CD4: Holy Water and Headless Chickens

    Sports fans are well-versed in jinxes. None was more feared than the Curse of the Bambino, the urban legend which was long cited as the reason the Boston Red Sox failed to win a World Series for 86 years after trading Babe Ruth to the Yankees.

    Is it time for Coloradans to haul in some holy water and headless chickens to shake off the 34 year “Curse of Republican Control in the Fourth Congressional District”?

    Before we resort to calling an exorcist, let’s consider what happened this time around and the implications for 2008.

    Going Negative in a Positive Way
    Negative advertising was a huge factor in the CD-4 race with Marilyn Musgrave, Angie Paccione and their institutional surrogates whacking each other in the kneecaps at every turn.

    While voters complain that they dislike the negativity, it’s clear that attack ads work in certain contexts. One of the most interesting contrasts in this race was the different approach each campaign took in criticizing its opponent.

    Paccione was very direct. She said or clearly inferred in radio and television ads that Musgrave was corrupt and ineffectual. There was no mistake that Paccione was bringing a street fight sensibility to the race which she couched as telling the truth about Musgrave’s record.

    Musgrave, on the other hand, ran very negative ads about Paccione personally but she never uttered the words herself. The ominous music and sarcastic tone of the voice over took care of the dirty work while Musgrave’s role was reduced to the required disclaimer message and b-roll video of her sitting at a well-appointed desk presumably writing a letter to a constituent.

    The implication: Negative campaigning is a tough balancing act for women candidates — especially challengers.

    The New Mexico CD-1 race between incumbent Rep. Heather Wilson and challenger Patricia Madrid echoed the nastiness of the Musgrave-Paccione showdown. There too, the challenger came out swinging and ultimately narrowly lost the race to a fairly unpopular representative in a district which has been under Republican control for 38 years.

    However, Clair McCaskill, the Senator-elect from Missouri, seems to have hit the right note by refraining from appearing in negative ads until the last few days of the campaign. That allowed her to define herself first with the electorate based on her background, record and issues. Once, she had built a sense of rapport with voters, she could then go on the attack.

    Know Your District
    There is an unfortunate and plainly wrong tendency to view CD-4 as monolithic in its voting patterns. Overall, Republican voter registration dominates but that’s not the whole story. There are actually three distinct constituencies in the district that bear attention.

    The exurban vote of Longmont and Larimer County represents the largest single bloc of voters and are best characterized as moderates fiscally and socially. Case in point, these voters easily passed Referenda C&D in 2004 and this year’s minimum wage ballot measure while still voting for Musgrave by an average 41 percent.

    The rural voter constituency includes those on the eastern plains and in the mountains west of Fort Collins. Both groups’ communities are distinguished by a sense of isolation from Denver-centric politics and resentment about the exploitation of natural resources by the Front Range. The independent spirit that prevails here is often borne of necessity because of the lack of political voice. The support for Ref C by 10 of the 15 counties in the district belies Musgrave’s rural vote tallies last week which ranged from 49 percent in Weld County to a high of 71 percent in Cheyenne and Washington Counties. Rather than criticize the schizophrenic trends of rural voters, one would do better to consider the more pragmatic “what’s in it for me” factor winning the day.

    Lastly, the rapid population growth in the city of Longmont and Weld and Larimer Counties cannot be overlooked with respect to election messaging. The sharp partisanship in those areas may be driving previously party-affiliated voters to the ranks of the unaffiliated where it’s more difficult to engage them in traditional off-year organizing activities and communications.

    The implication: Comedy Central’s Colbert Report features a satirical segment called “Better Know a District” which pokes fun at representatives unable to answer leading questions about their own constituencies. When Eric Eidsness, an obscure and underfunded third party candidate, pulls 11 percent of the vote in an off-year election — nearly triple the 2004 effort by a Green Party member, it may be time for the media to bone up on what’s really on voters’ minds rather than making assumptions about the electorate as uneducated bumpkins and ideological rubes.

    Debasing the Base
    Related to the ignored constituencies in the district is the historic lack of support for county democratic party activities in CD-4.

    This election was the first test of the DNC’s “50 State Strategy” and the results demonstrate that there is much work to be done to shake the moribund cobwebs to improve the Democrats up- and down-ticket chances in 2008. Organizing and GOTV infrastructure needs aside, the emerging economic populist themes that were so successful in several campaigns throughout the midwest and intermountain west provide the glue for bringing together some divergent voter groups.

    The implication: Nowhere is this opportunity more evident than in the need to bridge the immigration gap. In a district that is so reliant on agriculture and the migrant worker economy, finding common ground between the Latino community and agribusiness owners would provide a real foothold for Democrats. The need to address immigration reform in honest terms as important security, economic and foreign policy concerns is crucial. Providing some much-needed sanity and common sense to the leadership vacuum created by the lack of federal response and the insulting special session theatrics in the Statehouse would provide huge momentum to a Democratic challenger to Musgrave in 2008.