Harris, Freeman: It’s their election to lose
Column by Chris Graham
All I wanted to be able to do, I told myself throughout my 2008 campaign for Waynesboro City Council, was to think at 7 p.m. on Election Night that I’d done everything I could do to put myself in a position to be able to win.
Win or lose, I said to myself, many times, I didn’t want to leave anything on the table.
I lost, of course, and pretty miserably at that, and the postmortems aren’t yet over, almost two years later. It’s rare that I go more than a day or two without thinking about something that I could have done better or just differently.
It’s probably my personality. I haven’t coached youth basketball in eight years, and I still find myself on long drives scheming offensive systems, for that inevitable day when I get back into coaching.
It’s that type of personality that is required to win elections. I know that it’s in abundance on the side of the majority faction in local politics in Waynesboro. Among my first postmortems following the ’08 election was a lengthy sitdown with Vice Mayor Frank Lucente, who laid out for me in detail what his side had done to put itself in the position to gain its landslide victories, an effort that began not long after it had suffered a pretty significant setback at the polls in 2006, losing Ward D incumbent Reo Hatfield and coming up short in Ward C to effectively give political power to the center-progressive faction of Lorie Smith, Nancy Dowdy and Tom Reynolds.
The effort expended in ’06, ’07 and ’08 was all-the-stops. The good ol’ boys made sure to raise the money they’d need, but the work there was nothing new. What seems to me to have been something new was the work to build up the grassroots support for the faction. I’d consulted with Reynolds, Smith and Dowdy to find out what they had done in their campaigns and found that there really wasn’t much in terms of a playbook to build from there.
Door-to-door campaigning wasn’t at all seen as a necessity, though I decided to do some door-to-door in April just because I felt that you had to get out and meet as many people as you could when you’re running for office. There was no rhyme nor reason to what I was doing there, and so I spun my wheels a good bit, more so as I got word from some of the people who answered their doors that they’d already been visited by somebody from the other side.
I deciphered later that the good ol’ boys had been microtargeting, knocking on the doors of people listed in the party databases as conservative voters, being careful to waste as little time as necessary in engaging people in the process who were not likely or were less likely to vote for their guys.
That’s smart strategy, of course, and now as I type this column I want to smack myself in the forehead for not having thought of this first. It was only later during my exposure to the Barack Obama presidential campaign that I learned from the inside how this strategy can work. The Obama people were masterly organized, which is why Obama not only won the ’08 election against the campaign-in-disarray that was John McCain’s campaign but also why Obama was able to improve 15 percent on what John Kerry had done in Waynesboro in 2004 and was 15 percent ahead of what Creigh Deeds would do in Waynesboro in his run for governor a year later.
The key to winning elections is organization, organization, organization. It’s my guess that the majority faction is using its playbook from 2008 if only because, hey, they have a playbook, it worked for them really, really well, and why either mess with a good thing or sit back and relax when you’d have to assume that the other side would have figured you out and started playing by its best approximation of your playbook to try to make the next game winnable for their side.
I told you all of that to tell you this – I don’t know that the center-progressive faction with which I am ideologically aligned is playing the way I’d like to see them play.
I’m not saying that it’s for lack of focus or effort, but I look at the calendar as I write this on Monday, March 22, and it occurs to me that we’re six weeks and a day away from the May city elections, and I can tell you where the center-progressive candidates stand on the issues, and I can tell you that I think they’ll both do well in their debates against their challengers, but I can’t tell you that I know that they have anything in the way of a ground game that can translate what I think is their right stance on the issues of the day to victory on Election Day.
To be fair, neither am I hearing any buzz from conservatives about what their guys are doing to build their ground games, nor am I hearing that they’re anywhere near reaching a tipping point in terms of mass popular support from the voters.
I’d have expected to hear more from Mike Harris, who is challenging incumbent Lorie Smith in Ward D, in particular.
Maybe things are about to ramp up to that end, and I’m out of the loop. I’m assuming that is the case with Harris and Ward C challenger Jeff Freeman, because I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt right now considering how 2008 went for conservatives.
Even though Smith is the incumbent in Ward D, and ideological ally Robert Johnson Jr. is running for a seat held by fellow center-progressive Nancy Dowdy, my read of the calculus of this election is that things are in favor of the conservatives at the outset, and that the only way we’re going to see a change in that calculus between now and Election Day is if Smith and Johnson force that change.
Six weeks out from May 4, I’m calling this race Harris’ and Freeman’s to lose.