Monday, November 20, 2006

Asking the Tough Question: Could OR Dems Have Done More?

If you want to bash me for posting lame story ideas over the last week or so, I'll cop to a bit of post-election ennui and exhaustion. Nov 7th was an awful lot of fun--seeing people I knew but meeting them for the first time, watching politicos do their work, and of course drinking many times to the victories of the evening. It was the kind of night to throw off chains of frustration and despair, and if we were feeling bold enough and temporarily vindictive enough, to feel a little triumphant--as one victorious Democrat said off the record, "fuck those fucking fuckers!" Fuck them, indeed--they know who they are.

But starting with the next morning's mild hangover, there's been the expected lull. Where are the polls (this tasty Gallup post-mortem notwithstanding)? How about late returns? An ad to debunk? Someone calling in with a tip? C&E's to pore over? A meet n greet in Josephine County? Nothing? We'd gotten so adept and used to having some original work to provide, that the inevitable return to slower news cycles and thus site traffic has been a little comedown. But a needed one. Some campaign managers still haven't woken up since the election, so rest and stocktaking were in order.

I guess I was having withdrawals, because I was looking forward to a little debriefing lunch with Jon Isaacs. I especially wanted to see him to answer his assertion that Howard Dean's role in these elections wasn't a big deal, by which I think he meant the OR House races, which I only sort of disagree with. But I also wanted to ask a question that may seem a little ill-timed given the tremendous Democratic victory in the state, but which--after several days of backslaps and afterglow and sleep--is one that forward looking parties should always ask of themselves: could we have done better, and how?

I floated the idea in a comment a few days ago at Blue Oregon, after having heard the tiniest of grumbles from a couple of candidates that they didn't necessarily feel the love of the House majority effort, run by Isaacs at FuturePAC. And then John Napolitano, the unsuccessful candidate from Senate 19, took a jab at the state senate committee:
I did not get any support from the Senate campaign committee. When I tabled at the Washington County Fair in July, I asked for a handful of fliers with the Senate Democrat plan for the next session. I had seen those fliers mentioned on the Internet, and they were a very good piece. But I could not get even a couple of dollars worth of one color fliers. I did get access to the voter database, which proved very useful. But other than that, nothing. I asked for a list of contacts of groups that may have been be doing endorsements, but was told that it was not something that they had available. Hard to believe. I asked for a media list for press releases. What I got was very TV-centered, and so out of date that a lot of emails bounced when I used it. Not very useful for my Western corner of the metro area.
He also made essentially the same claim against Isaacs and FuturePAC as some progressives are making against DCCC Chair Rahm Emanuel--that the state committee focused too heavily on incumbent protection and too few challenger races.

Jon and Carla and I had a fine lunch, and I didn't even bring the question up until the end of it--but Isaacs made sure we talked about it. Call me a crappy journalist--I did not especially press him on some of the details of the decision, although we did talk general strategy and named names as to who got what help and who (by their absence) got little or nothing.

I had more probing questions about whether the committee had been able to adjust as the D-Trip did, finally recognizing hot races and somehow finding money to quick-pump into them, but I didn't bring them up. What the state Democratic machine in all its forms accomplished last week in Oregon was as remarkable as anything done in any of the wave states across the country. And Isaacs was at the helm for much of the successful work accomplished, so his results answer many questions by default: check the scorecard.

Still, we talked about the plan laid out last fall, based on what was known and believed at the time, and--let's face it--was probably true, but changing. The key strategy was, as Napolitano noted, incumbent protection, then adding five targeted districts with good challengers and favorable district figures. There were also a couple of 2nd tier overflow races doped out, and that was pretty much it. But they did have a plan for making their money work for them, and part of that plan was forcing Karen Minnis to sweat and spend money on her own race instead of spreading it to others.

What is amazing to me about this gambit is not that they tried it--it makes decent sense, although money games are a fairly standard ploy--but that Minnis and Chuck Adams and the entire OR GOP fell for it. They plowed an insane amount of money into the 49th, and while it looks like they actually may have needed all of it, the Republicans treated the Minnis race as if she held at once all four seats the Democrats needed for control.

