Thursday, July 06, 2006

Low Turnout, Negative Campaign Sank Busby, Queer Democrats Told


Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Ever since Republican Brian Bilbray, former Congressmember and Washington lobbyist, defeated Democrat Francine Busby by five percentage points in the June 6 special election to fill the seat of former Congressmember Randy “Duke” Cunningham, most pundits analyzing the race have suggested that it means the Republicans will likely keep control of Congress after this fall’s election. The argument goes that tightly gerrymandered districts, carefully drawn to favor incumbents, Republican party loyalty and the popularity of most local Congressmembers — whatever voters may think of the nationwide party to which they belong — will ensure enough Republican wins to preserve their House of Representatives majority. That’s the perception Jess Durfee, former San Diego Democratic Club president and currently chair of the San Diego County Democratic Central Committee, and Ira Lechner, Virginia-born political activist and Democratic campaigner, came to the San Diego Democratic Club June 22 to challenge.

According to Durfee and Lechner, what did Busby in was a low voter turnout, a last-minute gaffe, a misplaced strategy aimed at getting Republicans to cross over instead of seeking support among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents who rarely vote, and an intensely negative campaign on both sides that left voters disgusted and kept them home. Because the club’s advertised speaker, San Diego city attorney Mike Aguirre, didn’t show, Durfee and Lechner got more time than expected to discuss the results of the June 6 election — but what was billed as a post-mortem of the entire result focused almost exclusively on the Bilbray-Busby race.

Lechner compared the turnout in June 2006 to that of the Presidential election in November 2004, in which Busby ran against Cunningham and predictably lost big in a heavily Republican district — before Cunningham pled guilty to charges of corruption, left Congress and received an eight-year prison sentence. In that election, 275,000 people voted in the 50th Congressional district, where Cunningham and Busby were running; Cunningham got 169,000 votes and Busby got 105,000, Lechner said. By contrast, on June 6 only 157,000 people voted in the district and only 71,000 voted for Busby. The key to winning the election, Lechner argued, would have been reaching out to the 34,000 “true-blue Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents” who had voted for Busby in 2004 and didn’t vote at all this year.

Instead, Lechner said, “Busby became a focus for the Democratic battle for control of Congress in the whole country, with media attention and a whole lot of money. We spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $4-5 million. In addition, a lot of phone banking was done by and EMILY’s List sent out mail pieces that were far better done than the miserable pieces I got from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). They were unreadable and stupid. You remember the commercials, with the bouncing kangaroo? The DCCC’s commercials were disruptive. The Republicans spent at least $10 million and had $24 million available.”

According to both Lechner and Durfee, the involvement of both the Republican and Democratic national congressional campaigns turned the race into a mud-fest, with both sides airing disgustingly negative commercials and the Republicans, since as usual they had more money, airing more of them. “Do you remember the first commercial they put up about Busby allegedly applauding child molesters?” Lechner said. “That ran on every single local channel for three weeks. It didn’t change Busby’s negative rating hardly at all. One could argue that the $10 million spent by the Republicans and the $5 million by the Democrats had virtually no effect on the election except to turn people off from voting at all.”

And that, Durfee argued, is precisely why the Republicans in particular have become known for running such nasty campaigns: because turning people off from voting at all is exactly what the Republicans want. Durfee called it “voter suppression” and said the Republicans can get away with it because they have a far more loyal hard-core base that will turn out and vote for their party’s candidates no matter what. The Republicans’ trick, he said, is to magnify the importance of their base by turning off everyone else in the electorate — and one proven way for the Republicans to do that is to run such a negative campaign that the Democrats feel forced to respond in kind. “When you fight a negative campaign with a negative campaign, we’re likely to lose because Republicans will come out come hell or high water, whereas Democrats are a lot more fickle,” Durfee explained.

When club member and Busby campaign volunteer Bill Stanhope said that all anyone he talked to during door-to-door precinct walks could recall about her were the attack ads, Lechner responded with a slashing critique of the mind-set of Washington-based political consultants. “The power of these consultants from D.C. is just overwhelming — and bad,” Lechner said. “They have one formula, and on June 7 they’re gone. In this case they left at 11:15 in the morning on June 6. The consultants are so powerful that all the candidates listen to them. What they don’t realize is that the American voter is yearning for a reason to vote for somebody — and instead all they get is these negative campaigns on both sides.”

“The candidate pays the consultant and the direct-mail house pays the consultant,” Durfee added. “So the candidate is going to be persuaded to do more mail whether it will do them any good or not. The consultants are getting kickbacks from the mail houses.” Durfee said the only way to defang the power of the consultants is to build more neighborhood-based grass-roots campaigns; he urged people to go door-to-door in their neighborhoods and give positive messages on why people should vote for a particular candidate instead of fear-mongering with attacks on the opponent.

Durfee outlined another Republican strategy to win elections: getting hot-button initiatives on the ballot that will attract socially conservative voters to the polls and thereby swell the totals for Republican candidates as well. In 1994 Republican governor Pete Wilson tied his political fortunes to the anti-immigrant Proposition 187, erased a double-digit deficit in the polls and won re-election — though he hurt the long-term status of the Republican party in California by encouraging eligible Latinos to become U.S. citizens and vote Democrat. (In the mid-1990’s the San Diego Democratic Club’s voter registration volunteers reported that when they worked in Latino communities and asked people what party they wanted to register with, they’d often reply, “Which party is Pete Wilson in? I want to be in the other one.”) More recently, Republicans have used initiatives banning same-sex marriage and restricting women’s rights to reproductive choice to draw out socially conservative voters.

Though governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Republican leadership lost all four of the initiatives they put on the ballot in the November 2005 special election, Durfee warned that they are pulling the same strategy this November by putting back on the ballot the initiative that came closest to victory last year: one requiring that the parents be notified if a minor girl seeks an abortion. “The initiative on parental notification will be on the ballot this November,” Durfee warned. “These initiatives are on the ballot to drive the far Right to the ballot box. Overall, we have a good slate of Democrats statewide and locally, but we have our work cut out for us.”