Exile on Jones Street: How the Dems will lose the next one

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by Kirk Ross

There are a lot of mysteries in politics, but not as many after the votes are counted.

That’s why it is traditional to wait a few days before plunging into the next election cycle. It affords the people who are already poised for the next big race valuable insights as to what went right and what went wrong.

Given that, it was a little disconcerting to receive a fundraising note from the likely Democratic candidate for governor at around 3 p.m. on the day after his party took a pretty nasty drubbing in a hugely expensive and very winnable statewide race.

And it was a surprisingly dull pitch to boot, given that the only real highlights for the Democrats that night were a handful of very close, locally focused state legislative races and some equally close judges races that held off a well-funded effort to capture key seats.

Had that fundraising email come out after a little more reflection and analysis it might have included some contrition, or even a lot of it. It did not. Instead the message was that the crafty GOP and their deep-pocketed backers had nationalized the race.

While this is quite true, it rings a little off considering that the strategy of the state Dems in the next cycle — just like most presidential years — will be to run a consolidated, nationalized campaign.

And it glosses over the myriad of screw-ups in the Senate race and how a badly fractured party delivered inconsistent results. Despite incredibly low approval numbers for the legislature, a lackluster economic recovery and serious questions about policy overreach, Dems failed to connect in a way that convinced voters they had answers as well as accusations.

Instead, Kay Hagan’s band of advisors cooked up a strategy of laying low, pummeling Speaker Tillis and walking briskly away from the president.

In doing so, they forgot one important element: giving voters something to vote for.

The result was a lack of big ideas, just a loop replaying all the damage done by the other guy. It worked for a while. Hagan may have been winning through most of the campaign, but she was playing her opponent’s game all along.

Tillis and friends had the ultimate other guy to run against and, as we’re seeing now in the odd blame game over the results, Hagan’s well-orchestrated distancing from the president probably cost her votes. The strategy led to some strange contortions, like her enthusiastic support for the Keystone pipeline while an environmental PAC poured money into her re-election effort. And then there was that fumble at the end when she thought not showing for a debate was good politics.

These were the kinds of inconsistencies that makes voters question a person’s convictions and it played right into the hands of dark-money groups hammering away at Hagan’s record and conduct.

The North Carolina electorate has a thing about convictions, and it is not a good idea to let them be questioned if you want to win an election.

Being seen as having strong convictions helped Jesse Helms get elected all those years even though he was far farther right than the state as a whole. It’s how Terry Sanford, an unabashed liberal, beat GOP moderate Jim Broyhill in 1986, how Lauch Faircloth beat an ailing Sanford six years later and how a brash John Edwards beat Faircloth in the election after that.

Whether the office is in Raleigh or Washington, this state looks for someone with some fight in them and a few ideas at the ready.

In a place that’s now so evenly split we know that nearly every race for the next several cycles will be expensive, full of negatives ads and flooded with outside money from both sides.

If there’s anything to be learned from 2014 it’s that you can’t cut through all the noise with more of the same.

If Democrats want to recapture a major office in North Carolina they’re going to have to do more than raise a pile of money. They’re going to have to raise their game.