Some Thoughts on Tuesday’s Election

The following was written by Ann Sullivan of Tompkins County. Ann volunteered for the Robertson Campaign and is a friend of the New NY 23rd.

I will not put lipstick on this pig of an election for Democrats. We took a beating. Republicans now own the US House and the Senate, and will set the national agenda for the next two years. Republican governors control usually reliably Democratic states like Maryland, Massachusetts and Illinois. In New York, Governor Cuomo, Lieutenant Governor elect Kathy Hochul, Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman did cruise to comfortable victories.

Down ballot races, however, told a different story. New York Republicans control the State Senate, and there will be no minimum wage legislation or a bill enshrining women’s reproductive rights enacted in New York in the next two years.  Locally, in Tompkins and Cortland counties, a reputation for hard work, a deep reservoir of personal popularity and (let’s us be honest) effective gerrymandering allowed Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton to easily beat back her Republican challenger. But Tompkins County Legislator Martha Robertson suffered a defeat of historic proportions in her race for the New York 23rd US Congressional seat.

What explains this electoral debacle? What lessons can we learn? A few thoughts:

Candidates Must Own Their Records

Not one endangered Democratic Senator allowed Barack Obama to campaign for them, and most downplayed any connection with the deeply unpopular president, including his policies that they otherwise supported.  In my home state of New Hampshire, Senator Jeanne Shaheen faced a tough challenge from Scott Brown who relentlessly attacked her as an ally of the President.  While Shaheen made sure the President kept his distance from her campaign, she never ran from her record, asserting she was proud of her vote for the Affordable Care Act that gave insurance to hundreds of thousands of her constituents. She won a closely contested race.

Locally, Assemblywoman Lifton made a tough politically risky vote in support of the Safe Act in January 2013.  Gun enthusiasts vilified her at town meetings  Assemblywoman Lifton held her head high, took the abuse, and owned her Safe Act vote, as well as her support for contentious issues like fracking and Marriage Equality.  She carried fairly conservative Cortland County with 52% of the vote, out performing the Cuomo-Hochul ticket by 14%!

Martha Robertson, on the other hand, downplayed a long and public record of support for liberal issues like single payer health care and presented herself as a centrist, anti-Safe Act moderate.  But voters didn’t buy it and Tom Reed was still able to paint her as a “hippie extreme Ithaca liberal.”  By the end of the campaign,  Robertson was making a point to tell voters she wasn’t from Ithaca, running from her record and her political base

No Margin for Error Exists in Close Elections

I turn again to Senator Shaheen. In 2013, when most prognosticators assumed Shaheen would easily win reelection she took nothing for granted and raised millions of dollars. As campaign manager, Shaheen hired Mike Vlacich, a University  of New Hampshire grad who ran her statewide constituent office and knew New Hampshire intimately. Shaheen also made no gaffes. Contrast this with Congressman Braley of Iowa. Like Shaheen, Braley was an early favorite, yet he quickly derailed his campaign with thoughtless comments, whining about a lack of towels in the House gym during the government shutdown and insulting  fellow and beloved Iowan Senator Grassley as a “farmer without a law degree.” Iowans elected Joni Ernst a self proclaimed hog castrating, Iowa farm girl.

Like Shaheen and Braley, Robertson started strong, raised a lot of money and attracted favorable national notice and support.  Yet small mistakes  marred her campaign. Her staff okayed a fund raising concert by Peter Yarrow, not picking up on the fact that he had done  jail time as a sex offender and making damaging, unproven charges of computer hacking against the Reed campaign. These normally minor mistakes loomed large In an unfriendly, low turnout election climate, Robertson needed a flawless campaign. She didn’t get it.

Don’t Forget (and never Diss) the Base.

In 2008, purple state senators like Colorado’s Udall and North Carolina’s Hagan greatly benefited from high Latino and African turnout.  In 2012, Hagan refused to appear on a podium with President Obama. Though mobilized by the Moral Monday Movement, many African America North Carolinian voters stayed home. Udall also mystified supporters by downplaying his support of the Dream Act, even while Republican Corey Gardiner campaigned and attracted votes from the ever-growing Latino electorate in Colorado. Hagan and Udall lost.

Martha Robertson recognized the Safe Act would be an issue in the mostly gun friendly New York 23rd and proclaimed her unwavering opposition to it. Yet, Tompkins County Democrats overwhelmingly support the Safe Act.  Did Robertson’s stance play any part in the ten percent decrease in Tompkins County turnout from 2012? Maybe.

It’s the Independents Stupid.

