VA-06: It shouldn’t have been this close

LewisColemanWith 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.

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18 thoughts on “VA-06: It shouldn’t have been this close

  1. In the 2009 Delegate race, the Democrats were overconfident. And the Republicans worked very hard.

    Very interesing take on this 2014 special election.

  2. Great article. I thought there was a big frenzy during the primary but during the general election it was a LOT less energy. The ads put out by Lewis were not specific enough and hard hitting to drive people out to vote. Where Coleman went after people unhappy with Obama (even though most of the issues he brought up were national instead of more relevant state issues).

    I’m surprised it came down to the wire. I thought that Coleman would not be a dynamic enough candidate to tip the balance in this Dem district. I always thought Ottinger would have had a much better chance. I guess the Dems were preparing to run against him. But why did they figure he was going to win the primary?

    1. I believe Coleman’s primary win was because he got into the race as early as possible. Look at his numbers on the Eastern Shore – it’s clear he had been working it for a while. Ottinger’s entry was too late for this contest. Given more time, though, I have to wonder if he couldn’t have made up the distance.

      I think Ds thought Ottinger would win because of his flash – he put out a bunch of mail, scary Obama pictures and all. But he didn’t have the relationships – and politics is all about relationships.

      As for the Lewis ads – yes, Coleman’s charges were national issues. And that’s where Lewis should have hit back at him. But he didn’t. Had Ottinger been the candidate, it would have been easier to do. But Coleman cultivated this grandfatherly image in the primary. It’s hard to attack Grandpa.

      1. I thought the Democratic firehouse primary was set up so that Lewis would have an edge with only 1 Norfolk precinct and so many on the Eastern Shore. There were long lines in Norfolk. I actually thought McClellan would be a better candidate since she was a very polished fresh face and seemed to be running hard on issues that matter to Democrats.

        I sensed there would be a problem with the base if Miller or Lewis would win since they were “moderates” in the legislature. I didn’t feel particularly inspired by them. And I think that was part of the enthusiasm gap. And you are right on Vivian. The “moderate image ” ads by Lewis did not help get people like myself revved up to go out and vote. Coleman did a great job of getting Republicans fired up to vote with the heavy hitting ads.

        1. I kept hearing the charge that the D primary was set up for Lewis but that simply was a bogus one. The Eastern Shore is a different animal from Norfolk – more spread out. The Rs did the same thing in their primary: multiple locations on the Shore and only one in Norfolk.

          There are two sides to every candidate: the political and the policy. Given the short time frame for the special, political outweighed policy in the selection of the party nominee – on both sides. Whomever had the better political machinery was going to win, policy be damned.

          But once the nominations were secured, each had to go for the policy. Coleman did that, Lewis did not.

      2. I think you’re right. Coleman sort of proved me wrong. I thought he was the stereotypical candidate that the GOP nominates and usually loses. But maybe Coleman was the best candidate the GOP could nominate with his soft grandfather image.

        1. I knew Coleman would be a tough race – and said so as soon as he was nominated. He was the best candidate for this race. Maybe not for a general election campaign over the normal time frame, but for a special election, he was a good fit.

  3. I think you are accurate. in the November elections and indeed all year long there were signs of GOP strength. The two GOP candidates at the top were their own worst enemies.

    1. There really isn’t a lot of spillover from the November election to the special, except that the Republican Senate Caucus was doing all it could to win one of the 2 seats. Their hands were tied in the 33rd race, with the district having nominated a flawed candidate. But they didn’t know that at first; all they knew was that they had to win one.

  4. I know that Virginia has one election after another with hardly any let up, but to me this season seemed unrelenting in a way it hasn’t before. The election in November wore out everyone, from both parties, I’d imagine. As a Democrat I was online constantly talking up the merits of Herring over Obenshain, McAuliffe over Cuccinelli and Northam over Jackson. For people who keep up with this stuff and do even the minimal work and attend meetings – it seemed that everyone was wore slam out after the November election. Then, came the wait for the Herring/Obenshain race, followed by that recount.

    We’d be neglectful to assume that the holiday season didn’t also figure heavily into the the malaise that kept some out of the campaign mode and spirit. I had a

    And, next, came the primary and the special election between Lewis and Coleman. The we had to be at least SOME concerned about about the outcome in McLean between Wexton and May to fill Herring’s senate seat. (I kept hearing it was a slam dunk for Wexton, but I’d just read a week or so earlier that she’d stepped into an icky pile of something when she made a statement about prosecuting rapists and TPers – ha ha. I read that, and thought . . . well, there’s a wrench in the middle of that ‘special’.)

    AND, THEN, it was the drama of yet another recount – since Lewis had won the ‘special’ by only 9 votes.

    Gads!

    All things considered, I think we did darned good to have ended up as we did. I’m not knocking or disagreeing with your take on why so many of the precinct stops resulted in such low turnouts and close elections – I’m just saying, all in all, when we take into account that we are – sadly – in the minority of voters who keep up with all this stuff and understand how important the the smaller, lesser-known, races are – we should be doing back-flips.

    Fatigue hits everyone and so does flu, colds and many other inopportune nuisances and afflictions that keeps us sidelined and down.

    I can only suggest we, as you point out, work harder (I know ‘I’ could have done more;) but also, that we pace ourselves better, since there seems to be no let up in the future of MORE OF THE SAME.

    Enjoy all your columns, always. Thanks for letting me yammer here, for a tad too long. Jane Massey

    1. No, I wasn’t ripped when I wrote this, just too quick to end it before rereading and cleaning up my typos, repeated words and only1/4 of a sentence – “…I had a ” – No idea where that was headed. ha. jm

    2. No letup indeed. Next to come should be a primary/caucus for the special to fill Lewis’ House of Delegates seat. And then *that* special.

      Paula Miller may be the sentimental favorite since this was her old seat. Andrea McClellan had a pretty hard-charging campaign in the last round, though. Should be interesting.

        1. I’m not sure someone from Norfolk can win in the 100th. Over 60% of the voters are on the Shore. Paula Miller got less than a dozen votes in the primary on the ES. It’s already a tough hold. Vivian, do you give the edge to GOP in the 100th?

    3. I’m just glad that I don’t live in the 100th!

      But Virginia’s never-ending election cycle isn’t new. And I know it’s hard to get folks involved in every election. That doesn’t mean we don’t try. And it certainly doesn’t mean that voters – especially those who show up at the polls every time – should be ignored.

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