The loss that Republicans suffered in House District 90 on Tuesday was a bitter one. Despite being a legislative district that Governor Culver carried in 2006 and President Obama won by over 1000 votes in the last election, Iowa Republicans were optimistic about their chances to elect Stephen Burgmeier to the Iowa House.
While hundreds of volunteers flocked to the rural southeast Iowa district and organizational and financial help flowed in from a number of influential interest groups, Republicans came up short by 107 votes. What Republicans hoped would have been a momentum builder, now has many people wondering what Iowa Republicans need to do to win elections.
The loss is inexcusable. Never have Republicans had a better environment to run a campaign, and the Iowa Democratic Party has never been in more disarray. Iowa Democrats have an inexperienced chairman and executive director, an unpopular governor, and a candidate that didn’t excite their base. Yet Democrats were able to overcome all of that because they have mastered the mechanics of early voting, and Republicans failed to make this election focus on the issues that rallied so much public support and outcry during the legislative session.
The following are three areas in which Iowa Republicans failed this past Tuesday: leadership, message, and mechanics.
The Special Election in HD 90 was the first campaign that House Minority Leader Kraig Paulsen was responsible for since replacing Rep. Chris Rants as the Republican leader in the Iowa House. While this was Paulsen’s first campaign as leader, Paulsen played an intricate role in the day-to-day operations of the House Majority Fund for the 2008 elections. In addition to Paulsen’s involvement with the House Majority Fund, Matt Gronewald, the HMF’s executive director, was also a hold-over from the 2008 election cycle.
While Gronewald and the HMF were involved in the HD 90 race, Paulsen ceded control of the campaign to Iowans for Tax Relief. Katie Koberg and Mary Earnhardt, who both hold leadership positions with Iowans for Tax Relief, ran the day-to-day campaign operation for Burgmeier. Iowans for Tax Relief has a long history of working very closely the Republican Party of Iowa on legislative campaigns, but the fact that ITR staff ran the day-to-day operations of the campaign rather than the HMF staff raises some questions.
The amount of time, effort, and resources that ITR pumped into Burgmeier’s campaign was un-matched by that of any other group, Paulsen and his members, or even the Republican Party of Iowa. From all accounts, the ITR staff performed exceptionally well and implemented their campaign plan. However, if Paulsen truly trusted the person he hand-picked to oversee the general election effort when there were 100 races going on at the same time (ten to twelve of which being as critical of Bergmeier’s race was) then why wasn’t that hand-picked person in charge of the Burgmeier’s campaign effort?
These special elections provide unique opportunities to test new technologies, watch staff perform and respond in pressure filled situations, and test drive new campaign tactics. While some of that occurred in HD 90, the only thing that was really tested was the strength of ITR’s staff. ITR is not capable of providing the level of support they showed in HD 90 in all of the races that Republicans will have to win next year to take back the majority. With that being the case, Paulsen’s decision to cede control to a special interest group does nothing to help the Republican Party of Iowa, or the House Majority Fund effort prepare for next year’s elections.
All campaigns must master two different areas – message and mechanics. The Republican effort in HD 90 had flaws in both. Early on in Burgmeier’s campaign, it became apparent that Republicans were going to run against Governor Culver and his agenda, rather than Burgmeier’s opponent, Curt Hanson. This is by no means a flawed strategy since it has worked for both Republicans and Democrats on the national stage, but it seems that while we focused on Culver, we let Curt Hanson off the hook easy.
There were three different TV ads that aired on behalf of Burgmeier’s campaign. The TV ad that was paid for by his campaign only mentioned Culver and not Hanson. Likewise, the National Organization of Marriage only attacked Culver in its ad and didn’t mention Hanson. The only ad that mentioned Hanson by name was paid for by Iowans for Tax Relief. That ad alleged that George Soros was funding Hanson’s campaign and that Soros, Culver, and Hanson were three peas from the same pod.
On the other hand, Curt Hanson’s ads contrasted himself with his opponent. Hanson’s ads talked about how Stephen Burgmeier raised taxes five times as a county supervisor and also voted himself pay increases. Hanson’s other ad which featured two talking cows, also attacked Burgmeier on his tax and pay increases.
