Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Complacency the main culprit behind a disappointing election night

Though there are many ballots that remain to be counted, enough votes have been tabulated to predict the likely outcome for this year's crop of ballot measures and key races. With some exceptions, it was a disappointing election night, filled with bad news. So...what happened? Why couldn't Democrats and progressives capitalize on last year's momentum? While there are many possible reasons, here's my take on what happened, boiled down to a single word:


You can't help but notice it's a theme tying together so many of the campaigns that came up short (or likely will come up short).

Take Bill Sherman's campaign for prosecutor.

We had an excellent candidate with a knowledgeable campaign team and a good strategy who could have been victorious.

But Bill didn't get the support he needed to be competitive.

The Republicans put huge amounts of money behind Dan Satterberg and they're now reaping the benefits of their cash infusions. The Democratic Party did not respond in kind, even though it couldn't have possibly had a better candidate.

State party leaders and prominent Democratic elected officials seem focused on the future, not the present.

Speeches lately contain endless references to 2008, caucus preparations and the presidential race are dominating discussions at meetings, and the Gregoire reelection effort has been at the forefront of the state party's agenda for months.

The level of enthusiasm needed to propel Bill Sherman to victory just wasn't there. Several influential Democrats, some of whom are well known attorneys, even went out of their way to help Dan Satterberg at Bill's expense.

Here's an example of what I mean: yesterday, two of us represented NPI at a campaign luncheon for Chris Gregoire featuring Governors Sebelius and Napolitano of Kansas and Arizona, respectively. The luncheon, which drew a thousand plus people, was held to raise money for the Governor's war chest for next year.

You wouldn't have known there was an election going on during the whole event except that Gregoire paused briefly during her speech to remind attendees to vote.

After the three governors had spoken, Jenny Durkan came to the podium to give the fundraising pitch. Durkan, who is a personal friend of Gregoire's and a member of the victorious legal team that won the gubernatorial election challenge, exhorted attendees to donate to Gregoire and spoke of building the party.

Yet Jenny has been a strong supporter of Republican Dan Satterberg's campaign, and according to what we've heard, actively worked to persuade the Governor not to endorse Bill Sherman or give him any help.

That's building the party!?

Meanwhile, Democratic leaders failed to pull out all the stops to help get Bill elected. The state party's technology director did set up an emergency virtual phonebanking system for Bill, but it was last minute and there wasn't much of an effort to get activists to participate in it. The sophisticated advance planning needed to turn out votes for Sherman didn't occur.

The real excitement that should have surrounded our candidate for prosecutor as he approached the finish line never materialized.

The party failed to substantially invest in Bill's campaign... and then it didn't put together the resources to build a powerful get out the vote effort that could have potentially neutralized the Republican cash infusions.

In the weeks and days leading up to last night, our party has held event after event to raise money for next year.

For example, the Eastside Dinner...which featured Darcy Burner, the Magnuson Awards...which featured Hillary Clinton (and brought in a record haul for the state party), or the KCDCCC Honors Banquet...which featured Governor Gregoire.

Why were all these events in October? The Maggies are usually in August...the 2006 King County Honors Banquet was held in the winter.

It's like this whole season our party and its leadership has been joyously looking forward, celebrating the past (2006) and anticipating a great future (2008), instead of getting down to business and working to win in the present: 2007.

Complacency didn't just hurt Bill Sherman.

If Democrats had been motivated to win this year, a challenger to Jane Hague would have been found. But potential candidates didn't see the possibilities, didn't realize the importance of competing everywhere.

No prominent Democrat stepped forward to run, and then...the King County organization didn't identify and get behind a candidate until after the filing period had closed and Richard Pope had locked up the nomination.

An assumption was made that the county committee would get to pick a candidate by default after the filing period closed.

And so, the opportunity to beat Jane Hague was lost.

Proposition 1, the Roads & Transit proposal, which is likely headed for defeat, never recaptured the momentum that was lost as soon as opponents began attacking the plan. The support it enjoyed months ago was a mile wide and an inch deep. And it dried up as those who did not appreciate the ambitious, pragmatic approach to regional transportation for various reasons banded together and did everything they could to distort and manipulate the facts.

