Sunday, January 24, 2010

Lessons for Russ Carnahan from Massachusetts

The St. Louis Tea Party is now promoting t-shirts depicting Congressman Russ Carnahan as Martha Coakley, the Democratic candidate who miraculously managed to lose a Senate election in the blue state of Massachusetts.  Fortunately for all of us, Carnahan's opponen Ed Martin has not been spotted posing for any Cosmo spreads.  And Russ Carnahan is not by any stretch of the imagination running as bad of a campaign as Coakley, who vacationed in the Caymen Islands while Scott Brown was knocking on doors during a crucial time in the campaign.  Nevertheless, I think there are important lessons that Carnahan can learn from the campaign in a time where the Democratic Party national majorities are in jeopardy.

Here are a few of the lessons that can be learned from Coakley's failure:

Don't take blue districts for granted.  Yes, Congressman Carnahan won his last election by 36% percent.  But of course Obama won in Massachusetts in 2008 by 26%.  Democrats are at risk for a number of reasons: some people have bought the tea party rhetoric that providing affordable insurance for people and reducing the national deficit is "socialism", more people than that are frustrated that Democrats are taking too long and acting too cowardly in the face of Republican grandstanding, and most important of all is the horrible economy still suffering from the financial crises caused by greedy banks.  So it's a risky time, even for someone in as blue a district as Carnahan.

Perception can influence voters more than reality.  Like I said, Carnahan is no Coakley. He's busy doing the people's work in Congress. However, that doesn't stop Ed Martin, the Tea Party, and official tea party radio stations 97.1 and KMOX from running with the narrative that Carnahan doesn't listen to his constituents.  Every chance they get, they push the story that Carnahan doesn't listen, doesn't return calls, etc.  This narrative is aided by the fact that while Carnahan is busy being a congressman, Ed Martin is able to campaign full time, making it seem like he's much more receptive to the public.  Martin has also had creative events, such as a "town hall" and "MA Senate Watch Party" that help him to seem receptive.

Brown dominated social media by using it aggressively.  Scott Brown's win was crucially dependent upon an aggressive social media campaign.  Ed Martin has also used social media aggressively.  He's on Twitter frequently and has the right personality for it, sharing anything from trivial details of his life to ideological rants denying the existence of climate change.   Russ, on the other hand, shares primarily more dry updates about what he's doing.  It's certainly not as compelling as Martin, but overall is not bad, and he does have over 1,000 followers.  However, the real problem is facebook.  Martin has aggressively promoted his facebook fan page, and has gotten it to nearly 1,700 people.  He uses it to post links and commentary, and this leads to engagement from his fans.  On the other hand, Carnahan has not utilized his facebook fan page.  He has about 1200 fans, but these fans were not the result of work by the campaign and I can say that literally about 2/3 of those are people that I personally invited.  Furthermore, with an audience of 1200 people, Carnahan does not update his page!  Why would anyone pass up an opportunity to communicate with 1200 fans, most of whom are in the St. Louis region?  At the very least, he could connect the page up to his Twitter feed and communicate to all those people without even doing any extra work.  The more Russ Carnahan communicates what he's working on, the less vulnerable he will be to attacks from Martin and the TPs that he's "lazy" or "doesn't listen."

Don't allow your opponent to completely define himself.  One of the biggest flaws of the Coakley campaign was that they did not negatively define Scott Brown, allowing him to travel around the state portraying himself as an "independent," until the last week where she unleashed a flurry of negative ads.  Similarly, the Carnahan campaign seems to be content to allow Martin to do whatever he wants without going on the attack.  Some people think that the Carnahan campaign will just wait until late and then hammer Martin by pointing out his Jefferson City scandals and millions in wasted taxpayer money, but isn't that exactly the same strategy that failed for Coakley?  And it still doesn't explain why the Carnahan campaign doesn't take advantage of obvious points of attack that highlight Martin's flaws.  For example, the AP and FiredUp! Missouri reported on Ed Martin abusing St. Louisan's love of Anheuser-Busch by gathering names to oppose the InBev takeover and then using the email list and site to promote his own campaign (which he explicitly promised not to do as he was collecting names).  Why wouldn't the Carnahan campaign take advantage of an incident that highlight's one of the core weaknesses of Martin, his apparent lack of honesty and dubious ethics?  Similarly, why don't they respond when Martin makes ridiculous statements denying the existence of climate change, which clearly would not go over well in much of the 3rd congressional district?  Democrats in general need to do a better job fighting for their core values, and that includes being willing to aggressively take on the ideology of the right.

I'm hopeful that Russ Carnahan will win in  landslide like he did in 2008.  But I think it's important to take into account the flaws of the Coakley campaign, and to make sure to aggressively oppose the narrative the GOP and their sidekick tea partiers are spinning.

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