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Posted at 12:58 PM ET, 01/20/2010

Fear not, Democrats: There are ways to win

By editors

By Julie Norton and Jim Mulhall

Writing in the PostPartisan blog last week, Lee Hockstader offered some advice to Virginia Democrats following Democrat David W. Marsden’s narrow victory in the Jan. 12 special state Senate election in Fairfax: Be afraid. Hockstader said that Marsden’s 327-vote victory “by any logic should have been a blow-out.”

It is hard to know where to begin in critiquing this. A Senate district held by right-wing Republican Ken Cuccinelli II for eight years should have been won by a Democrat in a blow-out — after that same Senate district had just helped elect Cuccinelli to statewide office in an overwhelmingly Republican year? Tortured logic aside, however, Hockstader is indeed right that Democrats find themselves in perilous waters at present. As we just saw in Massachusetts, this isn’t true only in Virginia.

Marsden won this race because he looked at a double-digit deficit in the polls and the strong Republican headwind and did not give up. Instead, he challenged his team to come up with a winning strategy. Ultimately, what began not as a “slam-dunk” but a steep uphill climb succeeded through the combination of a great candidate, a smart strategy, sound tactics — and an opponent caught asleep at the switch.

Democrats, the message is not to be afraid. Instead, take heed of these five lessons:

1. Address voters’ concerns. There are two ways to define “persuadable voters.” Voters can either be convinced that a candidate’s platform is what they should want, or they can be convinced that a candidate is best suited to execute their platform. We prefer the latter — meeting the voters where they are. In the Virginia race, the voters wanted a candidate who would be fiscally responsible in Richmond and who would work hard to create jobs and grow the economy. That happened to be Marsden’s record as a delegate and former state agency head, so we had a strong, credible story to tell. In contrast, Steve Hunt’s record of controversy and big spending raised doubts that he could produce results.

2. Don’t concede the center. Obviously, there is a great deal of angst in the electorate right now, most of it directed at Democrats, but more than anything voters want results — especially on jobs and the economy. Although our strategy has been described as “moderate vs. extremist,” that is not quite right. Marsden has strong fiscally moderate, bipartisan credentials and a record of working across party lines. Hunt, on the other hand, had been mired in controversy while on the school board and had been thrown off the board by voters — a rare occurrence. The fact that this controversy was related to Hunt’s anti-gay views was widely reported in the press, but we chose to push “controversy” without defining it. We also stressed that Hunt was a profligate spender on the school board. Controversy and big spending: These are two thing voters don’t want.

3. Know your targets. This race largely amounted to a base-vs.-base contest. In such a low-turnout situation, you have to navigate carefully so as to motivate your base but not rile your opponent’s, while still picking off what few persuadable voters are out there. Resist the temptation to expand the persuadable universe beyond that which you know to be truly persuadable.

4. Run your campaign. You can spend a lot of time and energy wondering what your opponent is going to do, and it would be a mistake not to game out various scenarios. But at the end of the day, you can only truly control your own campaign. Yes, we entered the race badly behind, but we charted a course to victory and we executed it. We made the decision to go up on television despite having no evidence that our opponent was preparing a media buy. We planned an aggressive direct-mail plan to our base and persuadable universes. We knocked on more doors and made more phone calls. We executed a strong absentee ballot push — and those 405 absentee votes sealed our victory. In short, we had a smart plan.

5. Choose your opponent wisely. Okay, obviously you have little control in this area. But it certainly doesn’t hurt when luck delivers a flawed opponent. It’s hard to fault Hunt for initially taking this race for granted. But when we started airing our ads on television and he opted not to answer, Hunt left the door wide open. His mail program got off to a slower start than ours, and we surmised that he was being overly reliant on a stealth campaign to the ultra-right Cuccinelli base. Allowing us to dominate the two major tools of communication — television and mail — let us get within striking distance. Our aggressive grassroots get-out-the-vote campaign put us over the top. Lesson: Hope that your opponent’s strategy amounts to taking victory for granted — then outthink and outwork him.

The writers are media consultants with the firm Squier Knapp Dunn Communications.

By editors  | January 20, 2010; 12:58 PM ET
Categories:  HotTopic, Va. Politics, Virginia  
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Julie and Jim, thanks for saying exactly what I thought when I read Lee's commentary. The district was Steve Hunt's to lose, and while it helped that he was a low-quality candidate, that wouldn't have made a difference had the campaign and the local Democratic activists not worked both hard and smart. As someone from a neighboring area who put a few free hours into the effort, I was impressed with how well the campaign found volunteers, organized them and got them out on the streets.

I'd like to add that I was pretty annoyed with the Post's coverage of the Marsden victory. The initial report was relegated to the Metro section, and the only follow-up I saw was Lee's squinting at the champagne glass and pronouncing it half empty. Was it because Marsden's win didn't fit into the Post's Democrats-on-the-run narrative? Why is it that when two humdrum Democrats (Coakley and Deeds) run terrible campaigns against competent Republicans (with movie-star good looks) and lose, that reflects a nationwide revulsion against Obama and all things blue, whereas a local Democratic victory is first played down and then repurposed as a virtual defeat?

Maybe the Post's approach is supposed to inoculate Democrats against complacency -- but this isn't Massachusetts; I don't think Virginians have that problem, and it behooves us to both recognize and draw the lessons from the Marsden victory, as Julie and Jim have done.

Posted by: hausmanp | January 26, 2010 12:21 PM | Report abuse

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