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How Democrats Almost Blew a Crucial State Senate Race

by: lowkell

Fri Jan 10, 2014 at 08:00:00 AM EST

As I write this, Democrat Lynwood Lewis leads Republican Wayne Coleman by just 10 votes (out of more than 20,000 votes cast) in the special election to fill Lt. Governor-elect Ralph Northam's Senate seat (and also absolutely crucial to control of the State Senate). How on earth did this election, in a district that went by 15 points to Barack Obama and 16 points to Tim Kaine in November 2012, come down to just 10 votes, pending certification and an almost certain recount? I've been calling around, and a few themes have emerged.

1. Republicans recognized the obvious - that a special election right after New Year's in (likely) bad weather would be a hardcore, "base" election extraordinaire - and geared their messaging to revving up turnout among their base. Thus, Lynwood Lewis was attacked as a "typical politician" who had "voted to increase his own pay in the House of Delegates and cast 110 votes to raise our taxes." As if all that wasn't enough to get the Teapublican base fired up, Coleman also went after Lewis by tying him as closely as possible to the hated (by the Fox "News"/Rush Limbaugh set) "Obamacare." Smart strategy.

2. In stark contrast, Democratic messaging strategy was NOT aimed at the base, but at moderate Republicans and independents. To them, the messaging was that Lynwood Lewis was pro-business, a moderate, a bipartisan deal maker who "works across party lines," etc. This is all perfectly fine stuff but not the type of emotional "red meat" aimed at revving up the Democratic "base" in an essentially 100% "base" election. Not smart strategy.

3. Making matters worse, I'm told that there was a major disconnect between the Democrats' messaging and their overall strategy, which was heavily focused on "field." The problem is, the Democrats' messaging aimed at middle-of-the-road, moderate, "swing" voters, while Republicans aimed their message at their base. Guess who turned out? And no, putting a ton of resources into "field" isn't going to help much if the "base" isn't being told why they should vote. Not smart or effective.

lowkell :: How Democrats Almost Blew a Crucial State Senate Race
4. There was no focus from the Democratic side on the crucial importance of this election to control of the Senate. If anything, there was a conscious decision NOT to talk about that. Meanwhile, the Republicans motivated their base in part by talking about this issue. Republican strategy was correct, Democratic strategy was not.

5. Democrats incorrectly assumed that Lynwood Lewis would get his typical "crossover" support on the Eastern Shore, even though this was a very different type of race (for control of the State Senate), even though Lewis hadn't been in a seriously contested election since 2003, and even though the entire political landscape has changed dramatically over the past decade (e.g., it's much, much more polarized - and "nationalized" - today, and there's also 24/7 cable TV, social media, etc. that wasn't there as much in 2003). In the end, Lewis lost his home county of Accomack (which Lewis won 58%-42% back in 2003 but lost in this election by a narrow, 51%-49% margin). Big mistake to assume typical "crossover" support by the "blue team."

6. Lewis was outspent heavily by Coleman (around $600k-$400k, according to VPAP). Coleman's spending went heavily to messaging ($338k to TV/radio, $40k to mail, $11k to signs and bumper stickers, $4k to web/email/blogs), as did Lewis' spending (over $340k out of $400k). The problems were that Coleman: a) spent more money; and b) had messaging aimed at turning out the Republican base, while Lewis' was aimed at persuading people he wouldn't raise their taxes and wasn't a liberal. Which do YOU think would be more effective in a low-turnout, heavily-base-oriented special election in the frigid days of early January? Hmmmmm.

7. There was overconfidence and/or incompetence on the Democratic side (one source used the word "cluster****" to describe the campaign). Publicly, at least, the impression being given was that Lynwood Lewis would win handily (and thus a clear lack of urgency). Which explains why we had such tremendous surprise by pretty much everyone that the race came down to just 10 (ten!) votes, with Lewis almost losing a supposed sure thing. To put it mildly, overconfidence (let alone overconfidence combined with incompetence) is NEVER a smart thing in politics - or in sports or anything really. Just play the game as hard as you can regardless of your opponent, and play hard until the final buzzer sounds. In politics, sports, etc., that's the only way to play if you want to win consistently.

