Democrats suffered a major blow in two special House election losses Tuesday, leaving the party at a political low point as it gears up for 2012.
Embarrassed by a string of losses in competitive, high-profile House contests, the GOP was dreading the prospect of another humiliation in a race for a GOP-friendly seat in Nevada and a drubbing in a solidly Democratic New York district.
Instead, Republicans won both.
In Nevada’s 2nd District, the GOP used an aggressive strategy to lock it up for their candidate, former state Sen. Mark Amodei, as early as possible – to the point that national Democrats, once bullish on their chances there, never played in the contest and now deny they ever intended to.
Meanwhile, President Barack Obama’s declining fortunes helped the GOP pick up a previously out-of-reach seat in New York—a Queens- and Brooklyn-based district where Republicans couldn’t even muster a candidate as recently as 2008.
And now, after losing 23 of 34 special elections going back to 2003—a figure which includes several recent losses in upstate New York—the party has put not one but two big wins on the board.
“Frankly, we couldn’t afford to lose again,” said a Republican official involved in House campaigns. “The member anger would be even worse than it was in NY-26” – the May special in which the GOP blew a 30,000-voter registration advantage to hand an upstate New York House seat to the Democrats.
The party, this official said, took a hard look at that loss. While a deep-pocketed right-wing third-party challenger was clearly a factor, it was also clear that they’d been slow to grasp the dawning threat and were put on the ropes by Democrats’ attacks on the issue of Medicare.
In Nevada’s 2nd, a district with similar voting demographics to New York’s 26th District, Republicans – the National Republican Congressional Committee, the Republican National Committee, national consultants working on Amodei’s campaign and affiliated groups like American Crossroads – were determined not to be caught napping.
The NRCC’s independent expenditure arm went on the air early, framing the race as a referendum on President Obama and the state’s senior senator, Majority Leader Harry Reid. When the Democratic candidate, state Treasurer Kate Marshall, aired her first Medicare-based attack ad in early August, Amodei’s campaign had a response already in the can – it began airing just three days later. The NRCC responded as well.
Meanwhile, the RNC was working with the historically weak state party to get the ground game going. And Crossroads was piloting an early-voting turnout effort it wanted to test for use elsewhere.
“This is not rocket science – it’s just hard work,” said a national GOP operative who worked on the Nevada race. “We were prepared for the Democrats to use the Medicare issue. Mark inoculated himself early on. We prepared for a major competitive race, and after early voting started we went, ‘Hmm, when are [Democrats] going to do something?’ And they just never did.”
Democrats now claim they never had much hope of playing in the race, especially after a judge ruled that the parties could pick nominees – overruling the Democratic secretary of state’s call for a multi-candidate free-for-all that could have split the GOP vote.
“When there was a possibility of an open election, everybody said, ‘OK, maybe someone like Kate would have had a shot,’” said longtime Nevada Democratic consultant Billy Vassiliadis. But in a two-way race, he said, “Probably under the definition of ‘safe Republican seat’ you would see a picture of this one. It was always a very long shot [for Democrats].”
A national Democratic campaign official also insisted that Nevada was never a target, noting that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee never spent money on it. Reid’s political apparatus, too, has been working to distance the senator from the loss.
But there’s no denying Democrats once saw some promise in the Nevada race. The DCCC recruited Marshall heavily and helped her raise money – she significantly outraised Amodei in the first reporting period, leading to a round of Democratic gloating about her strength and his weakness.
As late as mid-August, Reid was still raising money for Marshall through his email list. And the DCCC continued to make inquiries about buying television airtime until even later in the game, according to rival ad buyers.
“It is true that they bailed on [Marshall]. That is true,” said Ryan Erwin, a Nevada-based Republican consultant whose firm did mail for Amodei. “But it isn’t because they didn’t put time, energy and resources into it in the beginning. They believed they could win this. They were excited about it.”
Privately, Democrats acknowledge things didn’t go as planned. Marshall tried to attack Amodei from the right, going after him for supporting a Democrat-backed tax increase and distancing herself from Obama — not very convincingly.
“As a dyed-in-the-wool Obama supporter, the departure on the stimulus and other things left me a little taken aback,” said Vassiliadis, who is a longtime top adviser to Obama in Nevada. “I’ve been in campaigns that were really tough and uphill; you’ve got to try some stuff, and they did, I don’t fault them. But I think maybe if there was a downside to that, it might have been at the expense of some turnout of our base.”
The writing was on the wall for Marshall almost as soon as early voting began Aug. 27, with Republicans dominating turnout from the get-go – thanks in part to Crossroads’ efforts, which the group spent about $250,000 on.
“The key strategy was trying to knock Marshall out early,” said Crossroads spokesman Jonathan Collegio. “She was a very strong candidate” – a statewide elected official for 8 years.
“From the Crossroads perspective, we viewed it as an opportunity to test some strategies for the 2012 election specifically regarding early voting, which had the impact of putting the election away early on behalf of the Republican,” Collegio said.
While Republicans were pushing hard in Nevada, an opportunity arose in New York – one the GOP largely doesn’t take credit for.
“We were focusing our attention on Nevada when New York became a race,” the GOP House campaign official said. Even when it became competitive, the party largely stayed out, not wanting to alienate the district’s heavily Democratic voters by turning it into a partisan contest.
But the bottom line was the same: A GOP candidate, not without his own flaws, who nonetheless managed to head off the Medicare line and turn the conversation to voters’ feelings about Obama instead. In this case, it was Republican businessman Bob Turner, who successfully turned Democratic Assemblyman David Weprin into a representation of incumbency.
The national Democratic campaign official pointed to the district’s conservative trend in recent years and the prohibitive expense of the New York media market as an obstacle to getting the campaign’s message out. Just as Democratic wins in 2009 and 2010 specials didn’t presage a favorable November election, this loss, too, is an aberration, not a trend, the Democrat insisted.
But Doug Muzzio, a professor of public affairs at CUNY’s Baruch College, said Democrats got complacent. “It’s a real embarrassment,” he said. “They screwed up.”
Thinking they had it in the bag, he said, Democrats put the election in the hands of party bosses, a weak candidate and a team of sub-standard consultants. “They thought they had this locked, so they ran a lackadaisical, mail-it-in campaign,” Muzzio said. “When the going got rough, the national and state parties had to step in, and they stepped in a little bit late. They should have realized this guy was in trouble long before they did.”
It’s a familiar story for Republicans who have been on the other end of the same phenomenon – and are relieved to be on the winning side of the equation this time.
In New York, after the GOP’s upstate loss in May, “the counter is even,” Muzzio said. “This is the tit for the tat.”
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