A Better Way Forward

February 21, 2013

Reviewing problems is a useful exercise but channeling this information into recommendations is the key to progress. This is my focus today. While this post does not include an exhaustive list of all improvements that we should consider as a party, I have outlined some of the most critical that I feel deserve immediate attention.

End “Friendly Fire”

When it comes to backing candidates, we could learn a thing or two from our competitors. They will support candidates who have made ridiculous, over the top statements (e.g., Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock). They will support folks who are barely old enough to serve (e.g., Jacob LaTurner who was 24 during his campaign for Kansas Senate District 13). They can have an extraordinarily nasty, hard-fought primary and come together behind the winner (e.g., Moran vs. Tiahrt in the 2010 U.S. Senate race).

Kansas Democrats, on the other hand, often fall too far toward the other end of this spectrum. We should not be disingenuous but we should avoid undermining our own candidates. During primaries we can have differing opinions about the best candidate for the party nomination. But once the primary is over, we need to support the nominee. Sour grapes and backstabbing after a primary doesn’t get us anywhere in the general election.

However, much of the internal hostility that undermines candidates is not related to primary elections. Differences of opinion about campaign strategies, fundraising, staff or volunteers, and supporters can create a stream of backchannel attacks and gossip that undermine candidates. We need to recognize that candidates are people who have different personalities and working styles. They won’t do everything exactly as you might. Judgmental, unilateral viewpoints only hurt us. Often, there is more than one legitimate way to approach various tasks within a campaign. Moreover, there are instances in which a novel, unconventional approach may work better. It seems that certain individuals in the party have a “do it our way or we’ll take you down” attitude. This has no place in our party.

We always need to remain mindful that in most cases, we are choosing between a Democratic candidate who likely shares many of our same values and a Republican candidate who may share little to none. We are shooting ourselves in the foot if we undermine the person that would be a better public servant over petty differences of opinion about campaign minutia.

Recruit for Merit and Eliminate Candidate Hazing

We should not fall prey to Royal Family Syndrome and Perfect Candidate Syndrome (discussed in Part 2). Those with party connections should not be discriminated against but also should not be prioritized based solely on connections. Moreover, candidates who express an interest in important races should not be dismissed. We should encourage everyone who is willing to stand for public office to consider all suitable races, including the race with a theoretical “perfect candidate”, since our perfect candidate may not be interested.

New candidates who are charismatic, knowledgeable, articulate, attractive, and are dedicated to representing Democratic values should be embraced, encouraged and rewarded for stepping forward to run. Too often, enthusiastic candidates with merit draw negative reactions from the old guard or party leadership. In some circles, there seems to be a desire to knock these folks down a peg or two and a view that “the young whipper snappers are too big for their britches”.

You would think that instead of a political party we were a fraternity or sorority – hazing our new recruits and trying to force them to debase themselves to “earn” a place in the group. Unfortunately, this type of treatment is completely unacceptable to many individuals, especially those in Generation X (approximate ages 33–50) who as a group are much less open than Baby Boomers to kowtowing to arbitrary traditions or respecting those who don’t behave respectably. This generation is our rising leadership group in society and if we offend and scare away talented people from this age group, we are weakening our party for many years to come.

In order to cultivate a more welcoming dynamic, we need party leaders at all levels (county and state) who are secure enough in themselves to embrace new talent and to welcome these individuals as future leaders of the party rather than scaring off people they see as potential competition.

Honesty and Transparency

We must not convey misleading messages or keep the vast majority of candidates in the dark. Just be honest. Tell candidates that resources are available to support a specific number of candidates and explain in detail the benchmarks that will be used to determine support. If the qualifying group is too large, note the procedure for ranking the candidates to determine those who will be prioritized. Any criteria for determining support late in the election cycle should also be noted.
Additionally, if it is unlikely that a candidate will receive support because of the district they are running in, this should be stated upfront, prior to the filing deadline. Conditions for receiving any support should be clearly stated. We should not manipulate people into wasting their time. We should also not give anyone the impression that they will be receiving more support than they will be able to obtain. It’s not fair to anyone.

Support Candidates – Rising Tides Can Lift All Boats

Every candidate should have the chance to earn a spot in the slate of “supported candidates” instead of party leaders hand-selecting and pre-determining the priority candidates. Of course, in order for the playing field to be level, party leaders must refrain from backchannel communication to party donors about priority races, since fundraising is usually one of many benchmarks for support. Some former candidates have confided in me privately that harsh statements from either party leaders or those who work for the leadership essentially sabotaged their fundraising in county party circles. This is unacceptable. We should be letting the chips fall where they may based on candidate merit and effort rather than anointing some and neglecting or sabotaging others.

“The more the merrier” should be our attitude when it comes to both the coordinated campaign as well as the lesser known alternative – managed mail programs/campaign services through the KDP. As more candidates participate in the coordinated campaign, print pricing improves and everyone benefits. While not everyone may be able to afford the buy-in costs, everyone should be offered the chance to join the coordinated campaign.

