The disaster in the fifth

Two years ago, I drafted a post (edited by the good members of Blue Jersey) with a rundown of what happened in the 2008 Congressional election in New Jersey’s fifth district.  We deconstructed the voting trends in each of the four counties, discussed how outreach and messaging (and money), as well as a different strategy, are needed to (1) win Bergen County, where most of the votes are and (2) close the gap in Passaic, Warren and Sussex Counties:

But this is a low information district with an inherent Republican advantage, where a large majority of people never hear a stump speech or listen to debates.  And that is especially true in the rural areas that count for roughly one-third of the votes.  So it’s clear that very heavy handed, yet accurate, tactics must be used – and used consistently in a way that will not only reach these voters, but close the gap in Sussex and Warren Counties by 1/3 to 1/2 of the roughly 25,000 deficits of 2008 and 2004.

Now, I will admit this post may be a bit more subjective. But that’s because since 2008 (and out of that diary), I helped start “Retire Garrett”, a grassroots effort with outreach in all four counties to help recruit a candidate, solicit donors, craft message, coordinate outreach, and try to tackle the very tough feat of ousting Garrett in a fairly Republican leaning district.  I (with other volunteers) figured this would be a 2 cycle effort, but worth pursuing.

This group of activists I worked with helped recruit Tod Theise (we met with a handful of potential interested parties and reached out to a number of others who expressed little to no interest in running – especially this cycle, and we were very grateful Tod stepped up).  We discussed potential strategies, message strategy and many other aspects of campaigning. And for reasons I’ll discuss below, the campaign decided on one strategy and direction which I (and others) believed would make victory impossible, so we discontinued our involvement in the campaign by early to mid August. So, there’s some personal slant to this post, but it’s because we were there, and we watched as good brainstorming and strategy efforts were ignored. We saw our fears validated by the election results.

Personally, the fact that Tod was from Warren County was a big plus to me for this cycle as it made any charge of BCDO-ism impossible.  The campaign largely failed to capitalize on its lack of ties to BCDO.

Some of what went wrong here was out of Theise’s control; some was very much in the campaign’s control. There were tactical decisions made by BCDO and by the Theise campaign that probably have more to do with the results than anything else  – results only stunning to those who paid little to no attention to this race.  These 2 items are detailed below:

The Theise strategy

The campaign articulated a strategy of outreach mainly to Republicans and independents, including the tea partiers, with a message centered on tax fairness for NJ (a message that if not  feasible to put into play, did resonate well), tying Garrett to the financial mess (also good one, but sticking less than it should have). The campaign’s stated strategy to focus on Sussex and Warren Counties (which combined provide about 30% of the total vote) and then hope to carry Bergen County, bringing out Dems with less outreach.

I’ll spare you too many details of my opinion of this strategy and direction, much discussed by our team in spring and summer. Clearly, the path chosen failed miserably.  You can’t win the 5th without winning Bergen, and a strategy that ignores major donors, lacks formal infrastructure, ignores major interest groups, blows off netroots and sticks with a campaign manager (Cristobal Slobodzian) who promised to raise $400,000, then disappeared for months and raised little, didn’t open a Bergen County office till almost October, won’t be taken seriously no matter how earnest the candidate is or good the message. This can’t be blamed on external factors.

Now, Tod’s a good guy, a good communicator with something to say. But imagine a town council-level campaign for a federal campaign.  The aim was to increase vote totals in Sussex and Warren, yet Garrett got his highest totals overall, breaking 63% in Bergen, 66% in Passaic, 67% in Warren and breaking 72% in Sussex.  Want a contrast? 2008:

In fact, in each of the three elections, Garrett pulled down 61% of the vote in Warren County, was never below 64% in Sussex County, was between 56.9% and 58.1% in Passaic County and got 53.9%, 51.4% and 53.3% in Bergen County.

Obviously, there’s more. But, I’ll just close this part of the diary by saying this was a huge step backwards in many ways.

The BCDO

From the outset, the BCDO was looking to punt on this election in order to try and save their own county candidates.  This was evident as early as February 2009, when a “Retire Garrett Town Hall” meeting drew activists, prior Candidates, and local elected officials from Sussex and Bergen counties.  Quick agreement Garrett is horrible and has to go, it was quickly clear BCDO had no interest in running, recruiting, or raising money for a candidate.

As 2009 rolled on, some BCDO higher ups went so far as to indicate that a congressional race further motivate Republicans to the voting booth; they’d rather have no congressional candidate than risk hurting their campaigns.  This was on the heels of the very messy Ferriero trial, the split in the BCDO in terms of new leadership, a 3rd and 4th place finish in the 2009 Freeholder race and an activist base that was already skeptical of what would come next.

It was hard enough to find a candidate willing to run in these circumstances. It was my view all along that the right type of candidate with the right message, from a different county was a boon given BCDO’s problems, it took a major grassroots effort to get BCDO even to agree to put anyone on the top line of the ballot.  Needless to say, there was not going to be any coordination or support in terms of money, but potentially to voter lists and other resources (I was not privy to any discussions between Theise and BCDO, however, I think limited promises were not kept, and think that there was little leverage able to be used by a candidate with no money from outside of the County in this cycle anyway).

For better or worse, BCDO is the dominant political organization in the District when it comes to who runs for office – certainly in Bergen, and to a lesser extent for congressionals. To not believe in a candidate on the merits is one thing.  But to actively work against the very idea of a candidate, and promote the idea there is no candidate, as BCDO did, is stunning.

