Thursday, November 29, 2018

The Trump Kiss Of Death: Republicans Learn To Lose In South Carolina


Yesterday in this time slot, we looked at the most unexpected congressional win of 2018, Kendra Horn's in Oklahoma City. But there was an almost an unlikely a win in another deep red state: South Carolina. OK-05 has a PVI of R+10... and so does SC-01. Trump won both districts by double digits in 2016-- and his candidates narrowly lost each November 6. The similarities are stunning:

Trump v Hillary- 53.2%- 39.8%
Horn (D) v Russell (R)- 50.7%- 49.3% (3,338 vote margin)


Trump v Hillary- 53.5%- 40.4%
Cunningham (D) v Arrington (R)- 50.7%- 49.3% (3,982 vote magin)
Joe Cunningham has already added his name to the Moulton letter against Pelosi, an inauspicious beginning of a congressional career for a Democrat. No one inside the Beltway thought he had any chance to win. Nate Silver's final forecast was a 9.4% shot (not even 1 on 10. He gave Arrington a 90.6% chance winning and the only public poll had her over Cunningham 49-42%.

Cunningham outraged Arrington $1,908,175 to $1,313,382 with $346,909 of her money self-funded). It's worth noting that much of what she raised had gone into the primary campaign against incumbent Mark Sanford. The NRCC spent $228,412 attacking Cunningham, while neither the DCCC nor Pelosi's SuperPAC spent a cent to help Cunningham. They didn't believe his race was worth investing in.

Cunningham's policy positions were moderate (neither progressive nor conservative). Example: he didn't come out for Medicare-for-All but his website states that he believes "healthcare is a right, not a privilege. No one in America should go bankrupt because they get sick. In the United States, no one should forego necessary or preventative care because they are unable to afford it... One of the many ways we can improve our current healthcare system is by encouraging the federal government to negotiate with drug companies to lower medication prices for people on Medicare, similar to how the Veterans Affairs Department does. Another possibility is allowing more middle class families to qualify for tax breaks to reduce their healthcare costs. We should also explore lowering the Medicare age requirement from 65 to 55 over the course of ten years." What you might term a liberal-leaning position for a red district. The Blue Dogs ignored him and the New Dems put him on their watch list rather than endorsing him.

The ad above was devastating for Arrington. But Monday evening the Post and Courier took a deep dive into how she could have lost in such a red district, a Republican disaster almost entirely of Trump's making. She beat Sanford because of Trump's last minute endorsement but she could never raise the money she needed to deal effectively with Cunningham and the NRCC refused to put significant resources into the race. They had, according to her general consultant, Andrew Boucher, been "pressing panic buttons since June here, screaming and yelling to little avail.”
But outwardly, the Arrington campaign exhibited little, if any, signs during the race that they were concerned about some of the factors they now say led to their candidate’s electoral downfall. The Trump-heavy messaging that worked for them in the primary stayed largely the same.

Some trouble spots are obvious, like the fundraising gap Arrington could never seem to close, or the fact that Cunningham beat them to TV and stayed on the air throughout the general election campaign.

Other challenges, like Arrington’s failure to appeal to suburban Republican swing voters, becomes a more complicated story to tell. Was it really a split among Republicans who backed Sanford, like she hinted at during her concession speech, or was this a Trump referendum vote?

What happened in South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District has been largely reduced to catch-all explanations and sweeping generalizations about issues like offshore drilling, but the story of Arrington’s loss is as nuanced as the coastal district itself.

Though historical election data gives a Republican candidate in the district a built-in 10-point advantage, it is a unique district. In 2016, Trump bested Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in the district by 13 points.

By contrast, the more moderate Mitt Romney outdid President Barack Obama in the district by 18 points.

But Charleston, the most populous county in the district, has shown some movement to the left, morphing in recent years from red to purple in voting preference.

Fundraising challenges

While national analysts continually categorized the district as “safe Republican,” Arrington and members of her campaign team met with the National Republican Congressional Committee in Washington, a customary practice following a primary win.

At the June 20 meeting, Boucher said their goal was to be placed into the NRCC’s “Young Guns” program for competitive congressional seats, where the NRCC would aggressively invest in TV ads and staffing resources for candidates.

Instead, they were put into the Vanguard Program, a designation that treated Arrington like a victor-in-waiting rather than a challenger-in-need. Even NRCC Chairman Steve Stivers said in a July press release that he had “no doubt” that Vanguard candidates like Arrington would win in November.

Efforts to reach the NRCC for comment were unsuccessful.

Arrington, meanwhile, struggled to fundraise.

On TV alone, the Arrington campaign said their numbers show Cunningham outspent them nearly 3 to 1.

The latest publicly available federal election reports from October show Cunningham raised about $1.9 million to Arrington’s $1.3 million during the election cycle. Arrington also dropped an estimated $346,909 to self-finance her run, according to campaign finance watchdog  Post-election numbers due in December could show an even wider gap.

However, the numbers alone don’t tell the full story.

“Her dollar amount comes in over $1 million but a huge chunk of that went into the primary,” Boucher said. “When we were running in the primary, we had to spend every dollar we had to win. We couldn’t spend money to build campaign infrastructure.”

Arrington’s campaign had just three full-time staffers compared with the 10 or so with the Cunningham campaign.

None of Arrington’s full-time positions were dedicated to fundraising. Boucher confirmed that position was contracted out. By contrast, Cunningham dedicated four full-time staffers to fundraising.

