I've been asked by several print magazines to write very short post-mortems on many of the races in Kansas as well as an overall look at the race. Below, I'm posting some of my musings but not a final thought.
I have submitted in two 1,000 word post mortems to two print journals, and will be spending the day talking about what went wrong.
If you are not in Kansas, you may not want to read the below, so here is the tl;dr:
Kansas Democratic Party, Not Wave, really to blame; KDP needs to purge everyone; Move offices away from Lawrence and to Salina.
I will post a part 2 on how we actually fix this later tonight.
There will be many who look at the state of Kansas today with a shrug, writing it off as another victim to the big Republican wave. Kansas, saddled with an unpopular governor and a seemingly motivated Democratic base from the outside seemed like a place that Tea Party ideas would crash like a wave against a giant rock. At the end of the night in Kansas, though, Democrats were routed in a way that hasn’t been seen in years, and now there are no democrats in Kansas serving in office West of Highway 177, and only one with part of their district past 81.
These bright lines divide the history of our state, children born and grow up in District 1 and move on to Wichita or Kansas City or out of the state as the years ago by. When I first committed to evaluating the chances of the Kansas races, it was the end of 2013 and what I was most interested in revolved around our plan for local races that would be held that spring. Local races – from city councils to school boards, are the quickest way to build up a bench for a party. I was instructed quickly that such things were simply “not done” as these were non-partisan races, and state and county parties stayed aloof. While the Democratic party stayed aloof, Republicans ran full slates with pressures from Kansans For Life and others to make sure that the city offices were full of Republicans – prime candidates to later run for state offices.
I was informed early, in February of 2014, that the strategy to the Kansas election as going to be the use of big data. Data, it seemed, would be the guide to allow the state party to micro-target voters, to create a new way to reach out to them. If we just had more data, we would have a way to persuade them to mail. What we didn’t want to do, at any point, was to talk about any issues that could shake the boat or make candidates seem as though they were, frankly, Democrats.
In early February, the Kansas Republicans moved forward with HB 2453, a piece of legislation we tagged as “Turn Gays Away”, this legislation which was passed around through many states was geared at allowing businesses to turn away LGBT individuals based on the religious requirements of the company owner. Democrats, seeing this as a trap, decided not to openly oppose the issue in the house. Paul Davis, soon to be the standard bearer of the Democratic party sent out word that “Do Not Rock the Boat”. Stephanie Clayton, a Republican from Johnson County suddenly found herself trying to hustle Democrats to hang amendments onto the legislation, to stuff it in committee. Facing pressure, the State Party made it clear, telling house members if the issue was brought forward, they would face potential retribution.
Two hours before the House vote, the ranking Democrat on the House committee that originated HB 2453 bluntly informed Equality Kansas director Thomas Witt there would be no Democratic amendments offered. Witt and his counterpart at the ACLU, Holly Weatherford, had spent the previous three days lining up Democrats to offer a series of amendments he had drafted. This sudden change, explained the Democratic House member, was at the direction of Davis.
Witt then raced the clock to find moderate Republicans to offer the amendments.
“I was saying, ‘You guys, we have to run amendments. We’ve got to stop this. We can’t let this go,’” Clayton recounted. “They were saying, ‘It’s going to go. It’s going to pass. And if the Republicans want to do this, let’s let them do this.’ Me, being a moderate, I was thinking, ‘I don’t want bad policy to pass. I don’t care about the political implications. I cared about people I represented….Everyone knows someone who is gay.”
Ultimately, it was Republican Don Hill of Emporia who agreed to carry three amendments – but, without vigorous Democratic support, they each failed. Following the caucus, however, Democrats informed him that "Paul Davis says no, we don't want to fight this battle.. it's potentially bad for us." Another representative (who has asked that I not use their name) informed me they were threatened with the potential loss of support for a re-election bid, which might include a primary challenger if they brought the issue up.
