Rob Cornilles lost the special election tonight in Oregon’s First Congressional District. He lost in a special election that resulted from a disgraced Democrat resigning amid a second (at least) sexual assault scandal, after previously losing to the disgrace amid the disgrace’s mental breakdown in the 2010 election. He lost to a woman who actively covered up for a serial rapist. He lost to a woman who could not articulate her way out of a wet paper bag. A woman who, as a state legislator, admitted that she couldn’t remember ever voting against a tax increase.
Suzanne Bonamici has replaced David Wu as the Democrat Representative from Oregon’s First District, and the perennial Republican sport has commenced – the mad rush to point fingers.
Oh, the Democrats are already crowing about what this race implies for the 2012 national political scene. They’ll say that this means their message of making the wealthy pay their fair share, and protection of
unfunded mandates social safety nets from the greedy GOP 1%ers and government spending to create new jobs is resonating with the voters. Oh and smearing the candidate as Tea Party is really effective too, because those scary terrorists want to ruin everyone’s life by balancing the federal budget … or something … Of course they’ll gloss over the point that they out spent the Republican by about 5-1. No, this isn’t about the onslaught of negative ads, they’ll say – which the Republican started, natch – no, this is about them helping the little guy stand up against the evil corporations.
The thing is, the Democrats are right. If the GOP continues to advance candidates who insist on ignoring their base and running to the middle to court independents, the Democrats will trounce the Republicans in November just like they did tonight in Oregon.
There are many, many tactical mistakes that this campaign made – mistakes that they repeated from their failed 2010 attempt to unseat Wu. These tactical mistakes were compounded by an overall strategy that was disjointed, uncoordinated, and fundamentally not based on sound conservative principles.
What’s so frustrating to conservatives is that this was the best shot the GOP had at this seat in almost 40 years. How could the voters in the district reward the Democrat Party of Oregon that enabled David Wu, by electing his personal friend to replace him? A competent Republican should have destroyed this particular Democrat. And by all accounts, Rob Cornilles was a competent Republican with the experience of running previously in this district.
Let’s at least try to lend some sanity to the finger pointing.
So, what went wrong?
Messaging, and National Campaign Consultants
The messaging that came from this campaign reflected an overall strategy that was disjointed, uncoordinated and poorly organized. Two examples from the final week of this campaign clearly demonstrated that the campaign staff, mostly hired from out of state, had no idea what a political calendar in Oregon looks like.
You see, in Oregon we vote exclusively by mail. That means that ballots are mailed to voters three weeks before election day. While ballot returns are usually low in the first two weeks, ramping up in the final week, typically the messaging of a campaign has gotten stale by the time ballots are mailed. That is why it is IMPERATIVE that a campaign be proactive in getting its message properly coordinated and disseminated well before ballots are mailed. Just like in 2010, none of the messaging was timed properly, because nobody at the RNC seems to realize that we’re a vote by mail only state. It’s a constant source of fascination for me that these campaigns and their nationally trained experts fail to take that into account.
The first example was Rob’s interview on The Mark Levin Show. Great interview, great idea, great exposure, horrible timing. The die was already cast, and no national buzz could possibly have helped by the time this interview ran on the Thursday before election day – 16 days after ballot drop. Rob’s staff should have lined up an interview by Mark Levin in November, with a followup at the beginning of January, not last Thursday after most voters had already tired of the campaign.
The second example was Rob’s funny spoof of Stephen Colbert:
This was a pretty good idea (film buffs may quibble, but that’s not the point). This was a whimsical, fun side of a congressional candidate that would have been used to great effect to create national buzz … if only it had been done three months prior. It was completely ineffective because it was released in the last week of the campaign when voters had grown disgusted by all the negative ads.
These messaging coordination problems were compounded by the short, off-season special election cycle during the holiday season, and an apparent lack of a dedicated social media coordinator who could have properly timed releases and created buzz for the campaign. The lack of coordination and singularity of messaging was obvious, as was the evident calendar shortage.
