Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Ballot of Vic Rawl

Lessons Dems can learn in primary politics

Posted by Greg Hambrick on Wed, Jun 23, 2010 at 6:00 AM

Democratic Primary winner Alvin Greene has left party insiders and political observers stunned at his success. Much like a week-long trip to Argentina, Greene is the gift that keeps on giving. Did you hear he asked a Time reporter if the candidate got paid for interviews? Don't get any ideas, Nikki Haley.

There's more than enough drama from Greene to last the rest of the campaign cycle, including the riddle of who paid the $10,000 filing fee (we're shocked Howard Rich hasn't been blamed for that one yet) and the after-school special on when not to share pornographic material (hint: it involves a university computer lab and an obviously unwilling coed.)

While fun, these mysteries will likely be lost in a few years. When someone refers to being "Alvin Greened," they won't be talking about a suspicious way to spend 10 grand or really bad collegiate come-on lines. They'll be talking about grossly, terribly, horribly misreading primary voters.

Much has been said about Greene's surprising win, as well as Benjamin Frasier's in the 1st Congressional District, but these weren't wins for these shoestring campaigns; they were epic defeats for the two candidates who were actually wearing down shoe leather and tire tread as they spent months hitting up party regulars for cash and votes.

Rawl's campaign had more than $180,000 in campaign coffers waiting to be used. Worse yet, it was clear he needed to desperately spend that money. Public Policy Polling found weeks before the primary that only 4 percent of Democrats polled had a favorable opinion of Rawl. PPP Director Tom Jensen says that amounts to zero name recognition. Yet, Democratic consultant Lachlan McIntosh says the campaign believed it had the nomination locked up.

"There was a false sense of where they stood with the voters," he says. "You just can't do that."

As Frasier's foe in the 1st District primary, Robert Burton worked hard to find the money he needed to be competitive, with little success. But he worked even harder to secure support from every Democratic voter he could find ... at county party meetings and other Democratic events.

"He didn't really run a campaign beyond campaigning to the activists," McIntosh says. "Party activists are not the same as primary voters."

Statewide, the primary turnout rose by more than 50,000 voters compared to 2006's statewide races. Burton didn't focus on bringing out these voters; instead, he looked for support from the party faithful. Meanwhile, McIntosh says Frasier spent what little money he had on TV ads.

"He communicated with voters," he says. "People vote for who they've heard from."

But McIntosh offers a dose of reality: "They were always major long shots, and people need not lose track of that."

The party can find some solace in a strong showing from candidates on the section of the ballot where they can be most competitive: state offices.

Gubernatorial candidate Vincent Sheheen easily won the three-way race for the Democratic nomination, avoiding the kind of bloody runoff that had Gresham Barrett laying out the argument against fellow Republican Nikki Haley. The party can unify behind Sheheen on the statewide ticket, as well as energized competitors like Ashley Cooper for lieutenant governor and Robert Barber for comptroller general (both McIntosh clients), as well as Frank Holleman for education superintendent and Matthew Richardson for attorney general.

McIntosh hopes potential 2012 candidates learn from 2010.

"I hope we can encourage our candidates to run more modern campaigns and to communicate with voters," McIntosh says.

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