We were on to something here last week at the Littwin gov panel. The hot rumor, we reported, was that the Democratic race was finally about to go negative.
We were right, except, uh, that we had the wrong Democrat. So, hey, we’re not perfect. But who would have expected clean-campaign Cary to go first?
Not me. I had Jared Polis in the pool, which turned out much like my March Madness pool. But that’s another story. Our story is that Teachers for Kennedy, a pro-Kennedy PAC supported by Emily’s List and the teachers’ union, went up with a negative TV ad hitting frontrunner Jared Polis and also Mike Johnston, who has drawn serious money in support from the ed-reform movement. And they followed that with a mailer listing not-exactly-recent stories (one was in the late, lamented Rocky Mountain News, which folded more than nine years ago; I know, I was there) on Polis and vouchers, stories that date back to 2003.
The reaction was immediate. John Hickenlooper condemned the negativity, saying he was “disappointed” with Kennedy and that she was jeopardizing her position in the race.
There was a debate on Wednesday in which Johnston slammed a seemingly flustered Kennedy for breaking the negativity pledge. OK, it was her PAC and not her who broke it, but Kennedy defended the PAC attack. Polis hit back hard, too.
And so, what does it all mean?
It was a very modest attack by these kinds of standards, but by standards of this quiet campaign, it might as well have been the Fourth of July. Who did it help? Who did it hurt? Does the Hickenlooper slam matter? Do negative ads work?
That’s why you come to the Littwin all-star panel to get the answers, or at least wild stabs at them. For the most part, we concluded that negative ads do work and that making education the centerpiece of the debate was smart and that out-of-context, modestly-unfair campaign advertising is a proven winner.
My first reaction was that it was a bad move by Kennedy, possibly even a minor disaster. My second reaction was, who am I kidding? Politics, as the saying goes, ain’t beanbag. It may have been risky, but it probably shows the race tighter than we expected between Polis and Kennedy. In fact, Hickenlooper says that Kennedy is leading in the private polls that he is seeing, although not in the polls anyone else I know has seen.
And the panelists?
GOP pooh-bah Josh Penry thinks it was a good move: “I don’t know that it was a disaster at all, at least in the Democratic primary. A lot of those hard-core teacher-union types seethe about charter schools, school choice, and the broader accountability movement. My guess is that the hit probably succeeds in pulling some support away from both (Polis and Johnston) with a spend of that magnitude.
“Lumping Mike and Jared together in the same broadside probably also reinforces some of the underlying gender dynamics in the race — there’s the two, corporate good old boys, and then there’s Cary, the one who cares about teachers (cough, cough unions). There is real energy in the Democratic Party to chase those characters out of the ranks. It’s like a purge. So why not go all in? The unions clearly are.”
On the Dem side, Alan Salazar, who doesn’t like negative ads, said, “Associating Jared with vouchers and being anti-teacher is grossly unfair and largely inaccurate but in a Dem primary very effective – particularly since voters will be reacting to the labels and not the substance.”
At the heart of the attack on Johnston is SB-191, which, in part, ties teacher evaluations to what we call, these days, high-stakes student testing, which has basically gone out of favor. The bill was, in part, in response to Obama’s Race-To-The-Top agenda. And, as Salazar points out, it was one of the seminal achievements of Gov. Bill Ritter’s tenure.
“Having it used negatively in a Dem campaign is, well, painfully ironic,” Salazar says.
Painful irony is one my favorite kinds. And I asked ace political flak and formerly ace political reporter Lynn Bartels to tell me some of the Democrats who backed SB-191. Among those from the Senate, which passed the bill 27-8: John Morse, Joyce Foster, Rollie Heath, Bob Bacon, Chris Romer, Pat Steadman, Abel Tapia. Morgan Carroll, current chair of the Colorado Democratic Party, voted against. On the House side, Bartels named Mark Ferrandino, Beth McCann, Joe Rice, Karen Middleton and more.
