Achilles and the fickle electorate

I wanted to do a post on electoral invincibility, because I think it's a myth. I hear people say things like "Stephanie Herseth can't be beat" or a few years before that "There's no Republican that can beat Tom Daschle." And I hear it said about people on my side of the aisle too.

And I disagree. I refuse to accept it. My brain is wired in a way that I am unable to allow the concept of candidate invincibility to exist in my reality.

Yeah, ok. Like Don Quioxte before me, I might have a tendency to tilt at windmills at times. Because I think that any candidate can beat any incumbent. It's just the right set of circumstances have to exist - or the right set of circumstances have to be created.

Who would have thought Bill Clinton could have beaten George Bush coming off his liberation of Kuwait? Who would have thought John Thune could have beaten Tom Daschle coming off of a loss 2 years before?

These circumstances didn't exist - they had to be created.

I think an assumption of invincibility on a candiate's part is bad. It leads to complacency. It leads to narcicisstic tendencies. When overconfidence runs free, it quickly turns to arrogance. Overconfidence and arrogance can be exploited.

Campaigns and Elections Magazine has an excellent article in 2003 about taking on an invincible incumbent. The tact here was not to make the election a referendum on the poopular incumbent - they made it about the positions of the incumbent's party.

It's pretty good advice. If you can't win by taking someone on directly, challenge a concept that they are attached to. Take an issue that's off their turf and turn it against them.

(With the disclaimer that I'm not working for the party or anyone involved in any potential campaign against her) For a hypothetical example purpose only, Congresswoman Herseth has the potential of being pretty darn tough at the ballot box. As a Blue Dog Moderate Democrat, she can often vote with the GOP on a few issues. And on top of that, she really hasn't gotten caught up in anything controversial. Most would say that taking a run at her head-on isn't exactly a winning proposition.

But make the race about the influence of EMILY's list, and there's at least something you can try to sink a hook into. Yes, I know. In all actuality, it's not much to base a campaign on. But it's a start. (I said this was a hypothetical example) Or you could make the race a referendum on the Congressional Democratic caucus' support for South Dakota. If she's voting the same as you probably would, don't make the race about her voting record. Make it about something else.

To gain credibility, you need some way to gain traction. The key in any election is that you must set the agenda. If you're not setting the agenda, you're in a position of responding to it. And that's a bad place to be. And if you're going to set the agenda - don't do it on your opponent's turf.

Another example, and more directly related to setting the agenda; As a farmer, you're going to run a state legislative race against someone who is a teacher. What do you want to use as your issues? Well, education should be at the bottom of the list. Why? Because every single time it comes up and they go to the opponent, the media is going to mention they are a teacher.

Whether it's true or not, voters equate being a teacher with a knowledge of education. They are viewed as the expert. Ag? The farmer in this case has the high ground. But education? Best not to get into it.

I think Ron Volesky knows this. At this point, he's not taking on the Governor directly. In a battle of parties and personalities, he's got an uphill battle. Instead, he's taking on South Dakota's tax structure. We're constantly tinkering with it, so it's by no means perfect. And he's trying to exploit those seeds of taxation discontent by championing the income tax cause.

Setting the agenda can sometimes be difficult if the media doesn't bite on your press release. The solution? I think I had mentioned some time ago about making press releases a media event. Talking about Ag? Have a press conference at the local elevator or on a supporter's farm and tie the location to the issue. Build it up, so it's covered well. And it will be your opponent who is stuck having to respond.

So, choose your issues and your turf wisely. You might be able to spin electoral gold.

Comments

Anonymous said…
Nice piece, but how do you account for the reelection percentages that continue to be sky-high in congressional races. Are you saying SD is different because we are small and the focus is more narrow or are we smarter than the rest...
jack said…
It's absolutely true that any incumbent can lose any race. But it takes a lot to unseat an incumbent member of Congress.

In 2004, 401 sitting members of Congress ran for reelection. Only five lost - and two of those loses were due to redistricting in Texas. So out of 401 incumbents, only three were actual examples of a challenger unseating an
incumbent (without the help of the legislature). Ninety-nine percent of non-redistricted incumbents were reelected. Ninety-nine percent.

I think the last sitting member of Congress to lose a bid for reelection in South Dakota was Frank Denholm (over thirty years ago), and, of course, it hasn't happened since South Dakota became an "at-large" state.

There have been upsets in the Senate in South Dakota in the last thirty years - Daschle, Pressler, Abdnor and McGovern. Each of those upsets, however, came when a sitting (or former) member of the House challenged an incumbent Senator. In an at-large state like South Dakota, House members
have a unique advantage - they actually face the same voters they face in a Senate race every two years (versus six years for the senators). But there isn't anyone similarly situated (besides the senators and the governor) to take on a sitting member of Congress. Dusty, Sahr, Sattgast, Nelson and the rest of the constitutionals aren't in the same league in terms of name ID and ability to raise money. Where a Senator versus a House Member in South Dakota is sort of like an incumbent versus an incumbent, that dynamic doesn't exist when you compare constitutional officers or legislators to a sitting member of the House.

So it's true that Stephanie Herseth can be beaten. It's technically possible, and there is still enough time for her to make a big-time mistake or get caught up in some sort of scandal. Short of that, however, the fact is that it's going to be tough to beat her. History has shown that South
Dakotans don't toss their House members out all that often - once in the last thirty years - and the data shows that 99% of incumbents running in the same district get reelected.

In order to beat her, the party will need to recruit a top-tier challenger(someone who has won statewide before - e.g. not Tom Bixler, Jeff Partridge or Jim Seward) who will have to run the perfect campaign. And even then, in order to win, they'll have to count on Stephanie Herseth making some big time mistakes. I don't see that happening - the state party hasn't recruited anyone, this Bixler guy ensures that there will be a primary (so the party boss' can't promise a clear field), and Herseth is hyper-cautious with her votes and her
positions on the issues.

In fact, reading pp's potential messages against Herseth makes it clear that there is little that a potential challenger will have to work with - and history is definitely not on any challengers' side. With Bush's numbers in
the state below 50%, and the state party saying they will not have a
coordinated campaign, the task gets even more difficult. It's possible to beat her, but I think it extremely unlikely she will lose.

Max Wetz is probably running into the classic recruiting challenge in races against popular incumbents. Those candidates with enough political sense to give a popular incumbent a credible challenge are smart enough to know that they won't win. Those candidates capable of being talked into the race don't have the political sense to make the race competitive. And, every day that there isn't a top-tier candidate out there raising money, talking to voters and making his or her case, Herseth's chances inch closer and closer to that 99% number.

So, yeah, it's possible. But I'm guessing Pat wouldn't want to wager any significant money on the race.

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