8. Strongly related to the "incompetence"/"cluster****" theme, I'm told that there were an awful lot of "cooks" involved in Lewis' campaign. Given that, it shouldn't be too surprising that the campaign lacked a clear sense of direction/coherence, or that it was confused. It's also interesting to note that the campaign team from the primary was pushed aside for a new campaign team in the general election. "Why" is the operative question here.

So yes, in the end, Democrats could very well hold this Obama/Kaine State Senate district - albeit by the slimmest of margins. But the fact that it was this close should stop any post-election narrative about what "geniuses" the winning side was and what "idiots" the losing side was. That narrative has always been brain dead, but in this case it's particularly so. Now, the question is, what lessons (if any) will Democrats learn from this experience, so that we don't have another 10-vote nail-biter in another Obama/Kaine district (e.g., the race to hold Mark Herring's Senate seat)?

P.S. Personally, I'm not holding my breath that we'll learn anything, given the complete unwillingness in past elections (e.g., the 2013 House of Delegates debacle) to do serious "after action reviews."  

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100th HOD Seat? (0.00 / 0)
Have you looked at how Lewis did in the precincts from his own House of Delegates seat? It's on my to do list, damn job distracting me this week!

I mentioned that (0.00 / 0)
Lewis lost his home county of Accomack (which Lewis won 58%-42% back in 2003 but lost in this election by a narrow, 51%-49% margin).

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[ Parent ]
Yes but all of it (0.00 / 0)
I mean all of the 100th, if Lewis still won the 100th, despite all the problems in mobilizing the base, it's an argument that House Dems should find a way to context it even if they don't get the perfect candidate.

[ Parent ]
Lewis' HoD district results in the special for State Senate (4.00 / 1)
Accomack County: 3,382 Coleman-3,191 Lewis (Coleman +191)
Northampton County: 1,387 Lewis-961 Coleman  (Lewis +426)
Norfolk City:  Granby precinct (Lewis +64); Ocean View precinct (Lewis +13); Northside precinct (Coleman +72); Suburban Park precinct (Coleman +57); Wesley precinct (Coleman +26); Ocean View Center precinct (Lewis +12); Pretlow precinct (Coleman +18); Crossroads precinct (Coleman +92).

Not counting provisional and absentee, it looks like Lewis won his House district by 59 votes (check the math, though). Coleman won Central Absentee in Norfolk by 59 votes. Coleman also won provisionals in Norfolk, by 8 votes. was very close in Lewis' House district, the exact outcome depending on where those provisionals and absentees came from exactly.

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[ Parent ]
We NEED to beat this drum, loudly (0.00 / 0)
Thanks enormously for this very much needed analysis. We should all share it widely on FB, DK, and the VA Dem blogs on your roll to try to kick start the "lessons learned" dialog. Let the grassroots drive the process, even if it mean "airing our dirty linen in public."  Better to have some tattered sheets in the wind than to let the Repubs steal your cloths while you are swimming.  

It should be noted (4.00 / 2)
that he turned down an Equality Virginia endorsement. Really disappointing.

Yes, it is, but it goes right along with (0.00 / 0)
the strategy of running away from the "base" and towards "moderate" Republicans and "independents." Shocker that it didn't work (although if Lewis wins, even by 1 vote, except claims of how brilliant the strategy was).

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[ Parent ]
Equality (4.00 / 2)
As a resident of the 100th HD, I can tell you that Lewis works tirelessly on local issues and is popular on the Shore with voters from both parties for that very reason.  However, I don't think his campaign quite understood that the world around him was changing.  Avoiding hot button issues and presenting oneself as a moderate was the best (maybe even only) path to victory when Lewis first ran in an Accomack/Northampton/1 Norfolk precinct seat.  