When I had heard this, I at first believed it was a joke. That is, until Liz Dickinson Snyder, a candidate who ran for District 30 announced she was running on a cold weekend from the state house steps. Liz, a bisexual woman who worked hard in her district found herself suddenly outflanked, as the state party informed her she would face a primary challenger, a Republican who would switch to be a Democrat just to make sure she didn’t win the nomination. The Johnson County Democratic Party recruited an anti-choice, anti-gay opponent to run as a Democrat in a primary until he was outed. When that happened, the Party made an effort to say "You'll get state help over my dead body". Liz Dickinson, who I profiled here, and wanted to support, raised minimal to no money in Kansas - and donors told us openly they were told 'not to give'. More than 50% of Liz entire fundraising came straight from my wife, myself, and Ryon Carey, a good friend. That, plus fundraising through DailyKos equated to the entirety of her efforts thanks to a state shutdown.
The pressure, it seemed was on Democrats: Stick to our message, and our message is… unfortunately in March of 2014, the message remained: “Not Sam Brownback”. This message, “Not Sam Brownback” resonated only as far as a race with Sam Brownback in it of course, but even in that race, Democrats knew that it needed something else.
By the time House Bill 2506 hit the state floor in April, Democrats knew they had their issue. Polling had told them that education was a “multi-quadrant” issue, and that if they could “score a home run” with education, they could win the entire election. HB 2506, a response to the Kansas Supreme Court was seen by Democrats and many others as an underhanded way to defund schools and eliminate extended services for special needs students. For Republicans, though, the bill was seen as a way to drastically improve richer schools. Bill Sutton, a Kansas Representative noted in a town hall meeting “they made out like bandits” referring to his local Gardner-Edgerton school district.
Democrats were convinced that the big issue would be education, and if they could talk about education all of the time, and use their big data to get in front of people, that is all it would take.
And this is where big data simply fails: Data can help you in an election, but if you start with bad assumptions, you get bad results. Kansas Democrats simply assumed that education was the top issue for voters. It resonated with them. They had field tested terms that matched what they wanted to believe and received the results they wanted to receive. Still, the state party was committed to data without really thinking through the message behind it.
Over the course of several weeks, many of us lobbied MSNBC to make a visit to Kansas and to spend a week, capped with a rally at the statehouse for the anniversary of Brown Vs Board of Education. It was a memorable day in Kansas – Paul Davis, and several others spoke. The Kansas Democratic Party sent no one with a video camera. No one took film for later ads. There were no TV crews present. Only Young Turks and African American magazines attended. The Kansas Democratic Party had committed to Education as an issue, but on a day where thousands were in the crowd, they had simply not pushed for press to show up, hadn’t done advance work to make sure they could get a copy of content, and couldn’t get traction beyond Shawnee County.
In a meeting with Paul Davis in June, I told him I was concerned that the new plan in Johnson County – a place that Democrats had to win – to provide middle school students with free iPads and High School students with MacBooks would completely destroy an education only argument. Parents simply wouldn’t accept the idea that schools where terrible if their kids were coming home with free technology, no matter how rural schools suffered. Johnson County, we were told, is “with us” and that “it’s locked down”. The data, it seems, had told them this, and the data was always right.
How a Party Loses For Its Candidates
In order to understand how a party loses control of a state, I think you have to understand how you build a state party. A state party is almost never built top down. A governor doesn’t suddenly build up a party full of county commissioners and state house members. The reverse is almost always true. An effective state party encourages local candidates to run and provides them active support of some sort. The individuals who run for a state house race or a local race likely have friends and connections in that community that will connect together and bring people to the polls. Having more effective local candidates provides a resource for a statewide candidate that matters.
When those local candidates wanted to talk about issues that weren’t education, though, in Kansas they seemingly became public enemy number one. As stories trickled in, many of us became more concerned, mostly concerned about the outreach effort in the Southeast and Western Kansas – areas of the state that can be bright red, but have to be contained if a Democrat wishes to have a shot in Kansas.
Our first forays into western Kansas began in June, as I started taking trips to Dodge City, Garden City, Liberal and the Southwest corner. This corner of the state was seriously impacted by the policies of Sam Brownback and in some communities, like Garden City, more than 70% Hispanic. Surely, this would be an area we could work to change the demographic of the state.
Meeting with Kansas Young Democrats, I and others made them offers: full time jobs for Spanish speakers willing to go help recruit in the Southwest of the state prior to the primaries in order to help build up voter registration. Jason Perkey, State of Kansas ED, informed us that there would be an ‘aggressive’ campaign to get out the minority vote in Southwest Kansas, and that with the right use of data and tools, they could help us shift the west. I spoke with Ryon Carey, one of the partners in Smoky Hills Strategies, who noted to me that in prior executive state party meetings, the goal was to recruit someone just to help turn out the southwest corner, which rarely voted and needed to be registered as well. This position, fought for in 2013, was to stay in Dodge City and change the demographics for an election.