(Proud of your tight alliance with Kemper Freeman, Jr., Mike O'Brien?)

The measure was backed by a strong coalition. Significant energy was spent on outreach to different communities. Campaign operations were managed by a smart, competent team. Yet the measure is being rejected everywhere.

I don't know how many people I've heard in the last month tell me that they thought Proposition 1 would win, narrowly, but it's been a lot. Assumptions were made about the outcome; valuable lessons learned in past battles were forgotten. Too much was made of optimistic internal polls that forecasted victory.

The campaign didn't push back forcefully and defend the investment when it needed to. The television advertising was unimaginative and predictable. The theme was: if we don't pass this, we're in trouble. We can't wait. It will cost more later - we have to do something now. This is what we've got.

The first ads weren't too bad. But they never got better after that.

Instead of concisely explaining the benefits of building a rapid transit network, addressing dangerous choke points, and painting a vision of a better transportation system that offered choices, the ads almost talked down to voters.

People were told what was good for them.

The message could have been stronger, sharper, and more innovative. It failed to incorporate key qualities that would make it resonate with the electorate: qualities that are the hallmarks of winning political advertising.

Complacency also hurt the effort against Tim Eyman's Initiative 960.

Instead of looking at the significant challenges involved in convincing the people to vote no as opportunities, those in charge of spending the money adopted an attitude of defeatism. Instead of creatively reframing, the campaign ceded ground to Eyman and the right wing from the very beginning.

The undemocratic aspects of the initiative weren't emphasized; the message was not well refined. The campaign didn't build a strong presence in the "swing" counties where these kinds of measures are won and lost: Snohomish, Pierce, Kitsap, Thurston, Whatcom, Skagit, Clallam, Jefferson, Spokane, Clark.

A diverse coalition was assembled but its potential never harnessed.

The ballot measure with the best field effort (SJR 4204: simple majority) is falling short in part because it wasn't embraced more broadly and eagerly.

Like Bill Sherman's campaign, it could have used a badly needed burst of enthusiasm to put it over the top. While devoted education advocates worked tirelessly and quietly on SJR 4204, their efforts didn't get enough notice and reinforcement from the larger progressive community.

Thankfully, complacency didn't sink everything.

Where we were victorious there was hard work, an aggressive campaign strategy, strong outreach, and a solid message.

Look at Referendum 67 as an example. The Approve 67 team was organized and on the ball from Day One of the fight: they never stopped shoring up their support or hammering away at the insurance industry. When attacked, they fought back. They used meaningful stories to prove their points.

The industry put in a record amount of money and tried to buy the election. They failed. Referendum 67 is winning.

In the nonpartisan Seattle Port Commission races, despite enduring attacks from their well funded and desperate Republican opponents, Alec Fisken and Gael Tarleton are still in the game. They ran together on a strong platform of port reform and took absolutely nothing for granted.

They hoped for the best and expected the worst. This morning, Gael's out in front while Alec is about even with his opponent.

In Snohomish County, Mike Cooper and Brian Sullivan approached their county council races with spirit and cheer.

They saw the possibilities, put together a plan to win, and acted on that plan. They communicated their values effectively and authentically. And the first Snohomish County returns show them winning by healthy margins.

Two years ago, following a lousy presidential election (2004) we managed to have an impressive string of victories that set the stage for the huge wins we racked up in last year's midterms. Major highlights included the defeat of Initiative 912, the reelection of Ron Sims as county executive, knocking Jeff Sax off the Snohomish County Council, and stopping Initiative 330.

This year was like a mirror opposite of 2005, dominated by disappointing losses instead of key victories. It's not the way we should be heading into 2008.

Tonight is a reminder that much work remains ahead for the Democratic Party, the progressive movement, and the netroots community.

That includes the development of permanent infrastructure that can help counter the right wing's array of think tanks, media outlets, leadership pipelines, and civic engagement machinery - infrastructure that can help ensure we don't fall victim to complacency again so easily.


Blogger Chad Lupkes said...

Remember, remember, the 6th of November, when the election season was for naught, when future gains created present pains, for election season should never be forgot.

