With yesterday’s recount completed, Lynwood Lewis becomes the 20th Democrat in the Virginia Senate. The recount produced an additional two votes for Lewis, making his margin a whopping 11 votes: out of 20,403 votes cast, Lewis received 10,203, Republican Wayne Coleman 10,192, plus 8 write-in votes. Since this race started, I’ve often thought of the 2009 contest in the 46th House District. In that heavily Democratic district, the margin was 16 votes, albeit on significantly fewer votes cast. Special elections are notorious for being close; even so, I didn’t expect this one to be this close.
While there were many factors in it being so, at the end of the day the overriding issue was messaging. If this race had gone on a few more days, the result likely would have been different.
It was no secret that E.W. Jackson was going to lose to Ralph Northam, so campaigns on both sides beginning quietly ramping up after the June 2013 primary. Neither side was satisfied with having just one candidate in the race, which led to the relatively expensive nominating contests. (Don’t believe these numbers on the Democratic and Republican firehouse primaries – something is really wrong here.) As I wrote before, the contact I received from the campaigns was absolutely astounding.
And then it all dried up.
The nominations secured, it seemed that Republican and Democrats were running two different campaigns. The Republicans hunkered down, going after the party’s base. (I received one phone call from the Coleman campaign shortly after his win, asking me if I planned to vote Republican.) The Democrats, on the other hand, did next to nothing to take care of its base, running this race as if it were a general election campaign instead of a special election. I shouldn’t have been surprised – leaving in place the same campaign from the fall that cut out regular voters like me was going to have the same result.
Then, like this election, the only mail I received from Democrats was from outside groups. I did receive two absentee ballot applications, but there was no follow up. I didn’t receive a single piece of mail from the Lewis campaign. I got a couple of negative pieces from Coleman. Meanwhile, in my neighborhood where only one or two CUJO signs appeared last fall, Coleman signs were sprouting like weeds. I started asking my mailman every day what mail he was carrying – that’s the only way I got to see what was being put out there,
But every time I turned on the TV, there was an ad from Coleman. Actually, the ads were paid for and authorized by Coleman, but he didn’t appear in them. I’m guessing it didn’t test well for him to be on camera. Besides, Coleman had built his name ID in the nominating contest by putting out plain vanilla mail, radio and even a TV ad. But these ads weren’t plain vanilla – and they hit Lewis hard on the Affordable Care Act, less so on his voting record to raise his pay (which I found quite curious). The ads were effective, as I heard the claims repeated by folks everywhere over the course of the campaign.
How did Lewis respond? Well, he didn’t. Two TV ads showing Lewis as a nice guy simply didn’t cut it. And the second one was supposedly a response to the negative ad. It was in this one that Lewis uttered the “death tax” thing. Using Republican talking points doesn’t give Democrats warm and fuzzy feelings about voting for somebody.
I knew that “death tax” thing was going to come up. On November 23, I participated in a lengthy poll in which certain messages were tested. Among them was this death tax thing, for which I gave the pollster a piece of my mind. They also tested a response to the charge of supporting Obamacare (not the Affordable Care Act, mind you). That one wasn’t ever used.
I’m told that poll showed Lewis way ahead. Duh! The Republican nominating contest was decided just two days earlier! Of course it was going to show Lewis ahead. But a lot can – and did – happen between that poll and January 7th. If polls really did vote, I’d be an elected official, too. I’m told there was a tracking poll done 2 weeks before the election that showed Lewis at 52%. Um, a poll during the Christmas season isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. Several sources have told me that the polling was the reason why the budget was cut for advertising.
That the Democrats underestimated Coleman is an understatement. In fact, they didn’t even think he was going to win the nomination! In a poll prior to the Democratic firehouse, only one Republican was polled: Richard Ottinger. (And yes, I participated in that poll.) After his win, somebody somewhere got the idea that Coleman was going to be a pushover. If they had any eyes and ears on the ground, they would have known that wasn’t going to happen. Republicans only needed one of two available Democratic seats – and they were going to throw the kitchen sink at trying to get it.
As I poured over the numbers after the election, it was clear that Democrats had failed to reach out to Democratic voters. Some of the numbers were startling – in Norfolk’s Ward 5, for example, Lewis lost all but one precinct. Coleman lives in Ward 5, as does Northam, who was conspicuously absent from this campaign. I’ve heard various reasons for this – Northam isn’t speaking to me so I can’t ask myself – but it is glaring.
And Lewis lost nearly every Norfolk precinct that he had represented in the House, an indication of how well he was known there. That’s what happens when you have candidates who run virtually unopposed forever. Of course, that also means they don’t know how to run a competitive race. I’m no expert on the Eastern Shore but after the nominating contests, everyone should have known that Coleman was stronger there than you might have expected for a first-time candidate.
The day after the special, I had a board meeting. One of the participants said she had voted the previous day but she didn’t vote for Coleman because in his TV ads, he “looked mean.” She said she voted for the other guy – but couldn’t even tell me the other guy’s name!
There’s so much more to what happened in this contest, but this piece is already too long. Ultimately, the lack of messaging to Democrats in a special election almost resulted in a loss. I still believe that Lewis was the best candidate for the district but there are some lessons here that need to be taken to heart:
- He who has the gold rules. Lewis needs to raise a lot of money and not rely on the Senate Caucus. I know – he had a hard time raising money because the Caucus soaked it all up. But between now and 2015, he’s got to raise his own money. If he doesn’t, he cedes the decision-making to the Caucus.
- Ears on the ground. The Caucus needs to get some ears on the ground of the locals. You can’t use folks who don’t know the players and rely on polling to dictate what’s happening. And listen to the candidates! Stop thinking you know it all, because every race is different.
- Shore up the base. Any campaign has to reach out to the base first, before going after the independent vote. It is not enough to tell the base the other guy is bad. You have to give people a reason to vote for you.
It goes without saying that Lewis is going to be a target in 2015. And his opponent may very well be Coleman. History says that when two candidates face up for a second time, the loser the first time loses by a larger margin the second time. But I’d not rely on history here.