By 2013, the seat had shifted so that Accomack and Norfolk were the most populous localities in the district, and Democratic Northampton was something of an afterthought.  In his 2013 race, running against a somewhat eccentric independent who raised only $200, Lewis didn't introduce himself to his new Norfolk voters and won Norfolk only 59%-40%, winning the Crossroads precinct by only 9 votes out of 892!  Lewis is a great guy and a hard worker, but his team was still acting as though he still had to be "the nice guy from the Shore."

As was pointed out elsewhere in this thread, those voters who loved the "nice guy from the Shore" weren't going to cross party lines when control of the state Senate was up for grabs.  However, Lewis stuck to that strategy, ignoring two facebook messages, an email, and a submission from his website that I sent him asking him where he stood on marriage equality.  It's almost as if his team decided that taking stands on the social issues that matter to voters wasn't "nice" enough for his image.  

Lewis has a well-deserved reputation for clean campaigning and being a gentleman, but if he wants to stick around, he'll have to knock on a few doors and say a few things that the "nice guy from the Shore" never would have said.

[ Parent ]
Well said, as always. (0.00 / 0)

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[ Parent ]
Total Mess (4.00 / 5)
Thanks, Lowell, for the excellent analysis. How in the world could anyone supposedly versed in the basics of campaigning not see immediately that this election would have very low turnout? The "moderate" Republicans and independents that Lewis tried to reach weren't going to form the majority of the electorate, not even a substantial minority.

Exactly when are Virginia Democratic politicians going to see that saying, "See? I'm not really a Democrat. I'm really more of an old 'Rockefeller Republican,' business-loving guy," is a message that drives away the base of the Democratic Party. The state YDs descended on the district to canvass and couldn't get literature to pass out. Assistance from Equality Virginia was turned down. No one reached out to the Democratic social media to help the cause, including Blue Virginia. Cluster***k is the exact term to describe it.

Seems to me that the wrong person won that primary. The fact that Lewis had not had a serious challenge in 10 years certainly suggests Lewis was not prepared to run the kind of camapaign that could win a January special election.

Great comment. (0.00 / 0)
I wish I could give it several "excellent" ratings! :)

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[ Parent ]
I just gave Elaine an Excellent rating to help out :) (0.00 / 0)
There seems to be a serious disconnect going on among Virginia Democrats.  With so many special elections and yearly off-year , low-turnout elections, the old strategies of catering to moderate Republican crossover votes and Independents just is not working for us.  You've all made a good case for motivating the base to get a stronger turn out.

[ Parent ]
The Wrong Person Won the Primary (0.00 / 0)
Elaine, you may have hit the nail on the head. Ben Tribbett raised an issue with the way the caucus was organized for the Democratic nomination in the special election. Although there does not appear to be anything nefarious about access to the caucus, Ben challenged the number and locations of the sites. I, for one, did believe having only one location in the most populous area of the district was a disadvantage for Norfolk participants.

On the other hand, the Democrats in Norfolk went along (maybe to get along) with the organization without a whimper. So, if they had a candidate they thought could better represent them and was more representative of the district as a whole, they did her no favors.  

[ Parent ]
Norfolk "firehouse primary" (0.00 / 0)
It actually went quite well. The line was long but it moved at a good clip. I think it was really pretty energizing to get "us all" together as a group there at Granby High. Lots of parking, lots of good people and on a Saturday, which was good for turnout.

In contrast, the R's held their primary for the Norfolk precincts the following Thursday (during the week? why?) in the Masonic Temple right next to the HS. I didn't participate in that one, of course, but I imagine the contrast, in kind if not degree, as between the two pledge parties in "Animal House."  

[ Parent ]
We haven't not blown it yet (0.00 / 0)
Did the district vote on optical scanners or touchscreens?  If it was largely scanners, we can get back to worrying about why our side almost blew this election.  All touchscreen, and we're still in big danger of having to drop the "almost".

What about Mark Herring's seat? (0.00 / 0)
Do Democrats in his district plan to screw that up also?

That one SHOULD be easier, as there are two (0.00 / 0)
Republicans running against the Democratic candidate, Jennifer Wexton. We'll see...