While I was bothered that none of the Kansas Young Democrats took my offer, I was pleased with Perkey’s answer that the state was “on it” and that BlueStem, the Kansas Democratic Party PAC had serious funds for just this effort.
Maybe, just maybe, we could talk about issues that were popular in those communities. When I visited the southwest corner, the issues that came up most often weren’t education – it was wages. Could minimum wage be increased? In every trip I took to the southwest, this was the number one question asked, and if education came up within the discussion I was lucky. Instead, the residents in western Kansas wanted to talk bread and butter: agriculture policy, water conservation and wages.
When Campaigning Starts in Kansas
July is the month when Kansas Democrats actually seem to decide it is worthwhile to start thinking about an election if it is in the same year. Upset with Brownback, many side groups formed together – the Kansas Values Institute, Women For Kansas, GameOn for Kansas Schools. Some of these, especially Kansas Values Institute, provided a great resource. Other outside groups unfortunately fell into the category of being political novices who were well intentioned but may have caused as much harm as good.
And while July is the month that things start getting serious, it is also becomes the opportunity for candidates to define themselves. As the end of July approached, few in Kansas still knew anything about Paul Davis, except for the fact that he was not biologically Sam Brownback, and he was apparently from Lawrence.
Lawrence, Kansas, sometimes called the “Bright Blue Dot” was used by many Kansas Democrats as justification for running. Margie Wakefield proclaimed frequently “Because of Lawrence, the Math Adds up”, a mathematical justification for her candidacy that was meant to inspire crowds to believe they should vote for her because she might actually win.
This justification also worked for Paul Davis, who had as his signature justification the argument that outside of it being ‘his turn’, he ‘just might win’. As poll after poll came in showing the race with Paul Davis ahead, more and more of the country began to focus on Paul Davis. Who, in fact, was Paul Davis?
The first rumblings of the Republican attack on Paul Davis began at the end of July, when an email blast to the Kansas Conservatives read “Just another Lawrence boy..” and Sam Brownback led his opening salvos with “Democrats don’t survive west of Highway 81.”
Big Data, again, was meant to save Democrats. Targeting, calling, and getting advanced ballots into the hands of voters would be a savior. If we could just make more people take advanced ballots, that would be the answer. What was missing in this, however, was any way to know who was actually taking the ballot. The “data” told them that these people were with the democrats, but looking at the returns, it becomes fairly obvious that the Kansas Democratic Party likely fed advanced ballot applications over the summer to Democrats who voted against Paul Davis and against the Democratic ticket. Data told them how they would vote, so why would you ask at the doorstep how they felt about the race? No, please, hand them an advanced ballot and just trust in your heart they would be with you.
Democrats in Western Kansas began messaging me and others “The State Party has just abandoned us”. After an angry phone call, I drove out to Manhattan to meet with Jim Sherow, a candidate running in the first district. Sherow, it seems, had paid in $7,500 to the State Field plan in “required hard money” from his campaign, and wasn’t exactly sure what the state was doing for him. I wasn’t sure either. After contacting those around the first no one, in fact, was sure. I told him I as busy trying to help others, but I would look into it.
I met with Paul Davis again in July, and told him that outside of monetarily, I was working to help him provide some lift, and I felt as though he was missing some big opportunities. Marquette school – one featured on MSNBC as closed – was a photo-op in McPherson he needed. He also needed to go to the Southwest Corner and Southeast Corner and talk in Crawford and Seward County and send Jill Docking to Reno County. “It’s on the list, we’re on it” I was told by Chris Pumpelly, Communication Director. After all, if we are going to do outreach we have to build those roads early and often – to places we must turn out.
I, and several others formed a direct group, giving to PACs and candidates from our own pockets to try and influence efforts, including voter registration drives in those locations. At the end of July we were informed through Jim Sherow that despite the promises received earlier in the year, the state party still had no offices in Dodge City or Garden City, and no Spanish speakers on the ground.
