How Democrats Almost Blew a Crucial State Senate Race

How Democrats Almost Blew a Crucial State Senate Race

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As I write this, Democrat Lynwood Lewis leads Republican Wayne Coleman by just 10 votes (out of more than 20,000 votes cast) in the special election to fill Lt. Governor-elect Ralph Northam’s Senate seat (and also absolutely crucial to control of the State Senate). How on earth did this election, in a district that went by 15 points to Barack Obama and 16 points to Tim Kaine in November 2012, come down to just 10 votes, pending certification and an almost certain recount? I’ve been calling around, and a few themes have emerged.

1. Republicans recognized the obvious – that a special election right after New Year’s in (likely) bad weather would be a hardcore, “base” election extraordinaire – and geared their messaging to revving up turnout among their base. Thus, Lynwood Lewis was attacked as a “typical politician” who had “voted to increase his own pay in the House of Delegates and cast 110 votes to raise our taxes.” As if all that wasn’t enough to get the Teapublican base fired up, Coleman also went after Lewis by tying him as closely as possible to the hated (by the Fox “News”/Rush Limbaugh set) “Obamacare.” Smart strategy.

2. In stark contrast, Democratic messaging strategy was NOT aimed at the base, but at moderate Republicans and independents. To them, the messaging was that Lynwood Lewis was pro-business, a moderate, a bipartisan deal maker who “works across party lines,” etc. This is all perfectly fine stuff but not the type of emotional “red meat” aimed at revving up the Democratic “base” in an essentially 100% “base” election. Not smart strategy.

3. Making matters worse, I’m told that there was a major disconnect between the Democrats’ messaging and their overall strategy, which was heavily focused on “field.” The problem is, the Democrats’ messaging aimed at middle-of-the-road, moderate, “swing” voters, while Republicans aimed their message at their base. Guess who turned out? And no, putting a ton of resources into “field” isn’t going to help much if the “base” isn’t being told why they should vote. Not smart or effective.

4. There was no focus from the Democratic side on the crucial importance of this election to control of the Senate. If anything, there was a conscious decision NOT to talk about that. Meanwhile, the Republicans motivated their base in part by talking about this issue. Republican strategy was correct, Democratic strategy was not.

5. Democrats incorrectly assumed that Lynwood Lewis would get his typical “crossover” support on the Eastern Shore, even though this was a very different type of race (for control of the State Senate), even though Lewis hadn’t been in a seriously contested election since 2003, and even though the entire political landscape has changed dramatically over the past decade (e.g., it’s much, much more polarized – and “nationalized” – today, and there’s also 24/7 cable TV, social media, etc. that wasn’t there as much in 2003). In the end, Lewis lost his home county of Accomack (which Lewis won 58%-42% back in 2003 but lost in this election by a narrow, 51%-49% margin). Big mistake to assume typical “crossover” support by the “blue team.”

6. Lewis was outspent heavily by Coleman (around $600k-$400k, according to VPAP). Coleman’s spending went heavily to messaging ($338k to TV/radio, $40k to mail, $11k to signs and bumper stickers, $4k to web/email/blogs), as did Lewis’ spending (over $340k out of $400k). The problems were that Coleman: a) spent more money; and b) had messaging aimed at turning out the Republican base, while Lewis’ was aimed at persuading people he wouldn’t raise their taxes and wasn’t a liberal. Which do YOU think would be more effective in a low-turnout, heavily-base-oriented special election in the frigid days of early January? Hmmmmm.

7. There was overconfidence and/or incompetence on the Democratic side (one source used the word “cluster****” to describe the campaign). Publicly, at least, the impression being given was that Lynwood Lewis would win handily (and thus a clear lack of urgency). Which explains why we had such tremendous surprise by pretty much everyone that the race came down to just 10 (ten!) votes, with Lewis almost losing a supposed sure thing. To put it mildly, overconfidence (let alone overconfidence combined with incompetence) is NEVER a smart thing in politics – or in sports or anything really. Just play the game as hard as you can regardless of your opponent, and play hard until the final buzzer sounds. In politics, sports, etc., that’s the only way to play if you want to win consistently.

8. Strongly related to the “incompetence”/”cluster****” theme, I’m told that there were an awful lot of “cooks” involved in Lewis’ campaign. Given that, it shouldn’t be too surprising that the campaign lacked a clear sense of direction/coherence, or that it was confused. It’s also interesting to note that the campaign team from the primary was pushed aside for a new campaign team in the general election. “Why” is the operative question here.