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[ Parent ]
As Easy As Winning Brian Moran's Seat? (0.00 / 0)

[ Parent ]
That special election was actually 1 Dem vs. 1 Repub. (0.00 / 0)
On the other hand, it was a more Democratic district than the 33rd.

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[ Parent ]
Wexton's commercials look good (4.00 / 1)
Hitting hard on the tea party and very pro-choice.  She's not gunning for crossover votes as far as I can tell, all  red meat for the Dem base.

[ Parent ]
Doubtful (0.00 / 0)
Although I'm not involved in her campaign nor in her district (and therefor not in the inner circle), from what I can tell Wexton's campaign is being run well.

Her television ad is hard hitting and talks about how she is a prosecutor and takes "Tea Party Republicans" to task on abortion rights.

She is definitely going after the base vote.

Here's her ad, which I've seen several times during local news on several DC networks:


By the way, on her YouTube page there are more "thumbs down" than "thumbs up" for her ad. Also many of the comments are misogynistic and disgusting. Seems like she's hit a nerve with the ultra-conservatives:

[ Parent ]
So whose head is going to roll for this major screw up? (0.00 / 0)
Or will the leaders of the DPVA just keep patting themselves on the back till they dislocate a shoulder?

You're absolutely right to emphasize what a big deal this is.  If we lose control of the Senate, Gov. McAuliffe will have just forfeited one of his biggest sticks.  

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Most of the Leaders of the DPVA Have Moved On (0.00 / 0)
I believe that makes this contest an orphan.

[ Parent ]
Heads never roll among Virginia Dems... (4.00 / 1) far as I can tell. Thus, after the 2009 and 2010 debacles, no heads rolled. This past year, the failure to even come CLOSE to what had been talked about for Dem House of Delegates pickups led to...nothing, basically. Same thing in 2007, when we were supposed to pick up a huge # of seats and ended up picking up just 4. Same thing with the Senate redistricting by Saslaw and Company, and some REALLY bone-headed decisions on where to spend money (e.g., on a safe Dem district like the 31st), resulting in the loss of the state Senate - no heads rolled. I could go on and on all day about this, but the bottom line is that there are no penalties for failure, no real rewards for success either.

P.S.  Nor are there ever any serious, institutional changes or examinations of what went right/wrong.  

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[ Parent ]
DPVA? (0.00 / 0)
Both the Lewis and Wexton campaigns are completely run and funded by Dick Saslaw and team.  Remnants of the McAuliffe/Coordinated Campaign were transferred over right after November 5th.  As soon as the firehouse primary for the 33rd was done, a couple dozen paid staffers were dropped into the Wexton campaign, at day one.

The mistakes seem obvious - they made a pitch for Eastern Shore voters and not for Norfolk voters, which they should have.  Poor GOTV on election day, the weather, the peculiarities of some of those Eastern Shore and island areas, etc etc equaled a very close result.  He should have won by 10%, but Lewis won by 10 instead.  

[ Parent ]
The new campaign team (0.00 / 0)
It would be very helpful to know who sent in a new campaign team for LL for the general election and why they chose the strategy they did.  I look forward to that revelation.

A new primer in how NOT to run a (D) Campaign (0.00 / 0)
I live in this district, and did my part by voting for Lewis.

But this was one of the most aggravating campaigns that I think I've ever seen someone with a (D) next to their name run.

The only ads I ever saw from Lewis, there were about two total I think, routinely saw him trying to suck up to non-base voters. "Work together", "Bipartisan", were uttered so many times. Who the hell in his campaign actually thought that such milquetoast rhetoric was going to win anyone over?

Conversely, Coleman's use of the Obamacare bogeyman, and the "Career politician / raises for himself" the low information voter, that's just absolute catnip to them.

After the victory of Terry McAullife, in which he expressly ran on being a damn DEMOCRAT, why the hell would Lewis think that he needed to run away from his base?

I hope people are fired over this, because this is un-acc-f*cking-ceptable.