With polling data continually positive for Paul, the assumption was: the tide will break our way, the data says so. Deciding that now was the time to go all-in on Paul, the party cut ties with almost all other candidates. Chad Taylor, Democratic candidate for Senate Languished with less than $3,000 cash on hand with outstanding bills that would leave him in debt by the time the primary rolled around. Taylor, who many of us opposed from the beginning began to present real and serious problems as the cycle went on. Concerns over women’s issues and other factors reached a point where we knew something had to change. Frankly, we knew early that if there was any hope at Democratic Party survival, it would depend on Chad Taylor not being on the ballot.
The Post Primaries
Following the primary, I, along with Smoky Hills Strategies were consulted to help see if we could make the Sherow campaign at least interesting and newsworthy – to form a firewall in the west. Racing against the Republican with the highest unfavorable numbers in the state, maybe there would be a shot we could make it interesting.
Upon walking into the Sherow office as a consultant, I discovered the harsh truth – like Chad Taylor, the Sherow campaign had no resources. Zero. The lack of state help in dispatching a Republican who ran in Democratic primaries against him had cost Jim Sherow funds and time. (His primary opponent, who lived outside of the district, later campaigned for Tim Huelskamp). I called down to Garden City & Dodge to discover that as of that moment, the last week of August, the Kansas Democratic Party did not have anyone in Dodge City or Garden City actually trying to recruit votes. Their field manager, Carlos Lugo (http://www.ksdp.org/...) it turns out never actually left Lawrence much. Sometimes Topeka. But as far as presence in the 1st district where Hispanic voters were? No.
In light of this, we asked for KDP to return the $7,500 submitted by the Sherow campaign for a field plan that was not happening. In a sometimes awkward meeting, Joan Wagnon explained to Jim Sherow, Bonnie Sherow, Lisa Hamer, Jerred McKee and myself that the state would ‘not do that’ and that the ‘field program –is- happening’ and that a field office in Dodge City would be open the next week. We were told there would be "no" monetary support and he should just "make do". In other words, shutdown his campaign. He elected not to do that - and to try and go out and reach voters - something I'm proud of, as Jim Sherow was the only Democrat on the ballot to overperform his district which was 70% Republican. That isn't saying much when you lose badly, but it says you did better than staying home, and you actually grew the party.
While Sherow had struggles, it is what happened in statehouse races that was most disappointing.
Pat Sloop, a Wichita Candidate in District 88 reached out to Smoky Hills Strategies (of which I will be a member, but was not paid or solicited for her race, nor would I benefit from this issue, period.) and asked for help running her canvas. She has difficulty walking due to physical issues and having a full canvass seems worthwhile. Smoky Hills agreed, for $3,000 to run her canvass program. Sloop's campaign made a deposit of $1,000 and the contract was set to begin the following week. The State Party called Pat Sloop and put down pressure - what amounts to tortious contract interference, and ordered her to cancel all services dealing with those who weren't with them. The state party had a great field plan, they told her.. and they would handle her race. Thomas Witt, who ran one of the only campaigns in the state that Democrats actually won which was hotly contested (John Carmichael) found himself on the outside because of issues with the fact he would not 'drop the gay issue'.
Three weeks before election day, Pat Sloop was informed by the state party that she was in "great shape" and no longer needed their field service, and they would move on. Pat Sloop was one of the six house seats that Democrats lost on Election night.
Pat Sloop's case, personally sad, wasn't the end of the error brigade.
The state party never opened a field office in Dodge City. A Spanish speaking woman who had never done field before was assigned to Dodge City around October 7, under Johny Dunlap, County Chair. She had never done field work before and with only one week left before the last day of voter registration, she tried her darnedest, but it was hard to ask the superhuman of her.
County Parties quickly fell apart, seemingly without any real wind beneath their sales. Wyandotte County, the county of the highest registration of Democrats in the state closed it's October, 2014 accounting with less than $400 in the bank. It spent no money. It raised no money. Field services had to be brought in to try and capture Wyandotte county after the fact. Despite being told in meetings that "Wyandotte County is Solid" the leadership in Wyandotte County no-showed in a way that should be near unforgivable in the party. The largest Democratic registration party in the state, and it fundraises less then $400? Unable to run it's own active field, supply mail or support for candidates?
County Parties in too many areas turned into Cancer Clubs. People would go and meet for a while, shake hands, sit down, have some coffee, and that was it. They would find solace in hanging around with other people who like them, had cancer.. er.. were registered Democrats.
