Jackson, who beat six better-funded, better-known candidates at a May convention to become the GOP ticket’s surprise No. 2, has been taking his own steps to keep the Republican Party at arm’s length.
The Chesapeake pastor has rebuffed the party’s suggestion that he tone down his rhetoric and steer clear of hot-button issues — much to the delight of his grassroots supporters, the frustration of some GOP loyalists and the surprise of almost no one. (Related: E.W. Jackson: In his own words)
More unexpectedly, Jackson has refused the party’s nuts-and-bolts logistical help, choosing not to tap into resources that include the GOP’s trove of voter data and more than 40 field offices around the state, according to four Republican operatives.
While the top of the ticket mostly talks jobs, Jackson has pushed his “liberty agenda,” which calls for limiting the federal government’s reach, promoting gun rights, and resisting “Obamacare.” And as he rejects the party’s messaging and logistical aid, some Republicans fear that he could not only handicap his own prospects but hurt the GOP nominee for governor, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II, with moderates and conservatives alike.
Jackson’s continued outspokenness — last month he called the Democratic Party the “anti-God party” for supporting abortion rights and gay marriage — could reflect on the whole Republican ticket and turn swing voters away, the GOP strategists said.
At the same time, Jackson’s decision to pass up basic ground-game help could discourage the Republicans’ tea party wing, which embraces his calls for limiting government, defending religious freedom, promoting school choice and defunding Planned Parenthood. If the party base sees Jackson struggling and concludes the GOP establishment snubbed him rather than the other way around, it might not turn out in droves for Cuccinelli, who is in a tight race with former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe.
“Their campaign seems to want to do their own thing,” said one of the operatives, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss a sensitive intra-party matter. “People have reached out to E.W.’s campaign and that help has been rejected.”
Said another strategist: “There’s a very strong anti-establishment vein in this. They are laying the groundwork actively to blame somebody else — the establishment — for losing.”
A representative for the Jackson campaign declined to comment on whether the campaign was taking advantage of the party’s voter data and logistical help, saying he would not respond to anonymous comments.
Candidates for virtually any public office rely on their state parties for help identifying which voters to target with phone calls, home visits and mailings. State Republican and Democratic parties, with funding from their national counterparts, also provide field offices around Virginia where individual campaigns can operate phone banks, make photocopies and use office supplies.
Jackson has taken a pass on all of that, according to the four strategists. When Jackson volunteers call voters or canvass neighborhoods, the strategists said, they work off the campaign’s own compilation of names, numbers and addresses instead of the party’s expansive database of likely Republicans, independents and Democrats.
It’s a virtually unheard-of forfeiture of resources for a statewide candidate. Jackson’s team does not coordinate with the party, which has its own army of volunteers knocking and dialing on behalf of the entire ticket, which can lead to duplication of effort, the strategists said. Instead of using phone banks set up in the party’s “victory offices” around the state, Jackson callers ring voters from home phones.
“They are building the entire thing from scratch,” one of the strategists said.
“In every election, our party works with the Republican National Committee, campaigns and other allies to build the infrastructure that our candidates need on the ground,” said Pat Mullins, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia. “That ‘boots on the ground’ infrastructure is in place and is open to all of our Republican candidates on the ballot this fall.”
Asked if Jackson’s campaign was availing itself of that infrastructure, Mullins did not answer directly. “I’ve been working with E.W. Jackson and his campaign since the day after the convention,” he said. “We’re working with them, and doing whatever we can to help them.”
The Jackson campaign representative, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss private campaign matters, said the candidate was open to suggestions on messaging from the party or anyone else. But he also said that Jackson is running on principles too heartfelt to soft-pedal, even if the party would rather see him stress economic issues, as Cuccinelli has and as term-limited Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) did with his “Bob’s for Jobs!” slogan four years ago.
“If your central focus is restoring liberty, it’s impossible to put that on the back burner,” the campaign representative said. “That’s one of the things that make him radically different than most people who are actively engaged in politics. Compromise is the order of the day for those people. And we’re not talking about whether a road should go through one county or another. We’re talking about compromising about whether you’re going to follow the Constitution.”
Tapping into the party’s voter database or using a victory office infrastructure might not seem to constitute ideological compromise on par with a message makeover. But help from the party typically comes with strings attached. When a campaign uses a party’s data to reach a voter by phone or in person, the campaign is often required to report back to the party about whether the voter is still at that number or address, is inclined to vote and for whom. That way, the party can determine which voters need to be contacted again for persuading, which only need to be reminded to go to the polls, and which can be written off.
Campaign workers for Jackson, who faces state Sen. Ralph S. Northam (D-Norfolk) in the race to succeed Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R), have been unwilling to share their collected data with the party, the strategists said.
“I think there’s some trust issues there,” one strategist said. “They’ve not been willing to share information both on the data side as well as general campaign operations with anyone else.”
An application form for people seeking unpaid internships with the Jackson campaign warns that the interns, who might sometimes work with “highly sensitive data,” must not share that information with anyone. “This includes other Republican campaigns,” the form reads.
The representative for the Jackson campaign said that form was typical of the non-disclosure agreements that are standard for any campaign. But the language suggested something more than that to the strategists, who said the statement seemed unusually blunt and public. The campaign’s appeal for interns was widely distributed as a “help wanted” e-mail.
“I’ve never seen it expressed in that manner in a document like that . . . in a solicitation flier,” the strategist said.
Some of Jackson’s grassroots supporters applaud his decision to resist the party’s attempt to shape his messaging — or muzzle him, as they see it. “This election, November 2013, is Armageddon for social conservatives in Virginia. If we don’t win . . . we could become the next California on marriage,” said Steve Waters, a Richmond-based political consultant who has done work for Jackson. “And I think E.W. will talk to that, and has talked to that. And I believe he’s the only one who’s articulating that message in a strong enough manner. Otherwise it’s the same old mumbo-jumbo — ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’ — that just makes people want to throw up.”
Yet at the same time, Waters would like to see the Jackson campaign use every resource available to it through the party to spread his message.
“When you’ve got a candidate like E.W., you’ve got to have a campaign team that knows how to protect him [from the party], but also knows how to get what it can out of the party,” he said. “Instead of working with the party and doing a little bit of trust-and-verify, they’re going their own way.”