Errors in Democratic Campaigning: Mark Begich Case Study

mark-begichWith the absentee ballots finally all counted, Alaska Sen. Mark Begich (D) seems to have lost to former state attorney general and natural resources commissioner Dan Sullivan (R). Begich’s campaign has not yet conceded.

While his first two years in office were unusually progressive for a Democrat from such a conservative state, Begich flipped around once Republicans took control of the other chamber and made it less likely that progressive votes would see the light of day as laws. Begich’s primary strategy for re-election, therefore, over the past two years was essentially to vote quite conservatively (the relatively few times anything major or controversial came up) and campaign as barely-a-Democrat, the tried and true (but often not so successful) campaign strategy of an embattled Red State Democrat.

His opponent, Dan Sullivan, ran an ad blitz that very simply refuted the entire premise of Begich’s re-election effort, observing that he had voted with President Obama 97% of the time while in office. One can perhaps quibble with the methodology to reach such a count, given that it involves including minor and non-controversial votes as well as appointee confirmations. But Democrats have used that line repeatedly in the past against Republican Senators who voted for George W. Bush’s policies, so I’ll let it stand.

Plus, it seems to be a pretty persuasive number to voters. And that latter reality exposes the fatal flaw of the “Wait I’m Not Really A Democrat, You Guys” strategy of re-election in conservative states. If the number were much lower, maybe that argument would work, but when it’s 97%, you can’t really talk your way out of that, even at the margins by disputing methodology and the like.

Essentially, if your opponent runs ads saying you vote 97% of the time with the president (and head of your party!), you have two campaign scenarios. Either you embrace and defend that record, explaining why that’s actually a good thing (and hope you’re convincing enough to bring a plurality or majority of voters along with you) … or you’re going to lose no matter what anyway, so there’s nothing you can do or say at that point, even if you claim to be a Republican in all but name. If they’re not open to the idea that being 97% aligned with the Democratic President is a good thing, you’ve already lost…

It probably makes logical sense to choose the path of embracing your party affiliation for a number of reasons. First, you don’t look like you’re running away from your own record or principles, which voters aren’t overly fond of, since it makes you look unreliable and a bad bet for future votes. Second, if there’s any chance of turning that “weakness” into a strength by converting voters into believes that the 97% record was a good idea, that will make for a much stronger re-election bid. Third, if there’s no way at all that your voters can be persuaded that 97% was a good thing, you’ll never be able to run far enough away to make it irrelevant.
Read more