If You Can’t Talk to People, You can’t win
The campaign from that point on was full of keystone cop-esque errors. When Jill Docking appeared in Dodge City to speak to a Hispanic organization, she discovered that the state party had not printed or organized any Spanish language literature. None. The outreach into those counties she expected? It didn’t exist. No one was there to run it. The Hispanic Outreach remained in Lawrence.
In early fall, the Kansas Democratic Party ran into two traps. The first became the fact that Paul Davis had, once upon a time visited a strip club. The Davis campaign went apoplectic yelling about how inappropriate the attack was. The rest of us hoped he had tipped Candy well and that she remembered to vote. The stripper story, which could have been dismissed lingered for four weeks as the state party continued to keep it alive with combative back and forth responses.
But the cherry on top occurred when Kansas Communication Director Dakota Loomis was caught on a KU Basketball message board stating “these places are crapholes” and listing the names of towns and counties within Kansas. As Republicans put it ‘them Lawrence boys’, and in effective radio ads and mailpieces, rural communities were told how much Democrats hated them. http://www.wibw.com/...
Within a week, KKOW-AM Radio in Pittsburg, KS had commented on it. So had Kansas City talk radio.. and throughout western Kansas Progressives love to say “those people, they vote against their own interest” but when you come out and make it appear as though you openly dislike where they live and you make minimal effort to talk to them, they aren’t voting in their own interest supporting you either.
It is time for Democrats in Kansas to be honest. Data isn’t our problem or solution. Talking to people is. Actually having a message is. This year, through fundraising, several of us injected more than $250,000 into Kansas candidates and groups. I have no interest in re-investing in incompetence and would encourage others not to either.
Data may help you target people. But if you aren’t prepared to talk to them, or if you are glad to tell them they live in ‘crapholes’, you seldom win their vote.
If the Kansas Democratic Party hopes to survive, it must fumigate it’s office and realize it doesn’t belong in Topeka. Or Lawrence. It must move to Salina. Tomorrow. Immediately. As someone who lives in Johnson County, if the Party does not commit to a strategy of building local office holders then Joan Wagnon and Jason Perkey will have accomplished by themselves what Brownback only dreamed of: extinguishing the state party.
Thu Nov 06, 2014 at 7:34 PM PT: Update
I've been advised to make a correction. The Wyandotte County Party ended the election cycle with $341, not $316 in the bank, though they did not spend any.
I've been advised to note that the KDP Field plan managed to get a white, middle aged man exactly 8 points more votes than Barack Obama in Kansas, and this is obviously a major victory. While the 8 point lift for our Governors race was good, unlike 2012, in 2014, 6 local races were lost. This means since 2010, the state party has lost nearly half of it's seats. I don't know about Lonely Landslides in a loss, but that certainly is one.
To clarify this matter, I began calling county chairs. Johnny Dunlap, First District Chair responded:
It's a false comparison. In 2012, there was no get out the vote effort. We had no lists to call, we had no money or support. We actually spent money in 2014. I suppose if we didn't gain anything, that would be a story.
Another county chair, who asked to not be named, offered this sage advice:
Davis outperformed, but everyone else got squashed at about the same as 2012. But if outperforming means we lost local races, it's hard to call that a victory of any sort.
The Kansas Democratic Party has Responded to my concerns about a lack of printed literature:
And the party chose not to produce and distribute Spanish-language material in targeted Hispanic areas because, Wagnon said, most voters in those areas speak English.
Printing costs were I guess too high, and leaving Jill Docking standing in front of a crowd asking for Spanish Printed literature fumbling was obviously a mistake, but come on.. we know they speak English. They are in America now. No need to speak to people in their native language.
Noting that most of the Hispanic Population was in Wyandotte and Sedgewick was a justification for keeping Carlos Lugo in Lawrence. You'd think doubling the effort in Wyandotte would result in better than record low performance. I guess not.
What is missing in that math is simple.. whether or not there are more sheer numbers X or Y, in races in the southwest corner, the turnout of 2,000 Hispanic Voters prepared to vote for Democrats would have sent one or two Democrats into the state house. Instead, the focus remained entirely on Davis, continuing the metric that bets the entire house on one candidate.