Always to the future, he is looking. Never on where he was, what he is doing.

In 2005, I approached some people in asking where the coordinated campaign was for the King County races. After the success of the effort in 2004, I thought it was a model that should be followed, with the Ron Sims campaign taking point and carrying all of the Democratic and Progressive races to victory as a block. Giving people reasons to think that they were part of the same movement, and that they were part of that movement. I was almost laughed at. Ron's campaign didn't care what the other campaign was doing. In August, they had just started inputing the sign-in sheets from events that he had held in February. They had too much work to do to bother trying to coordinate with other campaigns...

Others may weigh in, and I hope they do. But until the Party and our lead campaigns each year consider every single other issue that we care about and vote on as one to comment on, help and boost, we don't know what the word coordinated means.

Permanent infrastructure is all well and good. But we need everyone on board, inside and outside the party, before we can expect to really win.

November 7, 2007 7:50 AM  
Blogger Walker said...

I believe you're correct, and I can start by looking at myself. In years past I put some of my own energy into these efforts, but the victories of 2006 lulled me into believing (hoping?) that there was a sufficient shift in the electorate to keep the worst propositions from going the wrong way.

I live over in Kitsap, so the local races you follow are out of my jurisdiction, but on the statewide measures I was most disappointed in the passage of 960. Like you, I was dismayed by the anti-ads failure to focus on the big question - the 2/3 anti-democratic requirement. At least, I thought, there wasn't a significant pro campaign, and I really thought this would fail. One problem is the population at large just doesn't appreciate the onerousness of a 2/3 requirement. I don't think for a minute that there's a legal underpinning for a slim majority of the voting public to even make such a requirement mandatory, but it's so disappointing that we now have to rely on legal challenges to undo this disaster.

If everyone who understands just how awful this measure is had known beforehand how tight the vote would be, then maybe the word would have gotten out more, and it would have been defeated.

I figured the simple majority vote would be close, but I was hopeful. Actually I was less hopeful on 67 which had such a huge NO campaign to fight, and it was the one we won. Go figure.

November 7, 2007 10:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry that you guys have grown complacent--oh wait no I'm not.
This means I get to keep more of my own money. Of course with R67 I'll be paying more on my insurance so it will likely be a wash. I can't believe you all just can't wait to give government more money to waste!

November 7, 2007 2:30 PM  
Anonymous markq said...

I was fooled twice by Tim Eyman's initiatives; never again. Anything with Eyman's name on it is an automatic no vote for me. You'd think more voters would figure his anti-government initiative factory out; apparently not.

It looks to me as though I-960 could be unconstitutional in two areas. The first is the 2/3 legislative vote requirement, plus public "advisory" votes for tax increases. Also, this initiative appears to have more than one subject. What a surprise for Tim Eyman to do this! The portion of I-960 that mandates the legislature to approve all agency fee increases by a simple majority vote would appear to be a different subject than the portion that mandates 2/3 supermajorities of the legislature for tax legislation.

November 7, 2007 4:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Prop 1 went down because too many people hated that they had to pick something they were against to get something they wanted. The truth is, most of that money went to the failed, unaccountable Sound Transit. Once people figured out that it wouldn't reduce congestion, they preferred to keep their money in their pocket and sit in traffic instead of pay it out and sit in the same traffic. Capice?

November 7, 2007 9:45 PM  
Anonymous Richard Pope said...

Andrew -- I would like to see some PROGRESSIVE ideas promoted. Try some of these:

1. State income tax to replace state sales tax (and maybe even replace B & O tax as well). Time to stop being 1st on the regressive state & local tax list.

2. Equalize school funding. Why should Bellevue & Seattle children get maximum funding with minimal levies, when poorer school districts can't even raise half the money with three times the local levy rate?

3. Merge Port of Seattle (and its taxing authority) into King County government. Only practical way to deal with one of my perennial favorites -- the evil port tax. The King County Council and Executive will use the $70 million per year for better things than subsidizing big shippers. Maybe they can even cut the property tax a nickel or two. An elected port commission will always be a tool of the special interests benefitted by the port.

November 7, 2007 11:21 PM  

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