9 Most Asked Questions, Part 2 of 3
August 26th, 2012
A discussion with former State Senator Sheila Kuehl about Torie Osborn’s landmark run for California State Assembly. This is the second in a series of three posts. (First post found here.)
Q: Your race drew statewide and even some national attention because you were taking on Sacramento, a sitting legislator as well as a sitting Mayor, and the full force and deep pockets of the speaker of the Assembly. How did that happen?
A: Well, it’s important to remember that I did not choose to take on Sacramento. Sacramento chose to run against me. I decided to run for this open seat in 2009 — that summer I met with and shook hands with opponent Mayor Richard Bloom. I’d been actively campaigning for over a year when suddenly Assemblymember Butler moved into the district, with the support of Sacramento. I’m a grassroots organizer. I don’t back down to power, or shrink in the face of tough odds. And when Sacramento decided to throw punches at me, I was certainly going to throw them back.
The lesson of my campaign is not that you can’t take on power. It’s that it is always worth it to fight for what you believe. It is always worth it to be true to your heart. It is always worth it to be part of a movement, and to be in service of training young people.
I hope the near success and the national visibility of my campaign – in particular Tom Hayden’s extraordinary article in The Nation – influences future leaders in Sacramento to seriously consider the 2/3 majority issue as the overriding priority before putting their incumbency machinery into high gear against strong, local leaders.
Q: You lost in the closest four-way race in California history – the range was 24.3%-25.8%, or 1.4%, of 62,400 votes cast, separating fourth place from the top vote. On campaign mechanics: What would you have done differently?
A: I’m proud of my 15,155 votes, only some 700 out of second place. Monday morning quarterbacking is a dangerous sport. When you lose a heart-breaker like this, everyone has a “coulda woulda shoulda”. After sorting through all of them, I’ve come to believe, in order of importance:
l. Voter turnout combined with ballot designation. I was the outsider, the change agent, the riskier choice — and I came in third against two elected Democrats by a sliver of difference. Ultimately, just a few more voters went with the safer choices. I call it my “cookie-crumbles, luck-of-the-draw, coin-toss, near-win!” Pundits called it “the crapshoot primary.” Our strategy was based on a projected 40% voter turnout, but this normally high-voting district had a shockingly low 25% turnout. In a low-voter turnout election, the candidate with the toughest lift suffers. The “Director, California Nonprofit” didn’t capture my strengths for those who didn’t know me, and they went with the electeds.
2. Field. In retrospect, I think we should have invested more in professional field, less in mail. In a super-close race, field can make 1-2% difference, and that’s what we needed. We had a field plan that was part traditional, part “movement” — i.e. volunteer based because of my passionate and large support base. But my volunteers didn’t show up until the very end — too little, too late. I think now that was our fault: in order to project strength against the Sacramento-based campaign against us, we seemed over-confident to our own supporters, despite our polls showing the tie that was indeed the outcome. People assumed I’d win, based on our energy and grassroots endorsements, so they didn’t show up in droves to help until too late.
3. Social media. Perhaps we should also have tried an experimental social media ad buy. It’s not tested so the consultants don’t like it, but it might have gotten us 500 votes.
4. In the “fickle fate” category, one cookie that crumbled the other way was the LA Times endorsement. Originally they were planning to endorse in the AD 50 primary race but decided at the last minute to substitute the Ventura congressional race. I think I would have had a great shot at that endorsement – the Times likes independent, unusual candidates. AD 50 is the last bastion of LA Times reader strength so that could easily have translated into the winning votes.
But it just wasn’t meant to be.
Q: Why did you do negative mailers? Didn’t this hurt your brand, which is a sunny-side up kind of optimism?
A: In The Political Brain, progressive political guru Drew Weston posits that negative media is absolutely necessary for a full throttle campaign – especially for a come-from-behind candidate or issue.
Unfortunately, good liberals and progressives feel a lot of ambivalence about going negative. There is what I would call a knee-jerk “it’s better to be noble than win” attitude – what sometimes seems like comfort with outsider status, with staying at the margins, rather than doing what is necessary to win. Since I was the underdog candidate running against two people with elected ballot titles, with our polling showing a dead heat, we needed to undermine the opponents’ messages. That meant going negative. It wasn’t up for debate.
Still, 90% of our campaign was positive. We sent 22 mailers and 2 of them were negative. One was a tongue-in-cheek hit on Assemblymember Butler’s silly, wasteful baby bottle distribution. That mailer doesn’t seem to have bothered anyone.
The other negative piece pointed out her votes for big cuts in the state budget. Our polling showed overwhelmingly that the voters wanted someone to stand up and say NO on cuts to education and senior services. In retrospect, I regret the convoluted message and tone of that mailer but I do not regret going negative per se. The question I pose back to those who criticize that aspect of my campaign is: Is a hard-hitting negative mailer worse than a misleading “re-election” campaign? Or mailers with pictures and quotes implying endorsements that don’t exist? Wasn’t it questionably ethical for the Speaker to order his caucus to assign an unprecedented 47 delegates to fix the state party endorsement and then accuse me of packing local club endorsement meetings? In truth, two campaigns went negative but one pretended that it didn’t.
Read Part 3 of the series.