Boy, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Grime’s decision to run for U.S. Senate sure brought back memories. For weeks, EMILY’s List, the pro-choice group committed to electing Democratic women, was pushing Grimes to get into the race. When she announced yesterday, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee heralded her candidacy, hawking a poll that shows her tied with incumbent Mitch McConnell.
What a difference four years make. In July 2009, I made a trip to the DSCC with another Secretary of State. Less than a year earlier, she had been elected to her fourth term and garnered the second highest vote margin in North Carolina history. The state had voted for a Democratic president for the first time in over 30 years and 2010 seemed to be a good year to move up.
Elaine Marshall was a bit of a folk hero in North Carolina. She was the first woman elected to a Council of State seat and beat NASCAR legend Richard Petty to get there. She had reformed and modernized the Secretary of State’s office and made it a model of efficiency. She had cracked down on scam artists and held big banks accountable in the midst of the financial crisis. Having run unsuccessfully for the Senate in 2002, she understood the nature of federal campaigns. Finally, she was a farm girl who made good, beating the odds and becoming the first woman in her family to graduate from college.
Marshall had a record, a story and experience. When we went to Washington, I expected a warm welcome. We got the cold shoulder.
The DSCC explained that a Member of Congress would make a better candidate. They were waiting on Rep. Bob Etheridge and asked us to wait, too. We didn’t.
When Etheridge declined to run, we expected support. Instead, they opted for a telegenic Iraq War veteran who had served a term in the state senate eight years earlier. We were a bit stunned.
Immediately, we started getting pressure to bow out. A friend from Washington called one night and explained the DSCC and the DC power brokers had no confidence that Marshall could put together the money and organization to take on Richard Burr. The West Wing called and told us that a veteran’s profile was the best match up against Burr despite the fact that the last veteran to win statewide office in North Carolina was Terry Sanford in 1988.
We turned to EMILY’s List. EMILY stands for Early Money Is Like Yeast. Their North Carolina affiliate, Lillian’s List was firmly in our corner. Marshall had a long and solid pro-choice record and served as a mentor to women getting involved in public service. Surely they would be supportive.
But alas, no such luck. The race would be too close and they wanted to see what happened in the primary. So much for that Early Money bullshit.
Regardless, I thought, naively, that we could win the battle of perceptions with DC press, showing that Marshall was not only viable but the favorite. I put together memos that showed she had a built-in advantage with name recognition and a base of women who would make up almost 60% of primary voters. I sent around a poll that showed her close to the 40% margin necessary to avoid a runoff. And I had endless conversations with reporters from the DC press corps only to see articles that read like DSCC talking points.
The institutional Democrats stuck to their message: Marshall could not raise the money or put together the organization to win the campaign. In contrast, our DSCC-supported opponent was a political juggernaut who had the fundraising class swooning and was wowing voters across North Carolina. Their goal was to cut off our money by painting Mashall and her campaign as incompetent. And the DC press corps did their bidding.
January and February 2010 were among the most difficult months of my professional career. I had a candidate who exemplified the type of leader we need in politics–an experienced, hard-working, good-government policy wonk who is both down-to-earth and smart. Yet the narrative being driven by powerful interests in Washington was that of a hapless politician who couldn’t put together a competent campaign. And among the funding class and the DC press, that’s the story that stuck.
In late February we revamped the campaign, bringing in a new online strategist and fundraising operation. The new media consultant began an aggressive push to define Marshall as the progressive in the race and our opponent as a pawn of Washington insiders. At a time when confidence in the federal government was plummeting, it was an effective attack. Our fundraising consultant took us outside the traditional donor network to find new contributors.
By the end of March, the momentum shifted. Our online program was building low-dollar donors and money was beginning to flow into the new fundraising operation. By May we had clearly regained the advantage and Marshall won the six-way primary with 36% of the vote, just shy of the 40% threshold needed to avoid a runoff.
On election night, we were confident that the DSCC and EMILY’s List would come on board to avoid a costly runoff. Marshall had proven their narrative wrong. With no institutional support, she raised almost $1 million, the same amount Sen. Kay Hagan, with the full backing of the political establishment, had raised in her primary just two years earlier. And Marshall had put together an organization strong enough to win by nine points despite being outspent more than 2-1. Besides, polls had Marshall competitive with Burr and an extended primary would give him a serious advantage.
