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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

November 6: The Heart of Strategy Is To Adapt Incessantly

In my last post here, I basically called for a renaissance of Democratic strategic debate as an urgent priority, and am gratified it got a robust response.
Probably the best way for me to encourage this debate along at this point is to note some real obstacles to clear-eyed strategic thinking. And I’m afraid we’ve been offered one by a Democratic senator who very nearly lost a “safe seat,” Mark Warner of VA, as I noted today at Washington Monthly.

Anybody who paid close attention to Mark Warner’s 2001 gubernatorial campaign probably remembers it as a strategic masterpiece. Facing a Republican with a Richmond-area base, Warner spent a lot of time in rural southwest Virginia, where no statewide Democratic candidate had done well for quite a few years. He won these areas, and no, the legends of Mudcat Sanders notwithstanding, he didn’t do it by sponsoring NASCAR race vehicles or even by putting up those ingenious “Sportsmen for Warner” yard signs festooned with hunting rifles and fishing gear (which I remember distinctly as a resident of rural Piedmont Virginia at the time). He won by spending a lot of time in the area and talking convincingly about how technology could enable poor and isolated rural areas to escape their geographical limitation and even leapfrog cities in growth and prosperity. It was pretty inspiring, actually, and it worked. Until it didn’t.
Four years later Tim Kaine ran to succeed Warner, and in part because his opponent had his own base in SW VA, he adopted an entirely different strategy focused on metro suburbs, and that worked just as well as Warner’s. A year later Jim Webb, a guy far better positioned to appeal to Scots-Irish mountain people than Warner could ever have been, won almost entirely by winning traditional Democratic urban/suburban areas. By the time Creigh Deeds–himself from rural central Virginia–ran for governor in 2009, Democrats were just getting killed in rural areas, as they were pretty much all over the country. And then Terry McAuliffe broke VA Democrats’ brief losing streak by concentrating on turning out “base” voters in the cities and the NoVa suburbs probably more than anyone ever had, and won narrowly.
I cite all this history as prologue to a comment by Mark Warner this week (as reported by WaPo’s Jenna Portnoy and Rachel Weiner), when he was asked why he didn’t emulate T-Mac’s strategy of focusing on Democratic “base” areas in a campaign where turnout was everything:

“My path has been very different from Terry’s or Tim’s or others’,” Warner said in an interview with The Washington Post before the election. “To the annoyance of some of my so-called staff, I’m going to Abingdon and Russell County now because Southwest Virginia gave me a start, and I’m not going to cede one part.”
The counties in that region voted for Gillespie, sometimes by more than 30 points over Warner.

Even the most brilliant strategy becomes a millstone when it’s not adapted to changing political circumstances. So beware of anybody’s iron “model” from the past on how to win elections. More often than not, the real lesson taught by successful political strategies is to remember that yesterday’s audacious and innovative approach can become today’s stale CW and tomorrow’s upset loss.

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