For one reason or another I haven’t blogged in awhile so I’m going to make it all up in one fell swoop by writing about the campaign that’s been keeping me busy.
Back in early March, when the two candidates in the 2nd District were George Holding and Renee Ellmers, George’s campaign took a poll.
He had a ten point lead over Ellmers with 25% of the voters undecided. The race wasn’t a shoo-in. Renee was going to do plenty to try to change those numbers and she had plenty of money – more than George. But George only needed 40% of the undecided vote to win and it looked like he could get a lot more, plus part of Renee’s vote.
In addition, in a primary where three-fourths of the voters are Conservatives (with 25% calling themselves Somewhat Conservative and 50% Very Conservative), Renee Ellmers was left of center: 52% of the voters viewed her as either a Moderate or a Liberal while 20% viewed her as ‘Somewhat’ Conservative. Hardly a soul saw her as Very Conservative.
Voters did see George Holding as a Conservative. Very few voters viewed him as a Moderate and none mistook him for a Liberal. But he did have a problem: Among the 40% of the voters who understood George’s conservative record he led by 20 points. But half the voters didn’t know of his record. And weren’t certain of his ideology. They needed more information. And that became an immediate campaign goal: To tell voters about George Holding’s record.
The same problem cropped up over and over in the poll, in other ways. Voters knew plenty, a lot of it negative, about Renee Ellmers. But they needed more information about George Holding.
Holding had a Favorable of 40% and an Unfavorable of 5%. Hardly anyone was Unfavorable to him. But, again, half the voters didn’t have an opinion. Increasing the number of voters who are Favorable to George matters a lot.
Ellmers had a problem of her own: While she was better known she was also a lot more unpopular than Holding. Her Favorables were around 40%, roughly the same as Holdings. But her Unfavorables – at 30% — were abnormally high for a Republican elected official running in a Republican Primary.
As campaigns go, the poll gave us a clear picture of the race. But that was about to change because, as soon as he lost his Primary to Richard Burr on March 15th, perennial candidate Greg Brannon dove into the race for Congress in the 2nd District.
That meant a new poll – and when it was done it showed a different picture.
After heavily courting Tea Party voters in his two Senate Primaries, Brannon had a following. With a Favorable of 30% he was less known than either Ellmers or Holding but to the extent he was known and liked it was by Very Conservative voters. The same people who were likely to vote for Holding.
How Brannon’s entry changed the race was simple: He split the Conservative vote, particularly among the Very Conservative and Tea Party voters (about 10% of the voters describe themselves as Tea Partyers). He trailed both Holding and Ellmers. But by splitting Conservatives he hurt Holding and helped Ellmers.
Brannon turned the campaign into a horse race with Holding and Ellmers neck and neck with around 25% of the vote each and Brannon trailing, running below 20%. It didn’t appear likely Brannon could win. But he could make it a lot more difficult for Holding to win.
On the fundraising side of the ledger, before the new districts were drawn, Ellmers had a cash-on-hand advantage over Holding. But, by late April, Holding had closed the gap. He outraised Ellmers in March and pulled even with each candidate having a little over $500,000 in the bank. By comparison, Brannon had little money and bills left to pay from his Senate race against Richard Burr.
The fundraising battle had evened up. But suddenly Holding, unlike Ellmers, had two problems to deal with: He had to run one campaign against Ellmers, who was the bigger problem. But he also had to run a campaign against Brannon to stop him from helping Ellmers by splitting the Conservative vote.
In each of his previous races against Thom Tillis or Richard Burr, Brannon had failed to build a competitive campaign. He barely ran any real TV or radio ads in either race. Instead, he’d become the ‘default’ choice of Tea Partyers (and some additional Very Conservative voters) who watched Tillis and Burr and decided neither was their cup of tea.
The problem Brannon presented to Holding was simple: If Brannon received, say, 15% of the vote it hurt Holding and helped Ellmers. And since that, say, 15% who were voting for Brannon like him a lot, persuading them to vote for Holding wasn’t going to be easy.
On the other hand, Brannon has problems of his own like his failure to pay the IRS $175,000 in taxes (he’s worked out an arrangement to pay the taxes in installments over time).
