Editor’s Note: I happily – even giddily – stand by what I wrote the other day about Texas Democrats needing to do better. After all, a political party barely scraping past 40% in statewide results must either do better, or admit the votes aren’t there. Since I refuse to concede the latter, I focus on the former. At the same time, there have been flashes of brilliance in district races all over Texas for years, several of them this year. That’s why I asked Jeff Rotkoff, who seems never to be far away from those flashes when they happen, to go through the specifics of how Pete Gallego walloped an incumbent member of Congress – a fresh case study in turning things around. Jeff was key to the team that turned it around for Gallego in the primary, and the team that won the election Tuesday night. His is only the second guest piece I’ve ever solicited for these pages, for good reason – this stuff is important. If you want Texas Democrats to do better than 40-something-percent moving forward, Jeff’s take-aways are important.
by Jeff Rotkoff
Speak for yourself, Cook!
It would be one thing if electoral results like these had been engineered by a Democratic Party so brilliant that they successfully attracted the coalition of women, minorities, working families, and disaffected Anglos with whom they won nationally last night. – Harold Cook, Letters From Texas
There I was, minding my own business, trying to figure out why @GovernorPerry took so long to block me on Twitter, when a tweet from San Antonio Express-News writer Nolan Hicks had to harsh my vibe:
Never mind the pesky fact that California Republicans suffered net losses, and Texas Democrats gained ground on election night! Let’s pretend getting your ass handed to you up and down the ballot compares to coming up short in like four races! They’re practically the same thing, right?
And now there’s this. Famed Texas letter writer Harold Cook published a piece on his blog making the argument that Democrats didn’t so much earn voters’ support in 2012, as the Republicans repelled them like a DEA agent at Phish concert in Denver.
Listen, y’all. I just can’t take it any more. So, I think I’ll do what I do best: I’ll pick a fight.
First, let me start with a caveat. The 2010 general election sucked. Two years ago was my third election cycle at the Texas HDCC, and on one night, we saw 4 years of gains totally wiped out, and more. Virtually every single race I worked on in 2010 was a loss, and it hurt. But, dear readers, it was only one cycle. Past may be prologue, but history goes back to before 2010.
I got my start as a campaign staffer working for then-Congressman Chet Edwards. It was a win mostly driven by the fact that Chet was a helluva incumbent and his opponent was a doofus who wanted to abolish the Department of Education. And in 2004, we kicked the crap out of Arlene Wholgemuth. I’d like to say our great field program drove the win, but the reality is that Arlene’s record of making it harder for sick kids to get health insurance, and her support of outlawing abortion – even in cases of rape and incest – probably had more to do with our win in a district drawn by Tom DeLay and Karl Rove.
In 2006 and 2008 I was proud to be a part of some really outstanding campaigns for the state House, helping to elect legislators like Chris Turner, Joe Moody, Carol Kent, Robert Miklos and plenty more. And Texas Democrats won a bunch of other impressive races before 2010. Wendy Davis was elected to the Senate. We defeated Henry Bonilla and Tom De-frickin-Lay for goodness sake.
Folks, it is time to get over our 2010 PTSD and admit it: Texas Democrats know how to win. We don’t always do so. Sometimes it’s the money that holds us back. Sometimes it’s the candidate. And sometimes it’s a race-fueled rage sweeping the country. But sometimes, hell, lots of times, we’ve figured out just what the heck it is we’re doing.
In 2012, I’m proud to have been involved in a couple of big projects that did exactly what Harold Cook says we probably didn’t: engineer a strategy to attract a coalition of women, minorities and working families. One key win – Pete Gallego’s race for Congress – wasn’t the state’s only big Democratic victory (for example, I take 0.0% of the credit for Wendy Davis’s outstanding reelection effort). But here’s a little about what Pete Gallego accomplished:
The formula was simple: the right message + innovative targeting + good old-fashioned field operation = a Gallego win.
The truth of the matter is that a lot of people never really gave ol’ Pete much of a chance. Confession time: I expressed serious reservations when he first asked me my opinion on running for CD 23. But I was wrong. Pete ran a campaign that was modern and innovative, but simultaneously refreshingly simple and traditional.
Pete damn near lost the primary runoff to Ciro Rodriguez. We came into it trailing 55-45, lost the endorsement of the 3rd candidate, and our own IDs reflected that 55-45 split. But then we did a few key things, and reinvented the race.
First, we ditched the message recommended by a now out-of-business pollster, that Pete should focus on his background as a prosecutor and run as Mr. Law and Order. Instead, we started talking about the issues that Latino Democrats in Bexar County, South Texas, and El Paso really care about: protecting Social Security and Medicare for our seniors, and providing educational opportunities for our kids.
Second – it wasn’t quite Project Narwhal – but working with the teams at AMM Political, GQR Research, and the Pivot Group we implemented a truly innovate candidate support model, and worked off the best field and mail targeting I’ve ever seen.
And you know what? It turns out that when you to talk to the right voters with the right message, you can win an election nobody thinks you will.
That same mantra served Pete well in the general election: find the right voters and talk to them about the issues that make a difference in their lives.
In the general election, that meant introducing Pete to the electorate by telling his family’s story of middle class struggle, and connecting to the economic concerns of voters in 2012. Research showed that Latino voters in Bexar County particularly – who did not start off with strongly held opinions on Gallego – were concerned not just about making it to the middle class, but staying there once they arrived. Sharing Pete’s personal story – in English and in Spanish – showed voters he shared their priorities and their values.
Next, the campaign did something our opponent never saw coming: we hit him from the right, highlighting his votes against combat pay raises for American soldiers. In a district with four military bases nearby, the ads struck a powerful chord.
Gallego closed out the campaign with another ad that didn’t play to type. It was a one-two punch that hit the Republican for opposing the DREAM Act , but voting to weaken border security. And it worked because voters in South Texas get that safe communities and a pathway to citizenship aren’t mutually exclusive.
On top of it all was a kick-ass field effort, run by hard working staffers who will never get enough credit (Michael! Crystal! Eli! Jenn!), and an outstanding manager, finance staff, and press team. Using models to predict voters’ willingness to listen to what we had to say, the campaign kept it simple: the right message to the right voters led to a pretty damn good election night.
Seems like a pretty good formula. And the great thing is, I’m not convinced it takes 3 million dollars in Super PAC money to execute (although that sure helped Pete). If I were running for County Commissioner in a 46% Democratic district somewhere in Texas, I think I’d have a decent shot to win using these same principles. I’d get on the Texas VAN – one of the best statewide Democratic voter files in the country – and use model scores to figure out which voters will never give a crap about what I had to say. Then I’d never ever talk to them. But I’d also ditch the money down-ballot candidates usually waste on nail files and balloons for the kids, and instead invest wisely in a little door-to-door program, and maybe a couple pieces of mail, talking to voters about the things they actually care about. Protecting the middle class…economic security…our children’s educations. That’s how Texas Democrats can turn 46% losses into 51% wins.
There is hope. We know how to win. We’ve done it before, and we can do it again.