So yes, in the end, Democrats could very well hold this Obama/Kaine State Senate district – albeit by the slimmest of margins. But the fact that it was this close should stop any post-election narrative about what “geniuses” the winning side was and what “idiots” the losing side was. That narrative has always been brain dead, but in this case it’s particularly so. Now, the question is, what lessons (if any) will Democrats learn from this experience, so that we don’t have another 10-vote nail-biter in another Obama/Kaine district (e.g., the race to hold Mark Herring’s Senate seat)?

P.S. Personally, I’m not holding my breath that we’ll learn anything, given the complete unwillingness in past elections (e.g., the 2013 House of Delegates debacle) to do serious “after action reviews.”  

  • FreeDem

    Have you looked at how Lewis did in the precincts from his own House of Delegates seat? It’s on my to do list, damn job distracting me this week!

  • pashin

    Lowell,

    Thanks enormously for this very much needed analysis. We should all share it widely on FB, DK, and the VA Dem blogs on your roll to try to kick start the “lessons learned” dialog. Let the grassroots drive the process, even if it mean “airing our dirty linen in public.”  Better to have some tattered sheets in the wind than to let the Repubs steal your cloths while you are swimming.  

  • politicalging

    that he turned down an Equality Virginia endorsement. Really disappointing.

  • Elaine in Roanoke

    Thanks, Lowell, for the excellent analysis. How in the world could anyone supposedly versed in the basics of campaigning not see immediately that this election would have very low turnout? The “moderate” Republicans and independents that Lewis tried to reach weren’t going to form the majority of the electorate, not even a substantial minority.

    Exactly when are Virginia Democratic politicians going to see that saying, “See? I’m not really a Democrat. I’m really more of an old ‘Rockefeller Republican,’ business-loving guy,” is a message that drives away the base of the Democratic Party. The state YDs descended on the district to canvass and couldn’t get literature to pass out. Assistance from Equality Virginia was turned down. No one reached out to the Democratic social media to help the cause, including Blue Virginia. Cluster***k is the exact term to describe it.

    Seems to me that the wrong person won that primary. The fact that Lewis had not had a serious challenge in 10 years certainly suggests Lewis was not prepared to run the kind of camapaign that could win a January special election.

  • Glen Tomkins

    Did the district vote on optical scanners or touchscreens?  If it was largely scanners, we can get back to worrying about why our side almost blew this election.  All touchscreen, and we’re still in big danger of having to drop the “almost”.

  • ir003436

    Do Democrats in his district plan to screw that up also?

  • kindler

    Or will the leaders of the DPVA just keep patting themselves on the back till they dislocate a shoulder?

    You’re absolutely right to emphasize what a big deal this is.  If we lose control of the Senate, Gov. McAuliffe will have just forfeited one of his biggest sticks.  

  • campaignman

    It would be very helpful to know who sent in a new campaign team for LL for the general election and why they chose the strategy they did.  I look forward to that revelation.

  • hrprogressive

    I live in this district, and did my part by voting for Lewis.

    But this was one of the most aggravating campaigns that I think I’ve ever seen someone with a (D) next to their name run.

    The only ads I ever saw from Lewis, there were about two total I think, routinely saw him trying to suck up to non-base voters. “Work together”, “Bipartisan”, were uttered so many times. Who the hell in his campaign actually thought that such milquetoast rhetoric was going to win anyone over?

    Conversely, Coleman’s use of the Obamacare bogeyman, and the “Career politician / raises for himself” rhetoric…to the low information voter, that’s just absolute catnip to them.

    After the victory of Terry McAullife, in which he expressly ran on being a damn DEMOCRAT, why the hell would Lewis think that he needed to run away from his base?

    I hope people are fired over this, because this is un-acc-f*cking-ceptable.

  • BlueDevil1215

    The way this race unfolded shows us once more how far the DPVA, and Dems generally, are run by the Pols for their benefit, and the base serves them, not the other way around.  Does anyone doubt, especially after the way the Tea Party has yanked the chains of Republican officeholders in recent years, that among Republicans the base calls the shots?

    Coleman may have raised more, but Lewis raised plenty, and as our esteemed Lowkell points out, had the benefit of lots of YD shoe leather (wasted, as it turns out).  The base did its job.  What DPVA does over  and over is waste the effort and resources of its base in poorly framed contests that may elect some politicians, but do little to strengthen the party or advance its principals.  

    Today’s Republicans are largely nuts, and talking “bipartisanship” with a group like that is either capitulation, or simply an excuse of some pols not to deliver anything for the people who elected them.  A Pol who espouses”bipartisanship” in today’s climate with today’s crazy Republicans is telling his supporters that they have no claim on him.  They work to put him in office, but should expect only platitudes in return.  This bargain is a dream for some pols (not all, but too many).  Only a party where those types are largely in charge would tolerate this flim-flam over and over again.