Election Day is a week away and we have seen many strategically savvy and not so savvy campaigns across the nation and in the San Francisco Bay Area. In looking at all of the high-profile races--- focusing on the impact of strategy and excluding cases such as Todd Akins’ Missouri Senate race where a terrible candidate proved decisive----it appears that the Senate races of Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts and Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin, offer the best and worse campaigns in a single race. The Bay Area has its own share of races where strategy has proved paramount, but not in a positive way.
The Warren-Brown Race in MA
Elizabeth Warren has run the most strategically savvy race in the country. Her opponent, incumbent Republican Senator Scott Brown, may have run the worse. I say this after being very disappointed in Warren until late summer, as Brown spent months keeping Warren on the defensive.
Although a Democrat in a strong Democratic state, Warren faced major challenges in this race. She had to connect Brown to Republican extremism when her opponent came off like a “regular guy.” She had never run for office, was vulnerable to attacks for being an “elite” Harvard professor, does not sound like someone who grew up in Massachusetts, and did not have or inherit an existing political base or fundraising apparatus.
Brown wisely sought to define Warren in unfavorable terms from the start. He focused on her allegedly claiming she was “Native American” in order to advance her career. Brown hoped to ride this issue to win the state's working-class ethnic Democrats, many of whom backed Brown in his surprising January 2010 special election victory.
Although this issue had nothing to do with how a U.S. Senator would vote on issues, the New York Times could not get enough of the story. I stopped counting after reading at least four Times stories about the Native American allegation, and after a debate that Daily Kos readers (and voters) found a smashing win for Warren, the Times story framed the debate around Brown’s allegedly keeping Warren on the defensive over the Native-American claim.
Simply put, any Democrat faced a tough challenge beating Scott Brown. Yet Warren now holds a commanding lead. How did this happen?
I think the turning point was Warren’s speech at the Democratic Convention. She was the first and only prime-time speaker to use the word “rigged” to describe the economy, and went full out populism.
She then went full bore on Brown’s voting record, tying him to Republican extremists far more effectively than President Obama has done to Romney in any of the debates. Once voters understood Brown’s many key votes against women, they suddenly weren’t fooled by the Wall Street guy with rolled up sleeves driving around the state in a pick-up truck.
Since the convention, Warren has stayed on the attack. And not comfortable on the defensive, Brown has faltered.
Perhaps his worst mistake was when he even undermined his charges that Warren unfairly used Native American racial preferences after his top campaign advisers were in a video mocking Native Americans; this forced Brown to apologize to the Native Americans whose integrity he claimed to be defending, and prevented him from further promoting the only issue that could lead him to victory.
Warren has done something few thought possible when she announced her candidacy: voters now see her as authentic and Brown as a fraud. It is a race that all progressive candidates should study.
Baldwin-Thompson in Wisconsin
Tammy Baldwin also faced a tough Senate fight Many saw her as an underdog against popular former Governor Tommy Thompson, a dynamic that changed when Thompson moved to the right to win the primary and raised doubts about his moderate credentials.
Two weeks ago, Thompson’s son Jason stated at a fundraiser for his father that the audience has “the opportunity to send President Obama back to Chicago – or Kenya.” Thompson himself has had to explain calling Baldwin “anti-Jewish,” and his series of ads claiming she case a vote in Congress in 2006 “refusing to honor the victims of 9/11.”
After winning the primary, why didn’t Thompson just to what Mitt did in the debates and claim to be a moderate? Nobody in Wisconsin would have cared, but instead a veteran politician has come to appear unbalanced.
In contrast, Baldwin has been steady all the way. Her campaign has made the race about Thompson’s flip-flops and false attacks, rather than framing the race around Thompson’s claim that she is too progressive for today’s Wisconsin.
Like Warren becoming the most authentic candidate, Baldwin has become the most senatorial in her race. This did not happen by accident, but was produced by a smart campaign strategy.
The race is too close to call, but with Obama winning the state I like Baldwin’s chances.
San Francisco’s D5 Supervisor Race
San Francisco has had some well-run races, with the clear winner for best campaign clearly going to Mayor Lee for Prop C, the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. A string of affordable housing bonds have failed at the polls, but this one is certain to pass because the Mayor did the groundwork to eliminate opposition. He won’t get credit from a local media that resents his success, but when you have a major campaign accomplishing critical social goals while avoiding opposition you have hit the gold standard for political campaigns.
Equally smart was the linking of Prop's C and E as boosting "Main Street" not "Wall Street." If only affordable housing nationally got such framing!
I also give props to Prop B, the park and recreation measure that faced opposition from Aaron Peskin, Quentin Kopp and others. The campaign kept moving forward and will easily win.
But San Francisco has also seen a group of weak strategic campaigns in the high-profile Supervisors race in D5.
The San Francisco Bay Guardian and other identified progressives endorsed Julian Davis despite wide knowledge among activists of his past problems with women. But after getting a pass on these past acts, Davis out of nowhere had his attorney write a “cease and desist” letter to a woman who alleged he assaulted her. Many saw this as his trying to intimidate a victim of sexual abuse, not what a candidate for office wants to do in the aftermath of the Mirkarimi vote.
What was Davis thinking?
But Davis neither ended his campaign as some of his key former endorsers requested nor took opportunities available to him to try to regain progressive support. For example, he could have attended the October 22
“unity” event for Supervisor Olague and tried to publicly defend his candidacy.
Art Agnos stormed City Attorney Louise Renne’s office in 1987 in response to claims she was making about his campaign and effectively forced her out of the mayor’s race. If Davis truly had a winning argument, he would not be content making it via emails but would have instead confronted his accusers in a public debate on the City Hall steps
But Davis is not alone in running a weak D5 campaign. The Bay Guardian’s new top choice, John Rizzo, does not appear to even have mounted a real campaign. London Breed was a strong candidate until she lashed out at Willie Brown and alienated key sectors of the D5 black community.
Supervisor Olague did not develop a clear political identity and message until the October 22 unity event. Olague will win the election, but it should have been easier.
A Mayor’s Race? In Berkeley?
My award for the worst local campaigns goes to the Berkeley's mayor's race. Had I not personally been involved in past Berkeley mayoral campaigns that shook the entire city to its core, I would not realize how far the city's political culture has fallen.
With the married couple of Tom Bates and Loni Hancock having both served as mayor and in the state assembly, and with Hancock currently State Senator and Bates currently mayor, Berkeley government is akin to many dynastic societies. But Berkeley does hold elections. The problem is that Berkeley has a recurring cast of political characters, none of whom excite the electorate
Kriss Worthington is challenging Bates this year, but he is hardly a new face. His announcement for mayor was accompanied by a ten-point plan that primarily demanded change in how City Council meetings are conducted----that will get voters storming the barricades!
One would think that Berkeley's many problems would attract a candidate with a bold vision for change. But Berkeley residents appear far more interested in national and state politics, and no mayoral candidate has made a serious effort to arouse interest in the race.
Randy Shaw is the author of The Activist’s Handbook
and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century