before going there.

4. The idea the 2011 shows the President can't win Virginia – floated today in the Wall Street Journal – is absurd.
It doesn't take Paul Tully, the late DNC guy who was probably the top voter analyst, to know the results in certain key counties this past Tuesday were not optimal for the President. But outside of this "brilliant" insight, the 2012 election will be run on an entirely different plane. Moreover, had Senator Houck received a few more votes, no one would pay such columns any mind.

Rural Virginia is tough sledding for any Democrat right now, not merely the President, the same for outer burbs everywhere. But Obama has a clear path to victory in Virginia, unlike say North Carolina or Florida, among the swing southern states. It will not be the easy cakewalk as in 2008. It also means Democrats might not agree with him on all things. But as Ward Armstrong discovered, in politics you often hang separately if you fail to stick together.

Brian Moran did what he could as DPVA chair.

Brian got elected from a safe House of Delegates seat in his brother's hometown and then thought he could be the first person in state history to go directly from that body to the Governor's Mansion. That he raised all the money he did, and had a shot at being nominated, is amazing to me in all honesty. He is a talented guy but not necessarily for what he aspires to be. Moreover, his critics, who think a Democratic Chair can create a GOTV machine to win races otherwise not winnable, is amateur hour in the 21st century. The fact is, campaigns rely on their own expertise, not that of the state party in such things.

The DPVA, given the situation right now, has to rethink its role going forward in terms of reality. We don't have a Democratic Governor, we don't control either body of the General Assembly. We couldn't field a ticket right now for the 2013 election. Right now, the DPVA has to get out of a mechanical mode and get into the guts of politics, which is substance. We need to figure out the kind of platform it will take to win in 2013.

5.    I like Dick Saslaw. But someone not from NOVA as a leading spokesman makes sense in 2012.
Brian is from NOVA, Saslaw is from NOVA, Warner is from NOVA, and there is a chance the House Democrats might chose someone from NOVA as Minority Leader.

We need a better geographic balance.

6.  The Party, the Caucus, is wasting too much money.
We are not spending smart. Given all the money raised and spent, the campaigns should not be so cookie-cutter, just more and more of the same as if something becomes more believable the longer and louder you say it. It will also become harder now to raise money.

7.  With Republicans now able, in theory, to pass whatever they want through the General Assembly, this will mark the beginning of the Democratic comeback.
This is crucial to remember. The 2013 election could be a referendum on one-party control here in Virginia. This is why Democrats need to make sound, sensible proposals, not just attack. The temptation will be to go into all-out attack mode since it is a seeming freebie. That isn't going to impress voters in 2013.

Remember this also: With the Democrats no longer in the majority, this may convince Senator Colgan to retire early. So, our numbers could go further down. But either way, the climb back starts now and this is an opportunity to rethink, refresh, and let some new energy into the spotlight.