Difference between Regular and Special Elections (0.00 / 0)
For the life of me, I can't understand how anybody who has ever worked the grassroots and GOTV could have not known the difference between regular and special election tactics. Any idiot should have known that the turnout would be low, that it would be lower still in more rural areas, that the base vote was the important vote.

Sure, Mark Warner is going to run a "bipartisan" campaign. That's who he is and that election will have a good turnout. Evidently, Lewis is one of those "bipartisan" guys. Fine, but then he should not have been the candidate for this race. The Lewis campaign let the opponent nationalize and demonize a race that should have been focused on regional issues. Why didn't Lewis focus on Norfolk's obvious need for good representation on issues that people there care about?    

[ Parent ]
Huge difference (0.00 / 0)
Mark Warner can at least point to business success, and success had while Governor. I don't like the loathsome term "Radical Centrist" I've heard attributed to Warner, but Warner, at least in the last few years, has been heard to make more forceful statements for the things he believed in, which is useful.

Warner will run bipartisan, but he'll also attack the @$^% out of whoever the Republican candidate is. He's smart.

Lewis on the other hand, ran one campaign ad that said "Hey guys, I work with Republicans, and that's the only way we'll get jobs" and then ran another ad that said "Hey guys, can't we all get along? Wayne's a big meanie. I just want to work together!"

In stark contrast, Coleman ran several ads touting his business experience, his ability to fight Obamacare, and by the way, that Lynwood Lewis guy is a shifty character who will raise your taxes and give himself more money to boot.

Anyone who knew absolutely nothing about politics was voting for whichever candidate ran Coleman's campaign, and not Lewis'.

I didn't vote for Lewis in the primary, but I obviously knew we needed the Senate Seat, so I wasn't going to vote against him out of "purity" or something.

Now that the campaign is over, I don't regret not wanting him in the primary. This was an absolute disaster. Even if he ends up State Senator after a recount, he really doesn't deserve it.  

[ Parent ]
How not to Run a Race (0.00 / 0)
HRprogressive -- I, too, suspect that someone should be fired for this.  In connection with staffing it's worth noting that the very same week this happened, the DPVA Exec., fed up with being sidelined, quit her job and left the state.  Clearly I'm not suggesting she had anything to do with this mess, but just as she seems to have been a committed worker who was frustrated by her surroundings, so there are apparently some others who perhaps should be hitting the road, but are happy where they are.

[ Parent ]
DPVA is down to 1 (one) paid employee (4.00 / 1)
and he's the techie.  There's no one to be fired at this point.

[ Parent ]
That says it all. (0.00 / 0)

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[ Parent ]
So we have (0.00 / 0)
"DPVA in Name Only", as opposed to a real organization, it sounds like.


[ Parent ]
No (0.00 / 0)
There's a real organization, but with only one paid employee at the moment.  

[ Parent ]
Dems use their base for Pols' benefit (0.00 / 0)
The way this race unfolded shows us once more how far the DPVA, and Dems generally, are run by the Pols for their benefit, and the base serves them, not the other way around.  Does anyone doubt, especially after the way the Tea Party has yanked the chains of Republican officeholders in recent years, that among Republicans the base calls the shots?

Coleman may have raised more, but Lewis raised plenty, and as our esteemed Lowkell points out, had the benefit of lots of YD shoe leather (wasted, as it turns out).  The base did its job.  What DPVA does over  and over is waste the effort and resources of its base in poorly framed contests that may elect some politicians, but do little to strengthen the party or advance its principals.  

Today's Republicans are largely nuts, and talking "bipartisanship" with a group like that is either capitulation, or simply an excuse of some pols not to deliver anything for the people who elected them.  A Pol who espouses"bipartisanship" in today's climate with today's crazy Republicans is telling his supporters that they have no claim on him.  They work to put him in office, but should expect only platitudes in return.  This bargain is a dream for some pols (not all, but too many).  Only a party where those types are largely in charge would tolerate this flim-flam over and over again.


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