The Oregon Tea Party
Paradoxically, the Tea Party took it from both sides this time around, despite choosing not to be front and center in this campaign. Democrats ‘smeared’ Cornilles as a Tea Party Radical Extremist™, while mainstream Republicans blamed all sorts of campaign ills on Tea Partiers. Several local radio talk show hosts have already begun to point fingers. Actually, let’s back up. The finger pointing began in earnest several weeks ago, with unfounded accusations that the Tea Party was deliberately sitting this one out and working against Rob Cornilles. While it is true that the Oregon Tea Party did not endorse a candidate, the consensus among the membership was that this was the desired outcome by the campaign. Cornilles did not actively court Tea Party support, and in fact rejected attempts by Tea Party members who approached the campaign to try to get the two sides to see eye to eye. Many Tea Party members regarded Cornilles as too soft on too many issues – the refusal to consider repeal of Obamacare, support of public/private partnerships, a disastrous answer on a radio talk show regarding the Columbia River Crossing. Even with all of those ideological problems, though, DOZENS of Tea Party members volunteered to help him defeat the truly wretched Bonamici. Cornilles has run for this seat twice now, and each time he has failed to consolidate his base – ignoring them in favor of appealing to independents. One wonders why independents would ever get excited about voting for someone who can’t even excite his own party.
Cornilles Rejects The Conservative Label
Rob Cornilles launched his new campaign with a video that very clearly signaled that he was running away from party politics:
In subsequent talks, Cornilles was all too eager to criticize Republican Congressional Leadership and reject the conservative message in DC. This served to amplify the flawed message that the Republican base wasn’t an important consideration for the campaign. This resulted in GOP turnout that was slightly lower than the Democrats – in a district where the Ds outnumber the Rs by 12%, it is mathematically impossible to win if you don’t get your own voters to turn out.
Negative Ads, and $2.5 Million
The Democrats, according to internal estimates, spent over $2.5 Million on this campaign. Obviously they were scared after losing special elections in Nevada and New York (The Weiner Seat) a few months back. Plus, one can only imagine the DCCC reaction when Suzanne Bonamici and her mush mouth answers finally hit the airwaves. The negative onslaught by Bonamici worked to its desired goal – negative campaigning is really meant to blunt voter turnout. If the voters get the impression that they’re all the same and it’s the same old BS, then they perceive that their vote won’t count in any event. It certainly helped to dim Republican enthusiasm for this race, especially because …
Republican Money Sits On The Sidelines
Where were the RNC, the NRCC, the ORP, and all of the Super PACs that could have funneled money into this race to counter the truly reprehensible negativity from the Democrats? They should have opened up their wallets! They should be ashamed!
Well, that’s not how this type of thing works, and the out of state campaign staff should have known that. The national organizations will not pour money into a race, especially one where their candidate lags by 12 points in registration, unless they see the candidate able to move the needle. That means that the candidate must possess the ability to create their own buzz, earned media and excitement. Typically, this is done by exciting the base about a fresh new candidate that can carry the mantle – when that happens, base voters become the candidate’s evangelists, recruiting independents and undecideds for him. As has been previously noted, the base did not get excited about this candidate for a variety of reasons. Ok, so when the buzz fails to materialize, create some. But Cornilles was too passive at the beginning of the campaign and wanted to run above the fray. By the time he realized that hitting Bonamici on her ties to David Wu was having an effect, and the voters were responding to his aggressiveness, it was too late.
So when the buzz doesn’t materialize, and the needle isn’t moving, and you’re already down 12 points in registration, why would the RNC or any other national organization dedicate resources to your race?
What are the local and national implications of this race?
Rob Cornilles is a good man, a good businessman, and a good family man. He is a likeable guy. He honored the voters of Oregon by making monumental sacrifices to run for office. He is to be commended and thanked for his service to our state.
But his political career is going the way of Gordon Smith’s. There is no recovering from this trouncing. There’s another general election in just a few months, but it strains credulity to think that he’d give this race another shot, even with the new district lines making it D+6 instead of D+12. The voters will want fresh blood, especially after the savaging Rob took at the hands of Bonamici’s smear campaign.
The voters of this district are in some ways similar to voters across the nation. They want to see candidates debate on the issues, in a positive manner, with the ability to see the bright contrasts between the choices. They don’t want to see faint copies standing at separate podiums on the same stage. They don’t want to see smear merchants whose only distinction is the size of their Super PAC’s bank account. And the tactics employed in this race have grave implications for the Presidential race currently barreling towards us. The idea that you can ignore your base and run to the middle … well that idea should be taken out back and put out of its misery.