Managed mail programs (as one aspect of broader campaign services packages) have been one of the party’s best kept secrets but should be available to all candidates. This approach provides an option for candidates who may only have the resources for one or two mailers as part of the package but not enough to buy into the coordinated campaign. It is also a good alternative for those whose district may require something a bit different from the standard coordinated campaign approach.

An anonymous commenter of unknown background or experience rabidly commented on my previous post insisting first that managed mailers were illegal but then backed off to say there could be a problem with the not-for-profit mailing standards. Neither of these ridiculous claims are true. It is perfectly legal for state parties to coordinate with candidates and offer campaign services packages. The managed mailing aspect of state party campaign services has existed for years. In fact, in light of this discussion, my print vendor called Carol Williams at the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission as well as the U.S. Postal Service to make absolutely sure this process was appropriate. Both sources confirmed that the process is legal and does not violate standards for using a non-profit postal indicia. So, I now have factual confirmation from the two agencies in question that this method is completely legitimate.

The only question that I have seen raised about this approach was during the 2012 primary for the 2nd Congressional District nomination. Rev. Tobias Schlingensiepen bought into a managed mail/campaign services program through the KDP and this was called into question because there are limitations on what state parties can do during a competitive primary. The Topeka Capitol Journal ran a story about the questions that had been raised. So, those who think I’m ruining the party playbook by discussing this approach are delusional since mail programs were covered in the aforementioned news story.

Strengthen the Coordinated Campaign

First and foremost, the coordinated campaign needs to be well-managed. For example, we cannot have the first mailers for a candidate arriving late in October. We need to get out front and define our opponents early on. Late mailers are much less effective as the opposition may already have reached voters several times. Additionally, mailer design is just a crucial as messaging. This will be discussed in more detail in the next section about the visual nature of messaging.

Given that the state party can legally coordinate with candidates and coordinated mailers are sent out by the KDP, mailers should be more individually tailored to maximize positive impact. In this way, the coordinated campaign and managed mail approaches should be more similar than different (to whatever degree election law will allow). Some candidates I’ve spoken with felt certain mailers hurt them much more than they helped them. Identifying core messaging is fine but there are vast regional differences across the state and we must tailor our messaging to address these differences.

We need to work toward much more local input and control over aspects of the coordinated campaign. I understand that there has been great variability in the involvement of county parties from election cycle to election cycle. However, in terms of mobilizing boots on the ground, local and regional involvement becomes a key to success. We need to cultivate a dedicated group of volunteers and keep them consistently engaged.

Both support for candidates and Democratic GOTV efforts are essential. However, while they are necessary, they are not sufficient. I was pleased to see some movement toward voter persuasion in the most recent campaign cycle. This should become a core aspect of the coordinated campaign as most Democrats in Kansas must persuade both Unaffiliated and Republican voters that they are the better choice in order to win their race. We also need more statewide emphasis on voter registration. As the minority party, we need everyone who shares our values to be registered to vote and to understand the importance of voting in each election.

Messaging is Visual and Branding is Important

We are very focused on polling and the information that it can provide. However, we are missing a very important aspect of political communication. The quality or salience of your message does not matter if it is presented in a way that is visually unclear or unappealing. Sometimes engaged politicos make the mistake of thinking that everyone will read everything on a mailer. Usually this is not the case. Typically you have a few seconds at best unless you have a design that really draws people in. Therefore, the visual presentation is equally important to the message itself. A mailer with an excellent message may have little to no impact if the design is poor.

Yard signs are another area where we must carefully scrutinize visual impact. All candidates should ask their designer to mock up a life size template of their yard sign (often just 8 X 11 panels taped together) in the colors they have planned. Then, place the template in a couple locations during the day and at night and drive by to check for readability. It is important to have a yard sign that is readable day or night in 2–3 seconds passing by at road speeds. Far too many candidates have type that is too small to read or colors that make the content difficult to see. Don’t waste money on signs no one will notice or that cannot be read while driving.

Additionally, we have recently begun to attempt to define and brand the Democratic party. These efforts are commendable and should be continued. We must find the best way to appeal to and persuade Unaffiliated and moderate Republican voters as this is critical for winning more races across the state.

County-by-County Democratic Engagement Program

We need to strengthen our network of Democrats statewide. In order to do this, we need county parties to begin an outreach and engagement program as soon as possible. Ideally, members of county party groups should touch base with every Democrat in their county either by knocking doors or making calls. We need to educate registered Democrats about how their participation can make all the difference. Frankly, some individuals probably need a short tutorial about the importance of down ballot races. It would also be helpful to share an example of a race in their area that would have had a different outcome if Democratic voter turnout had been greater. Democrats get demoralized and feel that their vote will not make a difference, which is why many do not vote. This sense of hopelessness stems in large part from the fact that, as a red state, our electoral votes virtually always go to the Republican Presidential candidate. However, I think we could increase turnout dramatically through an education campaign that explains how a small number of Democratic votes can make a huge difference in some very important races.

