By Les Gabriel
Virginia Political Activist
We have all dried out and warmed up from a cold, windy, and rainy November 7th. It will be a long time before we are finished with the reasons, excuses, and explanations for what happened that day to Virginians. Understanding the underlying causes is important because we cannot begin to fix problems without a firm grip on their nature.
Much of the analysis so far has focused on people—President Trump, Ed Gillespie, John Whitbeck, 2016 Trump voters, etc. Although each of these had an effect on the outcome on November 7th, I believe it is better to deal with campaign strategies and where they worked and where they failed. After all, candidates change from year to year, but campaign strategies tend to carry over, whether they work or not.
One place to start an examination of the 2017 Republican campaign strategy is a May fund-raising letter put out under the name of RPV Chairman John Whitbeck. In that letter it was asserted that it would take approximately 1.4 million votes to win the 2017 Governor’s race. (In that assessment, they were amazingly accurate, except that it was Democrat Ralph Northam who got the 1.4 million votes). To get to that number, they assumed that all 1,025,617 voters in the 2016 Republican Primary would turn out and vote for the Republican candidate. A second group they counted was 200,000 “unregistered Republicans” in Western and Southwest Virginia, who would be registered over the summer. There was a third group of about 200,000 counted of which I have unfortunately forgotten the details. The letter explicitly stated that no Democrats, Independents, or others would be needed to reach the magic number.
I explained to Mr. Whitbeck that this was a flawed strategy for the following reasons:
1) It was not wise to count on the 1 million+ who voted in the 2016 Presidential Primary because some of the non-traditional candidates (such as Donald Trump and Ben Carson) brought with them their own non-traditional voters—voters who, historically, rarely (if ever) vote for Republican candidates.
2) Counting on a successful registration drive of 200,000 “unregistered Republicans” seemed optimistic, given that, although we presumably knew their names and addresses, we had not previously been able to convince then to register.
3) The strategy seemed to assume a static Democratic electorate. Well before May 2017, the energy in the Democrat/left movement was obvious to anyone willing to look. At that time they had already created over 40 Resist groups on Meetup involving thousands of individuals. At three meetings I attended in early May, one involving a Congressman and the other two about Health Care, Republicans/conservatives were outnumbered somewhere between 50 to 1 and 100 to 1.
4) A campaign message that attempted to reach Democrats and Independents (for example, by focusing on the principles in the Virginia Republican Creed) would at the same time energize disaffected Republicans who were not impressed by much of the actual campaign messaging.
5) The Democrats have made it perfectly clear for most of the last year that they were going to shift their focus toward state and local races. The proliferation of politically-oriented local groups on Meetup, FACEBOOK, etc., was part of this effort. We should not have ignored this in the 2017 campaign, and we should not ignore it in the future.
Unaddressed in the letter were the dynamics of 100 Virginia House seats on the ballot in 2017. Democrats flooded their local Committees to get on the ballot to challenge Republican incumbents. Democrats fielded candidates in 54 of the 66 Republican-controlled Districts, while Republicans put up candidates in 6 of the the 34 Democrat-controlled Districts. In other words, there were many more contested elections in Republican Districts, giving Democrats much more incentive to come out to vote for House candidates and in the vast majority of cases also voting for the top of the ticket. Republicans in Democrat areas had less incentive to vote, thereby hurting the top of the ticket. It is difficult to say how many more votes Ed Gillespie would have gained had Republicans had candidates in all 100 Districts, but it would not have been trivial.
For those who traditionally argue that it is bad policy to run candidates in Districts where they are not assured of a good chance of winning because it energizes the opposition and increases their turnout, I would argue that the Democrats pretty well maxed out their turnout without House opponents. Plus, there are whole swaths of inner cities in Virginia who have never had the opportunity to hear a candidate spell out a Republican message. And how are we building a bench for future political campaigns unless we encourage young, first-time candidates to try (and, yes, probably lose) their hand. Worse than trying and losing is not trying at all. There are a lot of House District and Unit Chairmen who should be held accountable for efforts or lack thereof in recruiting first-time candidates.
Editor’s Note. Excellent points by the always insightful Mr. Gabriel. State and local Republicans should take heed.