But when fundraising numbers showed Arrington trailing Cunningham in a Republican district in mid-October, Arrington campaign strategist and spokesman Michael Mulé issued comments about their alleged momentum and the “tremendous support Katie has across the district.”

South Carolina Republican strategist Walter Whetsell said fundraising can be a reflection of a candidate’s ability or inability to connect with voters. He has run GOP congressional campaigns in South Carolina for U.S. Reps. Jeff Duncan and Ralph Norman.

“In political terms, there are two primary factors that define the best candidates: Their ability to raise money and their ability to get voters to like them,” Whetsell said.

But when pressed as to whether they thought they had a likeability issue with Arrington, Mulé and Boucher denied it. Boucher called Arrington “one of the best stump speakers” he had ever seen. Mulé said she was relentless despite being in excruciating pain every day following her June 22 car accident in which she was critically injured.

“Money talks, and it certainly did in this race,” Mulé said. “But money also made an issue out of something that wasn’t really an issue.”

Offshore drilling

In August and September, the Arrington campaign conducted polls asking voters for their most important issue in the race.

Illegal immigration was at the top followed by jobs and the economy. Offshore drilling polled at 1 percent, Boucher said. The highest it ever got, he said, was 4 percent.

“This is what is called a MacGuffin. It is an issue by which someone can target a specific demographic that they need, right?” Boucher said. “This was the issue that Joe Cunningham successfully was able to use to target the Democratic vote. If it has been a different Republican nominee, it would have been a different localized issue.”

The issue began to take off after Arrington stated during the primary at a Beaufort League of Women Voters forum that she supported Trump lifting the ban on offshore drilling along the South Carolina coast.

When two coastal mayors, who identify as Republicans, later endorsed Cunningham because of Arrington’s stance, she then issued a statement saying she did not did not support drilling.

To combat the comment, Arrington reiterated her opposition to offshore drilling at every turn. She also accused Cunningham of being a one-issue candidate.

Behind the scenes, the Arrington campaign spent about $50,000 on digital advertising to get their message out along with a targeted mailer campaign.

The issue was important enough that Arrington addressed the issue in a TV ad, where she stated she had met with the president to demand an exemption for the Palmetto State.

But by then, it may have been too little too late.

The Cunningham campaign had the Republican mayors-- Isle of Palms Mayor Jimmy Carroll and Folly Beach Mayor Tim Goodwin-- appearing on TV ads supporting Cunningham.

“That gave Republicans permission to cross the aisle and vote for a Democrat,” said Tyler Jones, Cunningham’s spokesman and strategist. “I’ve been working in this business 15 years in South Carolina, and I can tell you that’s never happened before-- ever.”

Whetsell said the offshore drilling issue also represented something far more challenging for Arrington to overcome.

“Katie Arrington’s defenders have missed the point on the relevance of the offshore drilling issue,” he said. “It’s arguable that offshore drilling cost her this election. If it did, it wasn’t on the merits of the issue. It was on the perception that she changed her position.

“What made this issue toxic was that voters perceived that she was misleading them. They perceived that she took one position in the primary then flip-flopped in the general.”

But when Arrington got her chance to speak publicly after her loss, she first blamed Sanford, whom she hammered in the primary for his Trump criticism.

Her unconventional concession speech comments flicked at something few national watchers understood about the underlying dynamics on the ground in this political race.

“You had an internal Republican war going on down there,” said Katon Dawson, a former South Carolina GOP Chairman.

  “With Katie backing the president in the primary and getting some help from him at the last minute to whip Mark, while you’ve got Mark talking about the things that matter to him and his opposition to the president, well, that just doesn’t lend itself to a unified party.”
Charleston’s suburbs turned out to be the battlefield.

Suburban voters and the Trump factor

Arrington’s loss looks baffling on a map. The 1st Congressional District wraps around parts of Charleston, Berkeley, Dorchester, Colleton and Beaufort counties-- linking a conservative mix of retirees, suburbanites and military veterans.

Arrington won Berkeley, Dorchester, Colleton and Beaufort counties. Where she lost was Charleston County, and specifically in suburban areas like Mount Pleasant and West Ashley.

“What defines a suburb?” Boucher hypothetically asked his fellow Republicans. “It’s a place where people care more about what their neighbors think than they do about their own political opinions.”

More seriously, Boucher said the hallmark of a suburban district is looking at the split between “Romney Republicans” and “Trump Republicans.” Where 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney performed better than Trump did in 2016, they considered a suburb.

Arrington knocked on doors in suburban areas of Mount Pleasant and West Ashley from August through the third week in September, Boucher said.

But if the Arrington campaign was aware that they needed to sway Republican swing voters-- especially GOP-leaning women who are finding it difficult to defend Trump-- their messaging didn’t reflect that.

Instead, it echoed national GOP talking points, which included equating a vote for Cunningham as a vote for Nancy Pelosi and claims that Cunningham favored an open border policy.

Already, Charleston Republicans are trying to take lessons from the loss.

“We can’t act like things haven’t changed,” said Larry Kobrovsky, chairman of the Charleston Republican Party. “To win in Charleston County, we have to now go beyond our base.”

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At 1:51 PM, Blogger edmondo said...

Nancy Pelosi is the most hated woman politician in America. Christ, even Hillary has higher favorable than Pelosi. Voting against Pelosi will hurt no one's career.

At 5:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

trump's 'kiss of death' got him a bigger majority in the senate and only a standard loss in the house.

Like Wallace Shawn's "inconceivable!", I do not think the phrase means what you think it means.



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