Independents-300x138

In 2008, purple state senators like Colorado’s Udall and North Carolina’s Hagan greatly benefited from high Latino and African turnout.  In 2012, Hagan refused to appear on a podium with President Obama. Though mobilized by the Moral Monday Movement, many African America North Carolinian voters stayed home. Udall also mystified supporters by downplaying his support of the Dream Act, even while Republican Corey Gardiner campaigned and attracted votes from the ever-growing Latino electorate in Colorado. Hagan and Udall lost.

The majority of New Yorkers vote Democratic, and statewide candidates like Cuomo start out at an advantage. The independent voter, however, rules in most competitive NewYork State Senate and national congressional races. This is why we will have a Republican state senate in 2015 and why Robertson got shellacked in the 23rd.

Robertson’s message of economic growth and preserving social security never resonated among these voters, and Robertson underperformed compared to Nate Shinagawa who lost in 2012 but still earned 127,535 votes to Robertson’s vote count of 66,000. To his credit, Tom Reed crafted a campaign designed to appeal to independents. He voted against Planned Parenthood funding, to privatize Social Security and to gut food Stamps. Yet, he skillfully crafted and softened his image to appeal to independents with a folksy “day as a worker” stunt, made a moving speech about the No Excuses movement against rape to Congress and relentlessly scheduled weekly town halls where he listened to every constituent who showed up. As for his “insult” to Ithaca? Quite frankly, once Reed had the independents, he could write off Tompkins County. The “extreme Ithaca liberal” meme worked.

Martha Robertson recognized the Safe Act would be an issue in the mostly gun friendly New York 23rd and proclaimed her unwavering opposition to it. Yet, Tompkins County Democrats overwhelmingly support the Safe Act.  Did Robertson’s stance play any part in the ten percent decrease in Tompkins County turnout from 2012? Maybe.

 Forget all the Above!

Every election is unique. The DCCC, Emily’s list and other Democratic groups spent a bundle on Martha Robertson’s campaign, thinking that Nate Shinagawa’s exemplary campaign and near win in 2012 made victory in 2014 a possibility. At the moment, things do look rosy  for the Republicans nationally,  and Tom Reed certainly earned a victory lap.

Still, the situation could  change by 2016. In two years, gun enthusiasts might come to see that the government is not coming for their weapons and that background checks and keeping weapons away from the mentally ill are really not bad ideas.

Hillary Clinton, who remains immensely popular in New York, would almost certainly help down ballot NY state Democratic candidates if she runs for President.  I cannot believe that a smart, savvy centrist and charismatic Democrat (probably not from Tompkins County) might not emerge to make a challenge to Reed in 2016. And then, there is another factor that this loyal Democrat is counting on — the habitual, long standing habit of Republican overreach. They always screw up.

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About pystew

Retired Teacher, political science geek, village trustee. I lean a little left, but like a good political discussion. My blog, the New NY 23rd (http://newny23rd) is about discussing the issues facing the people of our new congressional district. Let's hear all sides of the issues, not just what the candidates want us to hear.
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12 Responses to Some Thoughts on Tuesday’s Election

  1. BOB McGILL says:

    blah,blah,blah, I think it’s just a matter of the upstate voters being smarter than the democrats thought 🙂 Add the damage that the ACA has done to the average working family, I think, what you saw was a tax payer revolt !

  2. whungerford says:

    Ann Sullivan argues that Martha’s campaign might have done better. No doubt that’s true, and she makes some interesting points. However, it was very unlikely that an incumbent Republican in a Republican leaning district could be defeated in a midterm election. It is wrong to conclude that Reed’s reelection was due to anything he did other than keep his head down and stick to the script.

  3. Anne says:

    I think you can almost always count on low-information voters to vote against their own interests, and that’s pretty much what we saw this time around. (Also, I think this was a chance for a lot of folks to be able to voice their distress over there being a Black guy in the White House, without having to face any accusations of racism.) Where in NH do you hail from, Rich? I’m a Kensington person.

  4. Anne says:

    –oops, never mind….misread the authorship of the post.

  5. Jay says:

    Dan Maffei, Sean Eldrige, Tim Bishop, Dominic Recchia all had more resources than Martha Robertson and they lost. Louise Slaughter in Rochester won by less than 1%. The GOP now controls the NY Senate. Tell me oh great political strategist, what would you have done differently? All of us love to talk about what someone else did wrong, but what solutions did you present?

  6. whungerford says:

    Live free or die!

