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The Message is the Game

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You know Virginia has changed when being labeled a socialist by your opponent is less damaging than being labeled a Republican.

Republican candidates all across the commonwealth sought to link their opponents with the national Democrats running for president on platforms of economic wealth transfer and nationalized health care. In the key suburban districts, which were once the GOP base, and in a massive turnout for a ballot with no statewide race, voters were unmoved. “We’ll take some of that here, too,” they seemed to say.

It was a Republican message tailor-made to turn out their opponents in droves.

Contrast that with the following statement issued by Speaker (for two more months) Kirk Cox of Colonial Heights, who was returned by his court-drawn district despite a nationwide effort to destroy him:

“I am deeply proud of what the House of Delegates has accomplished during the last two decades. We balanced the budget, protected our AAA bond-rating through a major recession, passed four teacher pay raises in six years, froze college tuition, made major reforms to our transportation system, secured our state’s pension system for the future, and guided Virginia to the nation’s top state for business.”

When did that clear statement of Republican accomplishment get communicated? Late Tuesday night as the results were showing an apparent six-seat gain for the Democrats in the House. In other words, after the smoke had cleared. That was not the message being emphasized as the nasty television and social media advertisements proliferated pre-election.
Even more obviously lacking was any message about what a refreshed Republican majority would do next. There was nothing as clear and magnetic as “No Car Tax” or “Bob’s for Jobs,” which elected the last two Republican governors. Voters on November 5 knew what Democrats would do with power but had no clue what Republicans would do.
Note the analysis so far has not even mentioned the greatest Democratic turnout generator in history, President Donald J. Trump. Given the results obtained by Republicans seeking to stay out of his shadow, his many partisans will say with some justification that was a mistake. Perhaps more should have proudly worn their MAGA hats on Election Day, as did one (one!) voter I saw in my Richmond City precinct.

None of the House seats which flipped to Democrats in the 2017 post-Trump wave election flipped back this year. Winning at least a few of those back was crucial to any strategy to maintain Republican control, and the Democrats held them all. Even where the 2017 winners departed to run for the Senate, new Democrats held the seats. Instead, a few more marginal seats moved to the Democrats.

The Senate GOP ran a purely defensive election, seriously challenging no incumbent Democrats. In the end, it retained 19 seats and some functional leverage in the Senate. The two seats it lost were seats it barely won in 2015, and all knew they were uphill. It staved off a worse outcome. The House Republicans ventured more and lost more.
A strategic move which succeeded wildly was the redrawn House of Delegates map, clearly a net gain for Democrats overall. When opportunity beckoned, Democrats ignored their previous support for the 2011 district plan, blessed by a Democratic Department of Justice, and united in denouncing it as racist. Several of the districts changed sides just as the new plan ordained.

Yes, an obscene amount of money was spent, much of it flowing in from liberal and union special interests outside of the commonwealth. But many of the failed Republican campaigns also had the largest budgets they have ever seen. If their national dollars didn’t match up, why not? What the Democrats really had, and the Republicans really lacked, was a message, which also motivates donors. All the money in the world cannot invent a positive reason for voters to show up.

The state Senate races in the Richmond region were instructive. Democrats targeted GOP senators Siobhan Dunnavant and Glen Sturtevant for defeat, largely on the strength of growing Democratic margins in Henrico County. To add to their chances, a major effort sought to tie them both to Chesterfield Republican Senator Amanda Chase, with her almost Trumpian gift for self-inflicted damage. Dunnavant was also directly attacked for supporting Trump. (See above.)

Ultimately Dunnavant saved her campaign by looking straight into the camera and telling voters about all the healthcare bills she had sponsored in one term that were signed by two Democratic governors. In a health care election, it’s an advantage to be a recognized and liked provider.

Sturtevant’s final message, on the other hand, was a virtual me-too of the main Democratic themes, promising support for additional gun restrictions, health insurance mandates and teacher pay. A final mailer attacking his opponent for her faith didn’t sit well with many voters. His many references to his own “independence” from partisan considerations irritated his base.

Message. This game is all about message. Tell the voters what you have done, what you will do next, and why it matters. In some districts the partisan outcome is not in doubt, but in competitive seats, message matters most.

Stephen Haner is Senior Fellow for State and Local Tax Policy at the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy.

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