By Robert Griendling
The frozen smiles can sear the brain. They belong to Democratic officials, lobbyists and activists when you tell them you are running against a four-term incumbent Republican state house member who has decimated each of his opponents. His last Democratic opponent had garnered only 36% of the vote. In 2004, the state had gone for George W. Bush by 54-45%, the county by 56%-44%. The 2005 battle for the 32nd House district seat in the world’s oldest deliberative democratic body, the Virginia General Assembly, was taking place in an emerging suburb that was reliably GOP country.
Behind the smiles were words of encouragement. But not much more. If this race was to be won, it would be based not on the advice of consultants and party leaders, but on the efforts of the people who lived in the 32nd and campaign planners’ best instincts about what would work. David Poisson decided nine months before the election what his issues would be, how he would work the district and what it would take to win. Polls and pros could not and would not drive this campaign.
An Entrenched Incumbent
Delegate Dick Black was thought to be biding his time before running for at least state Attorney General. He had the credentials: a career military lawyer, solid conservative positions and a GOTV effort that was legendary. Not only was nearby Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, a few miles west of the 32nd district, a source for committed young conservatives being trained specifically for government activism, but local churches straddled — and some say crossed — the line by advocating Black’s reelection year after year. His own church would help distribute flyers in the church parking lot and priests there had preached for his candidacy from the pulpit.
Black began the campaign in early 2005 with more than $100,000 in campaign funds for a race that was expected to cost just over $300,000. By June, he had $216,000. By Labor Day, he had raised more than $313,000; the Poisson campaign reported $75,000 on hand.
Most of the professionals were still giving the campaign the “Go Get ‘Em” speech with the same smile intact.
But for all his fundraising prowess, the GOTV machine and a record of landslides, it didn’t seem that a man who would go so far as to publicly criticize a high school student for writing a play that called for tolerance of gays, and who once spoke from Thomas Jefferson’s House floor with a plastic fetus in hand to rail against abortion, fairly represented a community where young families were coming in droves to buy a piece of the American dream.
And Black’s strident anti-tax positions meant that the investments a growing community needs would be hard to fund.
The Emerging Suburb
Loudoun County, Virginia had been atop the list of fastest-growing counties in America for years. From 2002 to 2003 alone, it grew 14%. Two areas in the 32nd district, Dulles and Ashburn, saw growth rates of 66.5% and 47.4%, respectively from 2000 to 2003.
The growth was also evident in the registered voter statistics. For example, in the 10 months from November 2003, an election year for the House of Delegates, the district’s voter rolls increased 6.3%. Registered voter rolls grew 12.6% in one precinct, 13.2% in another, and a whopping 24% in a precinct where homes were being built rapidly during the two years before the ’05 election.
Loudoun was also a young county. A third of its residents were under age 18, compared to 25% nationally. The working population, those age 25-54, was 6% larger than the national average. The county is also affluent. The average household income was $126,102 in the first half of this decade. It didn’t seem that a radical social conservative could really represent this type of constituency.
Meanwhile, a look at Black’s numbers provided hope for those who don’t simply look at “performance” numbers.
Drilling Down the Numbers
In the 2001 election, Mark Warner, who positioned himself as a moderate businessman, polled better in the gubernatorial race than the Democratic candidate for the 32nd district, a woman who engaged Black on his issues, most notably abortion. Her strategy backfired and energized Black’s base. Warner outpolled her in every precinct in the 32nd save one, in which he was down by only eight votes. His race also garnered 1,100 votes more than the 32nd House race, suggesting many voters did not vote for either Black or the Democratic candidate either because they didn’t know them or were turned off by both. In that election, the combination of votes for the Democrat and a moderate Republican who made it a three-way race was within 602 votes of Black’s total. Also in 2003, two Democratic supervisor candidates each won a precinct. Other local Democrats had carried a few of the 32nd‘s precincts.
In all, the 2003 vote indicated that eight of the district’s 18 precincts were clearly willing to support a more moderate candidate.
Issues That Matter
While the campaign held focus groups with grassroots supporters about what was on their minds, the candidate clearly had some pet issues, chief among them education. David Poisson has a PhD in higher education, along with a law degree. Getting an education was stressed from his early years growing up in a declining mill town in southeastern Massachusetts. It seemed that many constituents in the 32nd had similar upbringings. And admission to a Virginia college was becoming more difficult. Meanwhile, traffic was choking Northern Virginia, stealing time from families. And the local school board was desperately trying to keep up with demand, building five new schools a year.
With those types of issues on the minds of constituents, it didn’t seem who married whom really mattered. This idea was to be the nexus of the campaign. From Poisson’s announcement of his candidacy:
As a businessman, I’ve always focused on results that affect the important issues. What you and I want is a safe, secure environment for our families, a promising future for our children, and a plan to make eastern Loudoun County an even greater place to live. We can achieve those goals because I believe you share with me two core qualities: confidence in ourselves, and the knowledge that nothing of value is ever achieved without hard work.
Our current representative in the Virginia House of Delegates has ignored our real concerns. More importantly, he’s made it abundantly clear he doesn’t trust you to make the right moral decisions for your family.
I trust you to raise your family and teach your children right from wrong. I trust you to know when we must invest – and when we must tighten the purse strings. And I trust you to know the difference between someone who represents your interests and someone who places his own interests ahead of yours.
I plan to focus on what really matters to your families.
Here in the 32nd district, we need to fight for the funding necessary to improve our roads so we don’t spend half our lives in traffic. Because that matters to our families.
We need to ensure we have great teachers in our public schools. Because that matters to our families.