  7. “Robertson underperformed compared to Nate Shinagawa who lost in 2012 but still earned 127,535 to Robertson’s 2014 vote count of 66,000.”

    This is hardly a fair comparison, as 2012 was a presidential year and no one in their right mind would project that level of turnout in a midterm.

    In fact, Martha captured 67% of the Tompkins County vote compared to Nate’s 65%.

    Tompkins County liberals own this loss. They stayed at home. There were more votes for Reed alone out of Chautauqua County than were cast in Tompkins County total. So you can Monday-morning quarterback all you want about mistakes the campaign made, but at the end of the day this election was decided by a bunch of Democrats shooting themselves in the foot and refusing to participate. For a county that likes to think it’s the most important in the district, you sure don’t act like it.

  8. Ann S. says:

    I grew up in Manchester where, like all New Hampshirites, I expected to meet every presidential candidate. Racism does continue to endure and affect all aspects of American life, including politics. Also, high information voters are equally paradoxical. Educated Republicans vote for a party that rejects the scientific method. Rich Democrats vote for higher taxes. Go figure.

  9. Ann S. says:

    Hey Emma
    Actually the vast majority of Democratic liberals (my ward district had over 60% turnout almost all of it for Martha) voted in droves in Ithaca — and also volunteered ( I and the liberals you castigate made phone calls and gave chunks of money (as I did). The people who stayed home in TC were, I suspect, registered but not active Democrats, who were not motivated to go to the polls and some people extremely supportive of the Safe Act. One point I make is that running away from your base and your record can be a problem if not finessed well. Robertson — if you carefully read my piece — only reflected a national trend, and I am sure national political consultants have a lot to answer about her failed messaging. And yes, her campaign staff did make mistakes. If we are to take back this district — which is doable — all of us have to carefully plan and analyze what went wrong. Circular firing squads are pointless, as is hiding our heads on the sand. I, for example, will probably support any local Ithaca candidate who would be smart enough to show up at Ithaca’s Veterans Day parade on Sunday. That attention and respect is what wins elections in tough times. People notice. People remember. Words and actions must be owned.

    As for Tompkins County liberals, I will not mince words. Some of us who live here have to give up a habit of thinking we are the smartest people in the room. It annoys our neighbors and (in certainly in my case), we seldom are 😃

    Where do you live? You sound savvy and like you have a lot to say. Maybe we can carry the discussion on over a cup of coffee. Grass roots Dems have to start talking across county lines NOW!

  10. Deb Meeker says:

    I don’t know statistically what percentage of registered voters in Tompkins are Dem vs Rep. Approximately 50% of Tompkins County registered voters voted. Martha took 67% of those votes.
    “Chautauqua County had been a perfect bellwether county from 1980 to 2008, correctly voting for the winner of each presidential election in all eight elections in that time frame. Its 2012 vote (in which it voted for Republican Mitt Romney instead of incumbent Democrat Barack Obama) was its first miss since 1976.”
    Tom Reed may have taken more votes than Martha Robertson in Chautauqua this midterm election, but in my opinion; they are the ones that shot themselves in the foot.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chautauqua_County,_New_York#Government_and_politics

  11. Ann S. says:

    The New NY 23rd inadvertently left out a paragraph. To all those who blame TC County read below. If every TCer voted, Martha Robertson would have lost. We have the money. We have the lawyers. We have the guns (metaphor) . We do not have enough votes to swing an election without independents. Neither do the Republicans ……..

    It is the Independents Stupid.

    The majority of New Yorkers vote Democratic, and statewide candidates like Cuomo

    start out at an advantage. The independent voter, however, rules in most competitive New

    York State Senate and national congressional races. This is why we will have a

    Republican state senate in 2015 and why Robertson got shellacked in the 23rd.

    Robertson’s message of economic growth and preserving social security never

    resonated among these voters, and Robertson underperformed compared to Nate

    Shinagawa who lost in 2012 but still earned 127,535 votes to Robertson’s vote count of

    66,000. To his credit, Tom Reed crafted a campaign designed to appeal to independents.

    He voted against Planned Parenthood funding, to privatize Social Security and to gut

    food Stamps. Yet, he skillfully crafted and softened his image to appeal to independents

    with a folksy “day as a worker” stunt, made a moving speech about the No Excuses

    movement against rape to Congress and relentlessly scheduled weekly town halls where

    he listened to every constituent who showed up. As for his “insult” to Ithaca? Quite

    frankly, once Reed had the independents, he could write off Tompkins County. The

    “extreme Ithaca liberal” meme worked.

  12. pystew says:

    The above has now been added to the article.

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