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In conclusion, BCDO did create obstacles in this race; a weakened BCDO may actually benefit future candidates. That said, redistricting will likely have a substantial impact on how the layout of the Fifth changes. Therefore the strategies of the past few elections are almost useless going forward – at least until we see the new Districts.  When redistricting occurs, we’ll certainly provide additional analysis on the impact on Congressional races and candidates.  However, it’s evident BCDO problems existed long before the Theise campaign started.  And a campaign that raised less than $20,000 with little voter outreach or formal infrastructure, that spent most of its efforts courting unlikely voters, is one with a doomed strategy.

What we do know is that 33% is the floor for Democratic support in the (currently drawn) District – that is, when a candidate has no money, no viable strategy, no organizational support, no infrastructure and no means to get a message out – this is what can be expected.  A small silver lining but at least now we know….

With redistricting on the horizon and the wipeout in County elections, it is evident that BCDO needs to regroup and transform itself into a formidable and credible organization, most importantly in a way that convinces Bergen residents that it’s a fresh start, with new goals and direction that working for the benefit of Bergen’s many residents (and the 5th CD), not the few insiders who steered the organization into the ground.

Comments (35)

  1. Hopeful

    is that with this wave election there was no chance of winning even if it was an excellent campaign.  

    That said, and bearing in mind the redistricting issue, I think this is very valuable to assess what else could be done.  

    Reply
  2. Bill W

    I think there’s something to be said for having some districts be safer than others, just to lend some stability to things. For instance, lets say NJ was split into 13 districts, with as close to an even partisan division as possible. Since Republican candidates got a bit over 40k more votes Tuesday, that would mean they would have won all thirteen seats.

    Yes, I know it’s a ridiculous example, since any number of things would have played out differently with such districts. But I shudder to think how many seats we could have lost across the country if every state was districted to maximize competitiveness. It could be the difference between having a bad night, and having a catastrophic, party-crippling night.  

    Reply
  3. Tod Theise

    Adam — We all knew that the 5th presented tremendous challenges even under the best circumstances.  This year’s election was hardly a best case scenario.  In fact, it was the worst defeat for Democrats imaginable.  No strategy would have worked because Garrett ran against Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama — not me.  In fact, he never mentioned my name during the campaign.  The GOP was united in taking back the House and taking Obama to the woodshed.  I was taken out of the equation.

    That said, before attributing epic fail status to the election in the 5th, it is enlightening to look at how other Dem challengers performed in comparison to me.

    In the 2nd District, Gary Stein lost by a 66-31% margin.

    In the 4th District, George Kleinhendler lost by a 69-28% margin.

    In the 11th District, Doug Herbert lost by a 67-31% margin.

    Even Ed Potosnak, with all the funding and support he received from national party and progressive organizations, lost to Leonard Lance — who faced a strong tea party challenge in the primary — by 18 %.  This was quite a step back from previous elections.

    In the 5th District, I lost to Garrett by a margin of 65-33% — a better performance than any other Dem challenger excluding Potosnak.  The reality is that I was faced with the following uniquely debilitating challenges:

    > Absolutely no support from the Democratic Party at the national, state or county level;

    > The BCDO, that was actively sabotaging my candidacy;

    > No support from my Chair in Warren County who is little more than a GOP lackey;

    > A Democratic Party that tanked in epic fashion across the nation;

    > A Bergen County ticket that imploded to the point I actually outperformed them in many towns, including Ridgewood;

    > Sussex County ran NO county-wide candidates and virtually no local candidates;  

    > Sheriff Spezziale, who had committed to pulling the Dem ticket to victory, dropped out of the Passic race and took $1.2 million in campaign cash with him — this gutted our efforts in Passaic County which were based on his very strong coattails;

    > Warren County had no Freeholder candidate running;

    > I had to work full time at a very demanding job during the campaign to support my family, including a daughter in college;

    > Other than The Record, the newspapers in the District ignored the campaign and gave Garrett a free pass.    

    Any analysis of the election in the 5th has to take these factors into account.  Looking at the race in proper perspective and comparing the performances of other Dem challengers,  my performance was relatively strong in an extremely bad year.  It wasn’t a matter of strategy.  It was a matter of a perfect storm in which no candidate could have flourished.    

    That said, thank you for all your help and support during the campaign.  The Democrats need intelligent, principled voices like yours more than ever.

    Reply
  4. Tod Theise
    Reply
  5. Thurman Hart

    In my time of either working with or studying or watching campaigns, I’ve generally noted that challengers tend to lose when they run an amateur campaign. No one gets to Congress by not knowing how to run a campaign. So when you have a professional going against an amateur, in pretty much any arena, the professional is going to win.

    That doesn’t mean bringing in “specialists” from Washington – local expertise is always superior than general expertise. Unfortunately, it still holds true that a prophet has no honor is his, or her, own house. So those of us who actually have some idea about running campaigns are often marginalized by a candidate who has “an idea” about how to win.  

    Reply
  6. Tod Theise

    I want to thank all those in the progressive community who fought the good fight this year.  It was a tough time to embrace and promote the higher values of humanity in an increasingly Darwinian political climate.  

    My X-mas wish this year is to be redistricted out of Scott Garrett’s clutches.  If not, I will be here in Warren County to support whoever decides to step up and take on Garrett.  

    Reply
  7. Bill W

    The next time you run across a moderate Republican who’s thinking about switching parties and challenging Garrett, tell them this: Don’t switch parties, and challenge Garrett. Unless the redistricting changes things drastically, this seat is staying “R”, and I’d rather have a Roukema in there than a Garrett. Sure, it’s a long shot, but so are all the other options.

    Reply

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