Progressive panelist Ian Silverii, who admits that it’s ironic for a ProgressNow guy to knock negative ads, thought it was a mistake for Kennedy to go negative and said he would have recommended a happy warrior ad with cheering teachers marching alongside Kennedy. But, he added, “knowing that you struck a super-raw nerve with both opponents at once on a key issue for the base, and got an earned media bump on top of it with some fact-checks and semi-breathless ‘The gloves are off!’ stories, I think they’re highly likely to keep beating this particular drum, and I think it’s likely to work as intended.”
GOP strategist Cinamon Watson thinks there are two things to take from the ad. One, that provoking “the admonishment of one of Colorado’s most popular politicos in a close race may prove to be a significant miscalculation.”
And two, that “Johnston’s path to victory may become a bit wider as Polis and Kennedy tear each other down with prodding from the teachers’ union. We’ve seen the union cut off its nose to spite its face before, when they filed suit over SB-191 just as Johnston was asking voters to [pay for] the largest funding increase for schools in state history. They may be doing it again, this time to his benefit.”
So, there you have it. It’s probably good for Kennedy. Or not. It may be good for Johnston. It may provoke Polis. It may be completely overblown. It may be a nasty final month, which will set up a much nastier general election.
But for those who collect mailers — and the indispensable Sandra Fish (@fishnette) reliably does — here’s the one hitting Polis.
“On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being akin to calling your opponent a child molester and a Nazi, I would say this is a 3,” Salazar says. “Like all negative mail it distorts, misses context and pulls emotional chords but is just shy of being outrageous.”
OK, we can’t forget Republicans. Victor Mitchell is out with a funny ad about Walker Stapleton being a tennis-playing, country-clubbing Bush cousin. Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers, meanwhile, endorsed Stapleton.
But the big news is that GOP strategist Dick Wadhams hit Stapleton in a Denverite article, wondering about his decision to skip the upcoming Channel 12 debate while also allying himself with Tom Tancredo and failing badly on a recent Fox News interview. “You add these things up,” Wadhams told Denverite, “and I think it raises the question, is Walker Stapleton ready for a general election?”
Penry agrees with Wadhams (“He’s my mentor and friend, and he’s way smarter than I am …”) that Stapleton should do the debate but thinks Stapleton will do fine in general election debates, if he gets that far. Penry: “As Chris Berman would say, the two front runners in the Democratic Party aren’t exactly William Jennings Bryan. They are fine, but Walker will hold his own.”
OK, onto the rankings.
1. Jared Polis. Penry thinks Hickenlooper inadvertently did Polis “a solid by being the campaign kindness police. Polis’ spending advantage effectively makes him the nominee unless someone lands a punch. By trying to enforce a no-punching rule, he’s (unwittingly?) helping Polis a lot.”
2. Cary Kennedy. If we had the technology, I’d go with a 45-degree up arrow. Pandora’s Box is now open. Let’s see what flies out. Something certainly from Polis’s PAC (and why does a self-funder need a PAC?).
3. Mike Johnston. Considering everyone believes he’s in third place, the uglier it gets between Polis and Kennedy, the better off it is for him. He basically promised in the debate not to go negative and to ask his PAC to pull down any negative ads. We’ll see if that holds. But it might be the smart strategy.
1. Walker Stapleton. Interesting that Wadhams hit him. But I think it was probably a kick in the butt, meaning he has to do better. He does if he’s going to win in November. Still hard to see how Stapleton could lose in the primary.
3. Doug Robinson.To this point, he’s the real underperformer in the field for either party. And it’s worse than that. Panelist Silverii pointed me to a story in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, which begins this way: “Mitt Romney’s nephew, Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Robinson, made a campaign stop in Glenwood Springs …” So long as he’s still Romney’s nephew, he’s not a viable candidate.
4. Greg Lopez. He was tied with Robinson (at 8 points) for third in the recent Magellan Strategies poll of the 5th Congressional District. So, it looks like third place is still in the picture. That’s something.
Panelists: Big-shot GOP strategist Josh Penry, principal at EIS; long-time Dem strategist and Hancock chief of staff Alan Salazar; ProgressNow progressive Ian Silverii; GOP strategist, and always good quote, Cinamon Watson, principal at Blueprint Strategies— and, of course, me.