Melanson Speaks: Udall’s Campaign Chief on Politics

Karl Rove, often referred to as “Bush’s Brain”, will formally end his long career as an advisor to the president at month’s end. In modern politics with an instantaneous 24-hour news cycle and worldwide reach, there’s little doubt that top aides can have enormous influence — for better or worse — on a candidate.

In our new Q&A series featuring campaign insiders, Colorado Confidential continues its conversation with Mike Melanson, long time Democratic Party operative and campaign manager for Rep. Mark Udall’s senatorial bid. In this installment, Melanson discusses political coattails, the Western Strategy, and Latino outreach. CC: What’s the biggest challenge for a candidate running a statewide race?
MM: I think it’s keeping eye on the goal and there can often be blow ups here and blow ups there that can distract the campaign. I think that if you do really good research, analyze that research and track out your course. You always have to make adjustments but don’t get off track. I have a motto that ‘All campaigns have problems. Winning campaigns solve them.’

For a person running for statewide office, staying focused on what’s important to the people of Colorado and not allowing some of the smaller skirmishes that may seem important take you off of what you really want to do and your message to the borader electorate.

CC: The convention political wisdom of coattails can have  a huge impact on down ticket races in an important presidential election year. As a key senate race, do you feel you have a role in that or not?
MM: My number one job is to get Mark Udall elected. Let’s be honest, everyone’s got coattails. The question is whether you want to ride them or not. We make that decision at the presidential level and, I think, the house and senate folks in the state legislature will have to make that decision with regards to us. Of course, we know they’re going to base that off of their research and how they see the campaign above them developing.

Earlier today I was on a call with the Generation Blue PAC folks and they asked a similar question. And they said, of course, we’re not looking for an endorsement or anything but if you were to pick a presidential candidate which one would you pick? And they were mainly focusing on the top three frontrunners. But my view of that was ‘Well those three I think they all have plusses and minuses in Colorado. And I’m not sure any of them helps or harms our candidacy. But I do believe that Bill Richardson [the Democratic governor of neighboring New Mexico], while certainly a long shot — and this is no endorsement of his campaign — that if he were the nominee I do think that the fact that he is Hispanic and a Westerner, I think it would truly change the presidential landscape. Now, of course, Bill Richardson is a long shot, so the same thing that if one of those [top three] candidates were to bring a Westerner in as a VP I think that might temper some of the things that are problematic with the three frontrunners. But again, we’ll have to see how this shapes up between now and November. It’s still a long ways away now.

And who knows who the Republican nominee is going to be. I think it’s all wide open for discussion.

CC: How would you personally define the ‘Western Strategy’ that’s been touted as the next coming phase of the Democratic Party?
MM: I think people have to be a little bit careful about that. I talk to a lot of folks at the national level who are interested in our race. And they think things like… one person commented ‘Didn’t we defeat one of the Republican incumbents in one of the congressional seats back in 2006?’ I said ‘no’ you know. And then said ‘Weren’t there two really strong Republican seats that the Democrat almost won in?’ And it’s like ‘no.’ Now, certainly Angie Paccione came very close, no doubt about that, but it certainly wasn’t as large a margin as for Jay Fawcett.

All I say with that is there is a little bit of, for folks back East, look out here and they see the demographic change and they see the results that we’ve had and I think they’re not looking carefully at why those came about. It’s not just simply a shift in the electorate but it’s a shift in the message in what it means to be a Westerner and everyone of these candidates that won out here on a statewide basis are a very unique almost libertarian — with a small ‘l’ — type democrat. And that’s what has a lot to do with our politics out here. We just need to be careful as we move forward with these projects that are going on. And I think it’s great that there’s this attention out here now because I do truly believe we have the ability to win a lot of these states even at the presidential level.

CC: What are you guys considering on Latino outreach which is a huge issue that doesn’t seem to get addressed well very dynamically?
MM: There are two outreach components that we have started. One is to the business and Republican community. Even though it’s clear that the Republican Party has unified itself behind Bob Schaffer at the same time that’s at the party level.

When you go outside the party circles to that next immediate level, I think there’s this notion that we’re tired of talking about social issues. There are things that we need to be focusing on, like our infrastructure, so that bridges don’t collapse. So that people don’t sit in traffic jams wasting millions and millions of dollars every year because of inefficiencies. And the business community is beginning to realize that the investment is important. I didn’t mean to get sidetracked but that’s an area that we are starting some targeted outreach.

The second one though is the Hispanic community of Colorado. If you look at [U.S. Senate candidate Ted] Strickland’s race and [Democratic presidential nominee John] Kerry’s race that were unsuccessfully versus races like the [U.S. Senate candidate Ken] Salazar race and [Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill] Ritter race and you look at some areas where there is a strong Hispanic voting bloc, there is no doubt that the Hispanic community was not as connected to those other races as well as they could be. Where they were for Salazar and Ritter.

So we are very cognizant of that and when Mark is here meeting with Hispanic leaders and being in those communities will be critical. And then we will also have a component of mail, phones, radio, and maybe even through TV but a sizable part of our paid media will be directed to that community. There’s no doubt that Bob Schaffer is not going to sit quietly.