With Burgmeier focusing on Governor Culver instead of his Democrat opponent Curt Hanson, he left himself vulnerable to being attacked. It was Hanson, not Burgmeier, who set the tone for the campaign. Another troublesome sign occurred when those associated with the Burgmeier campaign called The Iowa Republican just one week before the election and asked if we could attend a forum that evening to try to get Hanson on the record on certain issues. That sort of research needed to be done long before the final week of the campaign, but it shows how the focus of the campaign was never on Burgmeier’s opponent.
So, while our Republican candidate was being accused of supporting property tax hikes, Burgmeier’s campaign failed to make an issue out of the four labor bills that created such a controversy in the Iowa House this past spring, which based on his campaign contributions from unions, Hanson seems sure to support. Instead Burgmeier was put on the defensive.
Once again a Republican candidate came into Election Day trailing significantly due to absentee votes, won handily on Election Day, but came up just short in the overall vote total. How many times have we seen this scenario play out? Jeremy Taylor, Stephen Richards, Tami Wiencek, and Jarad Klein are all examples of that situation. Imagine how different things would be if they would have won. Sure, Republicans would still be a minority party, but 48-52 really changes the perspective of things.
The debate over the value of absentee/early voting is always contentious within Republican circles. While everyone agrees that an early vote counts as much as a vote on Election Day, there seems to be a great deal of reluctance to embrace an early voter program.
Those in charge of Burgmeier’s campaign believed that Democrats were simply getting very likely voters to vote early. They also claimed that it’s best to drive people to vote by their preferred method and not force them to vote by absentee if they don’t want to. Traditionally, GOP campaigns only push for Republicans who have voted absentee in the past and unlikely voters to vote absentee. There is also a belief that Republicans resist absentees because they view voting at the polling place as a responsibility.
There is a lot of truth to that mind set, but the assumptions that the Burgmeier campaign made in regards to the Democrats’ early vote effort were misplaced. Also, while most agree that a vote is a vote, there is tremendous value in winnowing the number of people you need to turn out on Election Day. The more people you know who have requested an absentee ballot and returned it, the more people you can check off your list and don’t have to contact on the day of the election.
Those who don’t see the value in early voting often say that blaming absentees for a loss is like saying not enough people voted between 7 a.m. and noon. That shouldn’t matter as long as you have plenty of people voting between noon and the time the polls close. However, using a sports analogy, how many baseball teams like being down by seven runs in the first inning of a ball game? Sure, there is time for a comeback, but you cannot consistently win elections if you are always expecting a big come from behind win. There is absolutely no reason why Iowa Republicans can’t focus on early voting AND our highly-touted 72 hour program.
The special election had one thing that no state house general campaign ever has enough of, volunteers. For weeks leading up to yesterday’s vote, people from across the state made their way to Fairfield to help make phone calls, wave signs, or go door-to-door. With that much man power, it is inexcusable that we didn’t performed better in the early voting period.
I can understand the value of the occasional lit drop, but we need people to go door-to-door weeks and months before the election to survey people and ask if they are interested in voting by absentee. If we are sending volunteers out to people’s doors and not asking for their vote, we are wasting our volunteers’ time.
Having worked in the world of political fundraising for a number of years, I’ve never seen a fundraising call go well that doesn’t include a hard ask for financial support. It’s no easy task, but the candidates who ask for specific amounts are far more successful than the ones who just ask for their support with a little wink or nod. In business, they call it the ABC’s – always be closing the sale. The same holds true in politics. There is never an excuse not to ask someone to vote.
What is disappointing in the results from the special election in HD 90 is that Republicans were correct in believing that they could win the seat. Yes, it was a district that leans Democrat, but the results from Tuesday night showed that it was winnable. Our candidate was a three-time elected county supervisor. He lost his home county by 600 votes. He only received 42.8% of the vote in Jefferson County.
While I remain convinced that 2010 will be a great year for Republicans, we must realize that the current environment isn’t pro-Republican, it’s anti-incumbent. In the HD 90 race, Stephen Burgmeier was cast as the incumbent and paid the price. We also can’t blame the third party candidates for our loses. They have every right to run for office and this environment will create more of them than we have ever seen. We either need to convince them to run under the Republican brand, or we need to beat them out on the campaign trail.
Stephen Burgmeier should be the newest member of the Iowa House of Representatives today despite the shortcomings of his campaign. We failed him, and in doing so, we failed to generate some much needed momentum heading into next year.
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