My Political Hiatus and Our Party Problems (Part 5)

February 13, 2013

Before I launch into Part 5, I want to say I truly appreciate the supportive calls, emails, and messages I have received. It is clear that many individuals share some of my concerns but do not feel they can speak out publicly. Additionally, I appreciate those who have spoken out to add alternative views as vigorous debate is important for working through any issue. I also want to give a special thank you to those who have publicly shared their own thoughts and examples that echo my concerns. This is not easy and I appreciate your courageous candor.

Once again, as with all of my posts, Part 5 represents an honest account of my own experiences, my opinions and reactions to these events, and an inquiry into questions I feel are important for us going forward.

“Quiet Rooms” Attitude

Many of you may remember that Mitt Romney said income inequality should be discussed in “quiet rooms”. Ironically, there are some within our party who feel our issues should be discussed in these same quiet rooms. The problem with discussions in quiet rooms is that often nothing comes of them and those who need to know about the issues continue to be left in the dark. As I said in Part 1, sunshine is the best disinfectant. Moreover, information is power. Members of our party cannot lobby for change unless they have a complete understanding of our problems. Those who continue to believe in the quiet rooms approach need to ask themselves why they are unwilling to discuss what goes on behind the scenes. Often those who are uncomfortable with open discussion resist because they do not want questionable practices to be revealed.

Misleading Messages

I have heard from candidates who felt they were misled by party leaders. Unfortunately, I had my own experience with this during my most recent campaign. Before the August primary, I spoke with State Party Chair, Joan Wagnon. During our conversation, she told me, “we can filter a lot of money into your race if Tim Owens (moderate Republican) loses the Republican primary”. This gave me the impression that my race would become a significant priority, if Jim Denning (the conservative candidate) was the Republican nominee. Shortly after the primary election, I contacted Joan to follow up as Former Senator Tim Owens was unsuccessful. I reminded her that she indicated money could be filtered to my race. However, she suddenly had no discernible plan to direct contributions to my campaign.

Technically, I cannot claim her statement was dishonest as she used the word “can” which conveys an ability to do something. I would have to say her statement was 100% accurate – the KDP and party leaders do have the ability to ensure that contributions are directed to particular candidates. However, making the statement in this context certainly creates a misleading impression, which I find to be completely unacceptable.

For the record, I was not expecting Joan to offer to filter money into my race. However, statements like this clearly create expectations for those hearing them. As a party leader, if you don’t mean it, don’t say it. Candidates do not need to hear insincere, misleading statements. This achieves nothing but anger and resentment.

3rd District Failure

If the Johnson County Democrats (and other county parties) can scramble over the weekend after the redistricting maps were released to find candidates for many empty slots in Senate and House races, the KDP could have ensured that we would have a 3rd District candidate. I understand that Joan Wagnon had recruited someone who committed to run but later backed out. KDP leadership should have been closely monitoring the SOS filings and, when this individual had not filed the week before the filing deadline, we should have been moving to plan B or C in order to secure a candidate. Not having a Democratic candidate on the ballot in a district that we recently held for 12 years is outrageous and disgraceful.

The “Coordinated Campaign”

Some candidates are invited to buy into a coordinated campaign. These individuals write sizable “donation” checks (e.g., $5,000, $10,000, or $20,000) to the KDP from their campaign accounts. Most have direct mail sent out on their behalf. Selected individuals may receive other services such as GOTV calls, persuasion calls, and field operations. Candidates in the coordinated are at the mercy of the decision makers for their race and have no control over what they are given. Candidates are asked to make large donations from their campaign treasury and simply take what the party decides to give them. At any point, you can be dropped like a hot potato with no recourse.

As we learned last time in Part 4, there are some significant disparities from candidate to candidate in terms of who is given how much support from the coordinated campaign. Some candidates are given 200–300% of what they contribute. This means that the difference must come from somewhere else (e.g., other candidate’s contributions to the coordinated campaign, individual donations to the party or caucus, etc.). Democrats around the state need to be aware that resources are being devoted to a select group of candidates and may not be helping anyone in your area.

Moreover, in looking at the costs of some services, I wonder if we are getting the best value within the coordinated campaign. Print vendors typically offer discounts when a number of print jobs are ordered together. Compared to the cost of my own mailers, the mailers sent out for other candidates appear to be more costly than I would expect. Since our resources are limited, it is critically important to ensure we are getting the most for our money as this can help to support more candidates.

Unfortunately, we also had some execution problems during the most recent election cycle. We need to be sure the coordinated campaign is first rate and well-managed. I heard a range of complaints from those who participated about the quality of the photos, the quality of the mailers/design, and the timeliness of the mailings. For example, some candidate’s initial mailers did not start hitting mailboxes until late October and, in at least one case, two mailers were delivered on the same day. This is not an effective approach. I will discuss the coordinated campaign in greater detail next week in my post discussing a better way forward.

My Non-Coordinated Campaign

I was never asked to join the coordinated campaign. I was asked to spend $5,000 on a poll but was told that nothing would be promised. I was told that the polling results would be used in determining support but, when I asked about the benchmarks for receiving support, I was not given a direct answer (i.e., “we’re not sure”, “we’ll have to see”). So, I was being asked to turn over $5,000 of my campaign contributions with absolutely no information about how support would be given during the campaign. From my perspective, this is like being invited to invest in a mystery fund offered by an investment firm who cannot provide any information about the level of risk, the composition of the fund, or the historical rate of return. I would not hand over my money under such ridiculous circumstances as it sounds like an excellent way to lose it all.