As county parties connect with Democrats, we should gather an email address from every individual possible and disclose that these emails will be used Democratic communications of all varieties including upcoming election reminders, messages from area candidates, and county party events. This email list should be made available to all party leaders and candidates – free of charge. We do have a statewide email list available through the VAN (Voter Activation Network) system. However, most candidates cannot afford the steep charges that come with using this system. We need to empower our candidates and county parties by providing an easy and free mechanism for communication.

Moreover, we should also attempt to implement the small donation strategy that I outlined at the end of Part 3. For example, a county party in an area with only 1,000 Democrats could raise $12,000 a year if everyone agreed to donate $1 a month. These funds could make a huge difference in local efforts to support candidates. In order to achieve the maximum benefit, we would need to make it as easy as possible for individuals to make regular repeating contributions online. This would require some work to set up but the payoff could be tremendous.

Beyond Polling and Demographics

Polling information and voter registration demographics are important and should be considered. However, our focus should not be so narrow that we neglect other important considerations and ignore winnable races that are “outside the box”. An excellent example of this premise is Melody Saxton who lost House District 65 by only 17 votes. I understand that a number of individuals encouraged party leaders to consider investing in this race, as those who were familiar with the district felt this could be winnable. The final result clearly shows that a small investment could have made all the difference and given us another House seat. Sometimes dynamics exist that cannot be quantified with strict demographics or polling. We should supplement empirical data with experiential, historical, and regional considerations as polling does not always tell us everything that we need to know. We should not close our minds to the possibility that candidates can succeed in districts that may seem like unlikely contenders based solely on demographics.

Embrace Our Young Democrats

Over the years, I have attended a number of meetings of the KC Young Democrats. Most recently, I attended a meeting last October and found that morale was quite low. Many of our young Democrats feel disenfranchised and under-utilized by the party. This is so unfortunate given the level of skill and enthusiasm of our young Democrats. There was also a sense of hopelessness from some about the issues and problems that we have as a party. We cannot afford to discourage future leaders. We must make a better effort to bring younger Democrats into the fold and make use of their talents through meaningful contributions. We should think of our young Democrats not as “young” but just as Democrats.

Bring Fragmented Groups Together

In some counties, we have many different Democratic groups. For example, in Johnson County we have the Johnson County Democrats, the Johnson County Democratic Women, the KC Young Democrats, and now a new group of Northeast Johnson County Democrats. We need to move away from these internal subdivisions and bring everyone to the table as part of a larger, stronger group. Naturally, these groups can have their own meetings but it would be wise to find a way to bring all groups together into a mega-group on a regular basis so that we can operate as a more united force as a party.

Secure 2014 Candidates ASAP

This is probably one of the most obvious needs. Far too often our candidates have started out too late to gain significant traction against the Republican opposition. We need candidates very soon for high profile races such as Governor (and all statewide races) and for our four Congressional Districts plus U.S. Senate. We also need these individuals to start actively campaigning immediately. These folks need to start traveling the state or district now and build support within county parties across the state.

One of the biggest mistakes candidates in higher profile races make is failing to visit Democrats across the state and not building visibility in the maximum number of counties possible. People will work much more passionately for a candidate who has made the effort to connect with their county group and to become visible in the community via parades, festivals, or forums. I traveled the state extensively during my 2010 campaign for U.S. Senate and was told repeatedly how excited and appreciative the Democrats in each county were that I had made the effort to visit them. Many county parties during that cycle were disappointed that they had not been visited by more of our statewide candidates. Put simply, we can’t neglect to fire up our base early if we want to have a chance to win.

Look Beyond Desperate Measures to Preserve the Status Quo

Thanks to all who have taken the time to read and consider the party problems that led to my political hiatus and this installment of suggestions for a better way forward. As we move forward, please keep in mind that the current system works very well for a select few and these individuals will be highly unmotivated to consider change. Some individuals have already begun attacking me via comments because they do not want rank and file Democrats to know about some of the things I have shared and do not want future candidates to be fully informed about their options.

I believe that Democrats deserve to know the truth. My motivation is to prevent future candidates from enduring the frustrations and disappointments that I experienced and to move us toward electing the maximum number of Democrats possible. If you happen to read or hear dismissive remarks regarding the points I have raised, I ask you to carefully consider the source, what their motivation might be, and what suggestions they are putting forth to improve our dynamics and win more elections. As I said in one of my responses to a commenter who was encouraging me to forget about discussing party issues, too many Democrats have held a defeatist attitude about the futility of addressing party problems for far too long. Yes, organizational change is extremely difficult. However, we cannot improve via apathy or silence.

Regarding comments, I am sad to say that I am limiting discussion to Facebook for the time being. While I have pointed out many things which I find unacceptable and counterproductive, I never accused anyone of illegal behavior. I cannot condone those who choose to anonymously accuse the KDP of illegal activities. If anyone wants to continue to make this disproven accusation, they can put their name and face with it on Facebook.