Plus, Brannon had a second legal problem: He’d been sued for defrauding investors in a technology company (the company had developed an app for mobile phones) he co-founded. He lost the lawsuit and lost the appeal and was ordered to repay investors $250,000.
Finally, for all his obvious fervor for the Constitution, Brannon at times ended up in odd places. In his past races against Tillis and Burr, Brannon, in almost every interview, on almost every issue, would return, time after time, to his views on the Constitution. He presented himself as a self-taught expert on the Constitution.
And some of his views on the Constitution were very traditional. But others were unusual.
Once, in an interview with Bill LuMaye, Brannon argued that the way he saw it according to the Constitution we should have state militias defend our country rather than a standing U.S. Army.
That’s odd in two ways: First, after the Constitution was ratified, the standing army, the U.S. Army, was founded under President George Washington – with President Washington’s support. It was also supported by Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Did George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison violate the Constitution?
More to the point: 50 state militias cannot provide the United States with missile defenses, an Air Force, and they can’t defeat ISIS. So the idea of protecting the United States with 50 state militias won’t wash.
On the other side of the ledger, in the Ellmers campaign, the surprising fact was her aggressiveness – and the litany of attacks she launched against George Holding.
The American Conservative Union gave Holding a 100% Conservative rating for his voting record. The National Right to Life Committee endorsed Holding for his 100% pro-life record – and criticized Ellmers for her record on pro-life issues. Concerned Women for America and Freedom Works, all long time Conservative organizations, endorsed Holding against Ellmers.
When Holding’s campaign posted those conservative endorsements on Facebook, Ellmers fired back with a bit of political sleight of hand – she claimed Holding was bragging about endorsements from Washington special interests and lobbyists. It’s hard to get any further from being a Washington special interest than Freedom Works which is one of the original Tea Party organizations.
In effect, Ellmers turned the world on its head by claiming long time conservative groups – like the American Conservative Union – were Washington Insiders and that she was an outsider by fighting them.
She also attacked Holding (starting on her Facebook page) by telling voters that, in Congress, he’d opposed farmers, highways and the U.S. Army.
Let’s take those one at a time.
In Washington, Ellmers voted for what the Washington Establishment likes to call the ‘Farm Bill’ – and Holding voted against it. That vote is the basis of Ellmers’ claim ‘Holding opposed farmers.’ He voted against the Farm Bill.
But, in fact, almost 80% of the spending in the so-called ‘Farm Bill’ had nothing to do with farming – instead, it went to pay for Food Stamps.
Holding had voted for a House bill that cut Food Stamp spending and required people receiving Food Stamps to work (workfare) for their benefits. And he voted for drug testing for people on Food Stamps. When that bill went over to the Senate the Democrats gutted it, increased Food Stamp spending and took out workfare and drug testing.
When the Senate’s version of the bill came back to the House and Ellmers voted for it – for more Food Stamp spending, no workfare and no drug testing. Holding voted against that bill. And that’s why Ellmers says he’s ‘opposed farmers’ – because he voted against increasing Food Stamp spending.
We tested Ellmers’ attack on Holding in our poll and found, when voters have all the facts, 77% agreed with Holding and not Ellmers.
Ellmers tried a similar tactic on highways.
The ‘Fast Act’ was originally a bill to fund highways. But it ended up funding more than that.
Under Obama, the Export Import Bank landed in hot water after giving hundreds of millions in taxpayer backed loan guarantees to state owned Russian and Chinese banks. So Obama and the Washington Insiders made a deal to get the Ex-Im Bank re-funded. Using an old political trick they added the Ex-Im Bank to the highway bill.
Renee Ellmers voted for that deal – which the CBO (Congressional Budget Office) projects will cost taxpayers $2 billion over the next ten years. George Holding voted against it. So, because Holding opposed putting taxpayers on the hook for the Ex-Im bank, Ellmers is telling voters he opposes highways.
We tested that issue in a poll as well and this time when voters know all the facts nearly 70% agree with Holding and disagree with Ellmers.
Finally, Ellmers slammed Holding for voting against funding the U.S. Army – and that’s one more example of political sleight of hand.
Last fall, Holding voted for a House bill to increase military spending to fight ISIS.
Obama then vetoed that bill and told the House, You want more military spending, I want more domestic spending, let’s make a deal.
