Seven takeaways from 2014 State House elections

By Richard Nelson

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November 18, 2014

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Hired guns sometimes misfire: The outside group Mark It Red was hired to run Republican state House races. They were given a sizable war chest—an estimated $1.2 million. They had a state to work in that is leaning conservative—in fact, the only state in the Southeast without a GOP majority in both Houses of the state legislature. They had excellent candidates to work with. But their model failed. Miserably.  Their one-size-fits-all messaging failed for districts as diverse as Paducah and Lexington. They lacked adequate knowledge of political history, the electorate, voting trends and candidate depth. They went negative in many races. They also tried to import national issues into House races. While that strategy may have worked in the U.S. Senate race, it failed at the local level. Bottom line: outside groups aren’t helpful in running state House races.  Here’s one political insiders analysis of one state House race:

  • “They promised big dollars in matching but he had to turn over the majority of [our candidates] campaign funds and all decision making authority to them.  They immediately went negative and never really turned away from that.  In my opinion, they waited way too late to get started; running an eight week election campaign when [our candidate] didn’t even have a primary.  Photographers weren’t event on the ground in [the district] until eight weeks out.  He never had a true identification piece.  Many promises were made that weren’t kept.  There has much correspondence between Republican House Leadership and they have actually requested a forensic accounting of where the money was spent vs. where they said it would be spent.  To my knowledge, the money that [our candidate] was promised did not all get to where it was supposed to be.  Money that certain other individuals gave that was promised it would be used in this race, never made it either, so there is some great disappointment….   IF we had it all too do over again, the campaign would have been run by one person HERE, not from Frankfort and would not have been negative. “

Right to work didn’t work. In fact, it was a losing issue in at least three West Kentucky races. McCracken, Marshall and Daviess Counties each have an influential union presence. Elevating right to work to a primary issue is like a stick in the eye to a critical and active part of that constituency.  In one race in far West Kentucky, the unions spent $100,000 to defeat the Republican candidates. The issue appeared to energize the Democratic base and motivated their people to go door to door.

Negative campaigns backfire at the local level. State House races are not Congressional or Senate races. Call me Captain Obvious. They are local. And in local races you better treat your opponent with respect and dignity. Remember, the other guy grew up there, went to school there, played ball there, and has family there. They had a core group of supporters who encouraged them, supported them and voted for them.  Beating down the other guy is like throwing a boomerang. It will come back and hurt you.

Be accurate. Kentucky Family Values (KFV) ran mailers against David Hale in Eastern Kentucky and accused him of double-dipping if he won the job. Problem is, David Hale, a pastor for decades, never held a state job. In fact, KFV had the wrong David Hale. In one of their ads, they ran a photo of another David Hale who is a U.S. Attorney in Paducah. The gross inaccuracies only helped the opponent. In this case, it helped David Hale oust eight year incumbent Richard Henderson (D-Mt Sterling). According to one Democratic observer misleading and untrue ads cause voters to default to their party affiliation which is Democratic for most Kentuckians.

Social issues still matter in many state House districts.  Five new Republicans elected identified as pro-life:  James Alan Tipton, Phil Moffett, Jerry Miller (RPK did a pro-life mailer on his behalf), David Hale (a pastor) and Jim Duplessis (who introduced himself as being pro-life when knocking on doors). While jobs and the economy appeared to take center stage, social issues are still important in a majority of Kentucky state House districts. Democratic challenger Jarrod Jackson (D-Princeton) and John Wayne Smith (D-Smiths Grove) identified as socially conservative, so did Democratic incumbents Will Coursey (D-Benton) and Gerald Watkins (D-Paducah).

$$ Can’t buy me love or an election. Money can buy a lot of things, but “it can’t buy me love.” Nor can it buy an election. Much was spent on this election by both sides. The biggest Democratic Super PAC—Kentucky Family Values spent an estimated $2.1 million. A combined total of Republican Super PAC’s—New Direction Kentucky, AmeriGOP, Americans for Prosperity—Kentucky, spent around $1 million. The House Democratic Caucus raised oodles of cash as well. But how much of it was spent effectively? How much was wasted?

In Phil Moffett’s race, an estimated $200-250,000 was spent to defeat him. There were 26 mailers targeting him. Sixteen were negative. Ten were positive for his opponent. Moffett’s campaign was one of the few Republican races with little to none outside support on his behalf. There is an advertising saturation point. Once reached, spending additional dollars becomes ineffective.

Distinguishing issues matter. Why should voters vote for a new person if the candidates are mostly the same? What are the major differences? Taxes and spending are certainly big issues. But has enough contrast been made between the candidates?  Some of the biggest contrasts available and ready for the pickin’ are on social issues like protecting the sanctity of life, marriage between one man/one woman and gambling expansion. As hot-to-handle as these issues might be, many voters care deeply about them. With that said, if the issues are handled wrongly, or disingenuously, or like a battering ram, they will end up hurting the candidate who mishandles them. If there are few differences between candidates and a strong case isn’t made for electing a new person, then voters will default to the incumbent.

 

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Director, Commonwealth Policy Center