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On Monday I posted my ground-eye view of the state’s local Democratic campaign. Now, we’re through the other side and lots of people are examining what went right and, though you might not see it, anything that went wrong. (People love a success and cluck at a failure, after all.) After the Coakley disaster, the state Democratic party, headed up by John Walsh, did some serious soul searching. Since grassroots campaigning is Walsh’s stock in trade, I’m not sure that there was much he could have done during that January, 2010 special election, if the candidate wasn’t accepting advice. And certainly, Coakley, while a smart prosecutor and an OK stumper, was not the sort of candidate to inspire the grassroots to action in the middle of a cold month and a short lead time.
But examine it the party did anyway, and came up with the coordinated campaign idea. In 2010, the coordinated campaign reelected Deval Patrick to the Governorship in the middle of a pretty tough year for incumbents, and the “red wave” that swept the rest of the country largely passed us by, losing the Dems only some seats in the House and gaining them one in the state Senate. Even the gains for Republicans (15 to 30 state House seats) weren’t enough to disturb the Dem supermajority.
I worked on that campaign a bit in 2010, and there were some bugs to work out with the coordinated campaign. For instance, there was always tension between turning out voters for local races that might not vote for Patrick, and vice versa. Everyone worked together, but there was some grumbling. When the results of working together became apparent (fewer losses in MA, a reelection for Patrick despite the economy), I think those concerns were alleviated. The efficiency of shared resources overcame the peculiarities of local vs. statewide campaigns.
So now, in 2012, I saw the Coordinated Campaign v2.0. It was smoother, and so far as I saw, no grumbling. I think Tierney can thank the coordinated campaign for winning back his seat in a race he was expected to lose - turning out the Dem vote for Warren (and Obama, though that was not the emphasis) had to have helped him overcome the strong challenge from Tisei.
Grassroots campaigns need a lot of things. First and foremost, exciting candidates, especially at the top of the ticket (but all the way down helps). That’s how you get people interested in volunteering. In the Lowell Dem campaign, of course I saw a lot of the old hats, people who are always around. But I met a big slate of dedicated (by dedicated, I mean every day dedicated) first-timers. And when you coordinate a campaign up and down ballot, not only are you getting the “coattail” effect from having great candidates up the ticket, like Obama or Warren, but you get their volunteers as well.
And caring about the downticket races does a few things. It links resources together, but also people. It increases the footprint of each campaign since it works together. And it helps to increase the Democratic (and hopefully progressive) bench of candidates that in the future might want to run for higher office.
Of course, it also helps that this was a Democratic year. People were fed up with the extremism of the national Republican party, and enabling them by sending Congress more Republicans, even if they were/pretended to be moderates, was something the voters across the country didn’t feel like doing. But every race which won did it with the hard work of grassroots campaigns, from Obama (whose presence in MA was nonexistent for the most part, but ask NH) down to our Senate race, and below. Let’s face it, Niki Tsongas was a shoe-in for reelection against Golnik. I mean, 35% seems to be his ceiling. But she, and her campaign, worked really hard in the coordinated campaign office in Lowell. As did Eileen Donoghue’s, another shoe-in against conspiracy-nut Jim Buba.
As I said, success stories get lots of praise, and the Globe does its share:
The vaunted machine flexed its considerable muscle with a ground game that reclaimed the US Senate seat in Massachusetts, while salvaging the campaign of Representative John F. Tierney, on a night when every congressional seat in New England went to a Democrat or an independent.
“Here’s the reality: There has been a wipeout of the GOP in the Northeast,” said Todd Domke, a Republican strategist. “And it’s been particularly bad in Massachusetts.”
In addition to their congressional successes, the Democrats picked up four seats in the Legislature.
The Democrats were aided by a strong get-out-the-vote effort in Massachusetts and the experience of activists who had been coordinating since Deval Patrick’s grass-roots win in 2006.
I sort of object to the term “machine” in that it has negative connotations. The grassroots coordinated campaign was not negative in the slightest. It was full of optimistic, hopeful, excited people that I was privileged to work alongside. There wasn’t some sort of top-down from-on-high force coming down on the local campaigns. When you think of “Mayor Menino’s machine” for instance, it’s usually seen in a sort of negative light.
As to the last sentence, I would definitely say experienced activists were a factor…but in all honesty, we were outmatched by vivacious newcomers who put us to shame in a lot of cases. Which tickled me seven ways to Sunday - the next time there’s a great candidate, they may well come back again!
All in all, Chairman John Walsh and the Warren campaign staffers deserve so much credit for what they’ve put together. And the first thing they will tell you is that they don’t deserve it - the volunteers do. That is why these kinds of campaigns keep winning here in Massachusetts. There’s a trust in the power of people to take initiative and get out there.
I think the basking will happen for another day or so and then we’ll get back to the hard work. Coming up are some hard choices both at the state level and nationally. I know we’re sending the best back to Washington to help get it done.
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