We need to create the jobs necessary to keep Loudoun’s economic engine running. Because that matters to our families.
And we need to ensure that when our children are ready for college, we have a state college system that is ready for them. Because that matters to our families.
And because these issues matter so much, and because I believe the people of the 32nd district deserve someone willing to fight for those issues, I’m here tonight to announce my candidacy for the Virginia House of Delegates.
“Issues that matter” became the overriding communication point of the campaign. It not only drove what was talked about in the campaign but how the campaign addressed Dick Black’s attacks and his previously successful strategy of making the election about his issues. The campaign rejected the standard advice: To beat an incumbent, you must trash him for months. The theory is that unless people feel a need for change, even a perfect challenger has little chance. There may be some truth to this rule, but instead of focusing initially on what was perceived as Black’s weaknesses, the campaign talked about Poisson’s vision: funding local schools, getting kids into Virginia’s colleges, transportation and attracting good jobs to Loudoun County.
With the tremendous growth in Loudoun County, there were many new voters. They never heard of Dick Black, much less David Poisson. As mentioned earlier, one precinct had grown 24% in two years. We walked it, as well as every other new community. Depending where the best opportunities were, we walked those communities, too. Poisson introduced himself, and when given the opportunity, he introduced his opponent as well. But more than anything, we wanted to let these new residents know that we welcomed them and understood the pressures they felt.
Targeting the Middle Class
Even in a relatively affluent area such as Loudoun County, the middle class is feeling pressed. It’s not the candidate’s job to judge whether those who are relatively comfortable may be expecting too much, or that they should consider themselves lucky they are not poor. A nice home with a chance to make it big, being able to send their kids to college, and not just a secure but a comfortable retirement are the dreams of the middle class. The homes in the 32nd district start at around $350,000. We weren’t going to deny that. This campaign was designed to address the issues these families cared about and position a Democrat as a friend of the middle class.
No doubt the 32nd was and remains a socially conservative area. Many, if not most, people in the district oppose gay marriage and “abortion on demand.” But even so, there was little evidence that such issues would drive the election, given the other problems we faced. But surely our opponent would demand the press and the public know where the Democrat stood on these issues. The candidate’s stances were made clear but brief: Support for a woman’s right to choose but also support for parental notice. (Strike NARAL from the list of endorsements, let alone donors.) Marriage was the province of the church, but gays had a right to civil unions. And with thousands of children in foster care, gay adoption was a better alternative than the life of an itinerant child. The candidate’s personal story, having a mother who grew up an orphan, was also powerful.
The strategy was not to deny constituents’ firmly held views. Nor was it to criticize those who disagreed. It doesn’t serve to disrespect those who disagree with your views. Once you’ve told voters that they’re bigots or intolerant because they disagree with you, they’ll never listen to your other messages. We simply stated our views and moved on to our issues, whether it was in the debate with Black, or in articles or letters to the editors of the five local newspapers.
We also made the campaign about competence. From the traditional kick-off at back-to-school nights, we emphasized what Black didn’t do about the issues that really matter. He served on both education and transportation committees in the House, yet never introduced a major education or transportation bill. We focused not on painting him as a right-wing ideologue but as an ineffective advocate for the things that matter most to his constituents.
Many observers felt the turning point came in our only major debate. Our opponent set all the ground rules. For example, although the League of Women Voters hosted the debate, we had to allow a former Republican Party county chairman to serve as moderator. Three local reporters asked the questions, and we were given two minutes for opening and closing remarks. During the debate, Black constantly tried to tie our campaign to the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Tim Kaine, ironically himself a moderate. His well known moral opposition to the death penalty was brought up several times. When asked, Poisson stated his support for the death penalty, which clearly frustrated Black. He several times said he was exactly aligned with the Republican gubernatorial candidate and said Poisson was running away from his. Poisson responded simply, “The great thing about being a Democrat is that we get to think for ourselves.” The crowd roared its approval. We made sure the volume of the roar was loud by turning out our supporters for the debate. We estimated at least 70 percent of the crowd supported our candidacy.
Our opponent made a crucial mistake in his closing remarks by repeatedly mispronouncing Poisson’s last name as “poison.” The crowd heckled him. Reporters were clearly shocked. Poisson’s response was simply, “The last time someone mispronounced my name like that was in the 7th-grade race for class president. It didn’t work then and it won’t work now, Mr. Black.” We then made sure his childish antics were chronicled in the last articles to appear in the press before the election.
Shortly thereafter, the only poll that mattered was taken. Our first poll, in mid-July, was demanded by Virginia Democrats as a prelude to any party funding. It had us 12 points down. We had to conduct a follow-up before Labor Day. It had slightly better results. But only this last poll had real impact. Far behind in fundraising six weeks before the election, we pulled even as voters went to the polls. Why? Because that last poll had us within three points of victory. When you’re viable, you’re also flush.
On Election Day, Poisson won all but two of the 18 precincts and an overall victory of 53-47%. Even more impressive, he not only outperformed Tim Kaine, who garnered 52% of the vote in the district, he received 700 more votes.
Every race is different. Every community has its own needs. But by campaigning on issues that affect the everyday lives of our constituents, acknowledging but minimizing divisive social issues, recognizing that taxes are only a means to an end and having faith in our core principles, we were able to win in the emerging suburbs against a supposedly invincible incumbent.
Robert Griendling is the principal of Griendling Communications, a communications consulting firm founded in 1989. He was the communication strategist for David Poisson’s 2005 successful campaign for the Virginia House of Delegates. He is also editor of the Commonwealth Commonsense blog.