To complicate things further, party officials were saying vastly different things. The day after I was invited to spend $5,000 on polling by Senate leaders, I spoke to Joan Wagnon who said it was too early for polling and $5,000 was unwarranted given that a local pollster had agreed to do polling for $500. So, Senate leadership was recommending one approach and the KDP was encouraging another. It doesn’t seem very “coordinated” for different leaders in the party to be giving candidates contradictory messages.

I have recently been informed that this polling opportunity was my chance to buy in to the coordinated campaign. However, this was never stated during the campaign. When I asked why this was not stated directly, I was told that I could not be informed I would be buying into the coordinated because of concerns about campaign ethics violations. What? So, candidates are supposed to buy into the coordinated without being told they are buying into the coordinated? It seems rather unbelievable that candidates are expected to guess or assume that a large chunk of money they are turning over will make them part of the coordinated campaign. Moreover, other candidates seemed to be informed about the buy in and my experience in 2010 was vastly different as the buy in amounts for specific races were explicitly and clearly communicated. Put simply, it is ludicrous to ask candidates to make mystery investments.

Unclear Benchmarks for Support

Most candidates are aware that the party identifies priority races and that support is given to these races. However, it is less clear exactly what factors are considered and what the benchmarks are for prioritization and receiving support.

After reviewing the July reports for both the Senate Democrats Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, I attempted to obtain some information about benchmarks for support. I noticed a handful of candidates had been issued $1,000 checks from these accounts. I inquired about the benchmarks for disbursing these funds. At first, I was told that fundraising was the basis for the decisions. When I pointed out that some candidates received these contributions shortly after the filing deadline (which was not enough time to raise much money), I was then told that discussions about fundraising commitments drove the contributions. Following this remark, I pointed out that when you stripped away some of the artificial inflation in the numbers (such as the aforementioned $2,000 that some received from these committees in addition to one large loan made by an individual to the campaign), my totals for the period were not much different from at least two individuals who received these checks.

In the end, I was given no definitive answers and no information that I could use going forward in either this discussion or the aforementioned exchange about polling. This is ridiculous. All candidates should be told about the benchmarks for support. But, I am not convinced that definitive benchmarks always exist. These decisions sometimes seem to be personal in nature and may relate to some of the issues discussed in my previous posts.

However, I recently learned from a comment on Part 4 that some candidates (and their staff) were very well informed about benchmarks. According to the comment, they were told what they needed to do and by what date they should meet various goals. How nice. Why would one Senate candidate be informed about benchmarks and another would not? The only explanation that seems plausible to me is that the second candidate is kept in the dark because no one wants them to expect support if they meet the benchmark. If they don’t know what the benchmark is, they have no grounds upon which to request the support that others are receiving. This is a very effective strategy if your goal is to block candidates who you believe have the potential to meet your benchmarks but who are not part of your group of “chosen” candidates that you are trying to get elected.

The “Secret” Alternative to the Coordinated Campaign

Some people believe that the coordinated campaign is the only avenue for mailers to be sent out by the party. This is not true. The KDP can serve as the vendor for a candidate’s mail program as part of a larger package of campaign services. The KDP works with and pays the print vendor directly for the printing/mailing costs and bills the candidate for campaign services which include mailers as one of the many services provided. I used this method during the 2012 cycle and I heard that one House candidate did as well. This approach can create the inaccurate impression that the KDP is footing the bill for a candidate’s mailers but, in fact, candidates are covering the costs when they make payments to the KDP for the campaign services provided.

Most candidates do not know about this option. I found out about it by asking KDP Executive Director, Jason Perkey, after a print vendor I was speaking with mentioned the approach. (Jason was extremely helpful in explaining the approach and assisting us in using this process which I appreciated very much.) I was lucky to have stumbled upon this very helpful information. However, there is no reason for this option to be a secret. All candidates should be allowed to take advantage of this possibility. It does require a chunk of resources from the candidate and many candidates would only be able to afford one or two mailers but that is better than none. Why would we not give our candidates every possible advantage to strengthen their campaign?

The Myth of “Personal Responsibility”

It is obvious that if you want to win as a candidate you need to work hard. Surely no one is foolish enough to believe that you can sit around with your feet up and just wait to be elected. So, yes, substantial effort is required to have a chance to win a race and, in this sense, personal responsibility, investment, and dedication are important.

However, it is very aggravating to hear those who received tens of thousands of dollars in party support or those who acted as gatekeepers to receiving support tell others who didn’t win that the loss comes down to “personal responsibility”. This reminds me of rich Republicans (who were often born into family money) trying to convince people that they could be just as rich if they had only worked hard enough. Yeah, right. Gatekeepers use this approach to deflect criticism and avoid taking responsibility for any questionable decisions. This is also a psychological game used to try to make candidates who were not invited into the inner circle feel that they just weren’t good enough and didn’t work hard enough. Nothing is more ridiculous than those who received all the advantages acting as if they were on a level playing field with those who had none.

Those who truly believe this load of crap (i.e., that those who did not receive $40,000–60,000 in party support could simply work harder to make up the difference) should switch parties and go work for a wealthy Republican. You’ll feel much more at home. To everyone else, remember that we are supposed to be the party who believes in equal opportunity and fights for the best interests of the people. Let’s start acting like it.

Next Time: I will be offering my recommendations for a better way forward.