Aside from the concentration of GOP money into the Minnis race, one other thing Isaacs said helped them was the bizarre way in which the Republicans decided to allocate their leftover (non-Minnis) money. They poured money into the Washington County races, where there were certainly theoretical opportunities for the GOP to gain, but where Democratic polling indicated their folks were reasonably well ahead.

For instance, in HD30 where Ev Curry was facing David Edwards for an open seat, the GOP Majority 2006 PAC dropped almost $67,000 into the race--over $30,000 of it before October 1st. Wayne Scott's PAC kicked in an additional $30,000, as did Minnis' Speaker's PAC. That's over $120,000 in total from the main GOP committees, and what was the result? Curry got hammered by 15 points. Contrast that with HD10, where Jean Cowan edged incumbent GOP Rep. Alan Brown by fewer than 1,000 votes. Majority 2006 gave about $26,000 to that race, $18,000 of it by early October. Further, I don't see ANY money from Wayne Scott or Karen Minnis' PACs. No wonder they were laughing at Dem HQ; the Republicans wildly miscalculated early on and never seemed to recover.

As far as FuturePAC's plan went, as October 2005 became September 2006 it became clear that things were going well according to plan--perhaps a little too well, as endangered incumbents began to appear safer, and lower tier Dem challengers began to show signs of being 1st tier races. As noted, Isaacs and his team made some accomodations for the spreading of the battlefield, identifying Tobias Read and Susanne Bonamici as candidates who had the potential to break through into the elite tier if things went the Dems' way. Once again, those predictions almost faltered on account of their own success; both candidates eventually won in landslides.

Was there a lack of adjustment on the part of the Dems as the election reached its closing 6 weeks, neglecting to catch whiff of The Wave and scrambling to maximize the benefit of a hugely favorable environment? I'll give that one a maybe, leaning a little towards yes, with a couple of major caveats.

First of all, hindsight is 20/20 and money is fairly finite, and one has to understand the context in which the committee was operating: Three Cycles to the Majority, starting with 2004. The first thing Isaacs said before we even sat down was that in gubernatorial elections, recent history indicates a 2-seat loss for House Democrats, so anything gained is a strong showing. And to overtake the Republicans a full cycle early is something that gets you your own chapter heading in the history books.

Secondly, they did in fact try to adjust on the fly, and let affiliated groups try to pull weight in newly contested areas. And like a football coach, every campaign guru has their own system. Often, success is not necessarily the merits of the system but the teamwork supporting the system, and changing plans late in the game when things are going well for you can be a big disaster. Isaacs admitted he's a "stick to the plan" kind of guy, so he owns his style for its strengths and weaknesses, but stands behind what he's accomplished.

Those caveats aside, even Howard Dean did what I opposed at first but realized was the right thing to do--gave up some of the long term field-building money and dumped it on candidates running hot races. He saw the shooting star and hitched his hopes to it, and god bless him for doing it. And if he hadn't done so, I fully expected Rahm Emanuel to take out a big loan (Schumer had plenty of money; he whipped poor Liddy Dole like she'd stolen something.)

While I said earlier that money was fairly finite, it's not absolutely so--at the national level, some races were made in the final month by quick recognition of a hot race and a strongly directed appeal to support that candidate. If the Oregon Dems were doing that, we missed it. Was there a chance to borrow some money? I didn't ask Jon, should have. In this once-in-a-generation political environment sometimes you have to go all in. Would I have suggested 10 challengers to support big in 2005? Hell no. But when it's looking like you've drawn 4/5ths of a royal flush after the flop, you have to chase the easy money that's out there--if only you've got some of your own to put down. The writing was on the wall for this election by Labor Day, and some people feel they were left wanting. I can't speak to the validity of specific claims, but as a generality I feel like there were perhaps some missed opportunities overall.

That said, if I was looking for someone to run a statehouse campaign, or maybe I was running for Senator, I'd hire Jon Isaacs in a minute. I'm just sayin', is all.