How treacherous do Democratic campaign strategists rate the 2014 midterm election environment? We need look no further than incumbent Sen. Mark Warner’s’ risky decision to try to deflate Republican attacks on him for voting with the president on Obamacare. The latest poll gave the former governor a 15 percentage point lead in his re-election race, along with a 55 percent job approval. So what’s the worry?
This seems especially true given the somnambulant campaign of presumed GOP Senate nominee Ed Gillespie. We use “presumed” since there is no evidence the former Republican National Committee chairman sees campaigning as something more than dialing for dollars. The Gillespie campaign has so far underwhelmed many likely delegates now being chosen for the party’s nominating convention in June. His campaign theme seems to be, “I’m the only guy who can raise the money needed to run a real campaign.”
While there is still time for Gillespie to focus his meandering campaign on more than money, Warner’s crossover Obamacare dribble indicates that the incumbent and the challenger have different views on what constitutes political campaigning.
After dribbling the Obamacare ball with his left hand since 2009, Mr. Warner switched over to the right side in an op-ed for the Politico. Warner and the five other Democratic senators who signed the piece appear to have adopted Democratic pollster Celinda Lake’s “fix it, don’t defend it” Obamacare strategy.
The highly respected Lake believes pro-Obamacare Democrats running for re-election have two practical options. One is to defend their pro-Obamacare votes without reservation. But Lake believes this approach will lose vital swing voters needed to win in some states and districts. The second strategy is akin to what is called “guilty with an explanation” in traffic court. You admit the president’s health insurance reform law is not perfect and turn the debate toward how best to fix it, not repeal it. Lake’s formulation aims to keep the Democratic base happy while offering an olive branch to those independent and Republican-leaning voters unhappy with Obamacare but who also, in Virginia, generally give incumbents such as Warner good job approval ratings.
In the Politico piece, Warner & Co. take credit for what people like about the law while promising many fixes demanded by the law’s critics. Logic suggests Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will have the body vote on certain fixes this year to give Warner and others increased credibility on the issue.
We get the strategy. Yet we are puzzled: Why does Warner need to go on offense on Obamacare now? The general thinking is that neither Gillespie nor the other GOP Senate wannabees pose a serious threat to Warner’s re-election chances. Why give them an opening to say Warner knew that Obamacare had serious problems but still voted to force it on the people?
Our bet: Warner believes his only serious threat — the novice Gillespie — has yet to make the transition from campaign adviser to candidate. This gives the incumbent free rein to address the key variable in 2014: the fact that voter turnout will be roughly half of what is was in 2012.
Non-presidential year turnout skews heavily to high- and medium-information consumers. Voters will be disproportionately older, earn higher incomes and be better educated. Mr. Gillespie, like most trained political consultants, appears to believe that all you need to reach voters is gobs of money to buy attack TV advertisements. Warner, on the other hand, values a smart campaign generating positive policy-related stories, which are perfect for making a positive impression on a higher-information electorate.
Warner’s Politico op-ed, then, really is a dare. Either the presumptive GOP nominee shows that his campaign team has game and responds with something more than just attacks, or they aren’t ready for prime time, as we suggested might prove the case last December.
Warner opened up a big can of Obamacare political worms. It is true that such creatures are hard to control. But he’s betting that Gillespie’s rookie status and “play it safe” campaign team aren’t ready to deal with his crossover dribble.
Norman Leahy is an editor of the conservative Web site BearingDrift.com and producer of the political radio show “The Score.” Paul Goldman is a former chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia. They are blogging together on All Opinions Are Local during Virginia’s 2014 General Assembly session.