We were wrong. Our opponent called for a runoff and nobody from the establishment called for him to bow out. Internally, we heard nothing from the DSCC or any U. S. Senators. EMILY’s List announced they would await the outcome of the second primary. And the press covered the runoff like it was a nail-biter.
In fact, the race was over before it began. A simple look at the likely voters in a runoff election clearly showed Marshall’s formidable structural advantage. Women would make up 60% of the electorate, and with the endorsement of the third place finisher, an African-American attorney, Marshall solidified her support among the Black voters who would make up more than 30% on election day. Unfortunately, the Washington press didn’t look for themselves and certainly didn’t believe me.
Seven weeks and $350,000 after the primary, Marshall won the runoff by 20 points. It was the last week of June and the campaign started the general election campaign broke. Fortunately, polls showed her within striking distance of Burr.
We were sure that the DC establishment would help us get on our feet now. And we were right to an extent. Two independent groups came in with a week each of television ads bashing Burr. I learned later that they expected larger and more sustained buys coming from the DSCC and other, better funded groups.
However, other help was fleeting. EMILY’s List and the DSCC were full of advice and criticism but little substantive assistance. They just kept raising the bar, demanding changes in staff and operations, particularly fundraising, before they could pledge any financial assistance. Their heavy-handed and often condescending tactics generally left the campaign demoralized but no better off financially or organizationally.
Marshall raised over $2.5 million from in-state funders but needed help from PACs and the crucial introductions to national donors to be competitive. In the end, the DSCC set up one joint fundraiser in Philadelphia where we shared the take with the Kentucky Attorney General facing Rand Paul. On the way from the airport to the event, the AG made small talk about the strain of traveling so much to out-of-state fundraisers and asked if we were also going to the two events in New York later in the day. We weren’t.
EMILY’s List sent a talented tracker down periodically and, when we weren’t arguing over EMILY’s List demands, she provided solid strategic and organizational support. In September, the group finally sent out a single letter to their members urging support for Marshall. It brought in over $50,000 but in a race that needed millions more, it was too little too late.
We never heard too much more from the DC press. They moved on after the primary, sure that they were right in their initial reporting. We spent the final four months trying to refute the narrative they had created during the primary. Nobody from the DSCC ever said they were wrong or that Marshall was indeed the better candidate to challenge Richard Burr, words that might have loosened up some wallets in North Carolina and elsewhere.
The DSCC and it’s allies spent about $3.5 million in independent expenditure money in Kentucky, a state that went for McCain by 15 points in 2008. They spent none on Marshall in a state that Obama won. On Election Night, Marshall lost by the same margin as that Kentucky Attorney General.
In a wave as strong as the one in 2010, it’s doubtful that any Democrat, including Marshall, could have beaten Richard Burr. But a well-funded campaign at the top of the ticket, and $3.5 million in IE help, might have saved several Democratic legislators and almost certainly would have given Congressman Bob Etheridge another term. Instead, the establishment Democrats created a self-fulfilling prophesy that killed their own nominee before the primary ended.
The point here is less about winning or losing and more about the Washington political establishment. They never understood the race and they never took the time to figure it out. Instead, they opted to believe their own flawed narrative based on anecdotal evidence.
Once Marshall got into the race and Etheridge didn’t, the primary was essentially settled. Polling and voter file data should have told them that. I don’t think anybody bothered to look.
Instead of assessing her weaknesses and helping with fundraising, candidate development and organization, the things the establishment folks could actually influence, they set about destroying Marshall’s credibility with the institutional players and other potential funders. The press served as their blunt instrument, willingly writing the false narrative and ignoring or downplaying evidence that contradicted it. It was a conspiracy of arrogance that permeates the Washington political culture and it’s why party committees have so much trouble with primaries.
At least that’s the way I saw it.
Now that I’ve got that off my chest, good luck, Secretary Grimes. You’ve got a long road ahead with a lot of people in Washington backing you. Accept their embrace, listen to their advice and take it when it’s good, because, for better or worse, you can’t win without them. Beat Mitch McConnell. You’re the right candidate to do it.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a political and public affairs consultant. Learn more >