So the Insiders in Congress made a deal – and Obama got what he wanted: $40 billion more in domestic spending.
Ellmers voted for that deal – called the Omnibus Budget Deal. And George Holding voted against it. And, according to Ellmers, that’s why George Holding opposes funding the U.S. Army. Because he voted against Obama’s budget deal.
When we tested that issue in our poll 69% of the voters agreed with Holding and disagreed with Ellmers.
Finally, there’s Renee Ellmers’ record on illegal immigration.
88% of the voters disagree with President Obama’s Executive Orders granting amnesty to illegal immigrants. Ellmers, who favors a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, was one of ten Republicans to vote against stopping President Obama’s Executive Orders granting amnesty to illegal immigrants by defunding them.
She was also the only Republican to vote against an amendment by Republican Congressman Ron DeSantis that would have required the Obama Administration to deport any illegal immigrant who was convicted of sex crimes, child abuse or domestic violence.
On a whole series of other issues voters also had clear opinions.
82% of the voters are Unfavorable to Washington Politicians. When asked if Ellmers is a Washington Politician 46% said Yes – while only a handful said No. The rest had no opinion. They need more information.
When asked who’ll do a better job strengthening our National Defense, Holding or Ellmers, voters said Holding 2 to 1, 30% to 15%. But 50% of the voters didn’t know. They need more information.
When asked who’ll do a better job of cutting wasteful spending voters said Holding 2 to 1 – but, again, 50% didn’t know. They need more information.
We asked voters whether they agreed or disagreed with this statement: ‘Renee Ellmers was elected in 2010 by running as an outsider. But, after she was elected, changed and voted with the insiders in Washington. And, now, she is again running as an outsider, trying to fool voters a second time’ – 50% of the voters agreed. Which is a big number. But 50% of the voters didn’t know. They need more information.
Finally, there’s a big wild-card in this election: There’s never been a Special Election before on June 7 – so how many people will vote?
85,000 people voted in George Holding’s Primary for Congress in 2012. About half as many voted in the Republican Primary in 2014, in an off year election. Over 30,000 people voted in both those primary elections.
So, how many people will vote on June 7?
Will it be 85,000 like in the 2012 election? Or 40,000 like in 2014? Or will it be less? Could it be a lot less? The truth is no one knows.
In 2012 Congressman Robert Pittenger and Congressman Richard Hudson each had run-off elections.
In Bob Pittenger’s race, turnout dropped (from the Primary to the run-off) by 60%. In Hudson’s race it dropped even more – by 75%.
Almost every campaign will be targeting the approximately 30,000 people who voted in both the 2012 and 2014 Primaries – but what if turnout plummets like it did in the Pittenger and Hudson runoffs?
If turnout drops 60% — that’s 12,000 people voting on June 7th.
What that means is simple: Identifying people who’re voting for George Holding and getting those people to the polls matters – a lot.
It makes sense to canvas voters – usually by phone – to ask: Are you voting for Holding, Ellmers or Brannon. And if the answer’s Holding then it makes sense to do everything possible to get that voter to vote on Election Day: Visits from volunteers, calls from neighbors, letters, mailings, providing rides to the polls for elderly voters – all make sense. Identifying and turning out your supporters could make the difference if this turns out to be a low turnout election.
To sum up, we found four themes that mattered:
- Holding is Conservative. Ellmers is not.
- Holding has voted against the Washington politicians. Ellmers has voted with them.
- Ellmers is trying to fool voters. There’s no double talk with Holding.
- Holding can defeat Ellmers. Brannon cannot.
And identified three specific goals:
- When voters know Holding’s record and stands on issues, they vote for him. But there’re a lot of voters who need information.
- Holding needs to debate Ellmers on each of her attacks on: a) The ‘Farm Bill’ and Food Stamps; b) the ‘Highway Bill’ and the Ex-Im bank; c) on supporting the military and the Omnibus Budget deal with Obama; d) and Ellmers’ votes on illegal immigration.
- Brannon’s tax problems, legal problems and stand on state militias (instead of an army) add up to Brannon can’t defeat Ellmers.
Here’re links to Holding’s first TV and Radio ad (about the Ex-Im Bank).
And that’s a picture of how a political campaign is built in eight weeks. I’ll try to post more often – sorry to have been away so long.