County election 2014 – Primary post-mortem

Sorry for not posting anything earlier about yesterday’s primary elections, but they were just too boring for me to get motivated. Anyway, here’s my post-mortem on the county commission and congressional races.

Harvey Ward sailed into office with the backing of the local Democratic Executive Committee’s political steamroller. OH, WAIT! That’s NOT what happened! How can that be???!!!!

First off, Ward may not have crossed the electability threshold I’ve described elsewhere. But more importantly, he completely ignored the first rule of running against an incumbent: you have to give voters a reasonable doubt that the incumbent should automatically be returned to office. Unless you do that at the outset, nothing else matters. Period.

This rule is proven by Ward’s relatively weak showing (41%) despite running an otherwise commendable campaign, and having the backing of the Democratic Party establishment in a party primary.

The case for not returning an incumbent to office has to be based on one or more of the following themes:

  • Been in office too long; it’s time for a change.
  • Too many broken promises.
  • Sides with a particular faction, against our interests.
  • Voted wrong on important issues.
  • Corruption.
  • Conspicuously poor judgment in statements and actions.
  • Embarrasses us constituents.

Sometimes an incumbent will be so guilty of one or more of these transgressions that voters will need little reminding, but that’s a rarity and a luxury.

Ward didn’t broach any of these charges, much less build a convincing case. A challenger simply can’t run as if they’re on an equal footing with an incumbent. No one has ever made a successful run on a theme of “The incumbent’s okay, but I’ll be even better.”

If you’re a candidate and someone in your campaign’s inner circle objects to this strategy on the grounds that “It’s too negative – we don’t want to go there,” then you need to replace them immediately, as they’re probably full of other toxic political advice. If your campaign gives the impression the person you’re running against isn’t so bad, the obvious question a voter you need to persuade would ask is, “Then why are you running?” Great question.

Proving that it’s not enough to simply raise one of the themes, you have to go on and convince voters of it, witness the Jake Rush versus Ted Yoho fiasco.

Rush’s initial volley was something along the lines of “Ted Yoho hasn’t been as bat guano crazy as he promised he’d be, and I will.” By a 4-to-1 margin, voters found Yoho to be just the right amount of bat guano crazy, and Rush perhaps too much so.

In addition, remember that Yoho ousted Cliff Stearns, a 24-year incumbent, on the basis that he’d been in office too long and had become part of the go-along-to-get-along establishment, despite the fact that Stearns was one of the most uncompromising conservative ideologues in Congress.

This just shows that the anti-incumbent message doesn’t have to be factual, as long as you can get people to believe it. Stearns aided in his own demise by not actively confronting those charges. Like most incumbents who lose, he overestimated his invincibility (he was running in a newly-drawn district made up of many voters he’d never represented before).

And finally, the Ken Cornell versus Kevin Thorpe county commission race was a soft referendum on the Plum Creek development proposal, with Plum Creek losing. The face-off between Cornell and John Martin in the general election promises to be no-holds-barred, full-contact blood sport.

The big question in the coming contest: will black voters abandon the Democrat Cornell to vote for Tea Party Republican Martin, who vigorously supports Plum Creek but otherwise opposes most of their core issues?

(BTW, Cornell’s victory also shows the electability value of having run a campaign once before, albeit unsuccessfully, while Martin’s previous races show the futility of running over and over, after the voters have made it clear they’re not buying what you’re selling. But Cornell still has to stand up to the big bully if he wants to win in November.)


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