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Message (and messengers) matter in politics

Democrats regained control of the Oregon House on Nov. 6. They picked up a net gain of four seats, and will enter the 2013 session with a 34-26 majority.

Three of the four new Democrats elected in these hotly contested races were Working Families Party cross-nominees.

The fourth, Joe Gallegos, entered his race late and did not participate in the WFP nomination process. The Legislature will be different in other ways as well.

Mike Schaufler, a “Blue Dog” Democrat from House District 48, will be gone, and Jeff Reardon, D-Working Families Party, will be in his place.

Given Schaufler’s former position at the right flank of the Democratic caucus, one can argue that his departure also will shape the nature of how the now-majority party will govern in the 2013 session.

The Oregon Working Families Party nominated 47 candidates in the 2012 general election and 36 won their races. In the primary and the general elections, we played a critical role in two races that will change the face of the Oregon House. What follows is a re-cap of our work, an analysis of the role the WFP played in this most recent election, and a look toward the role the WFP can and should play in future elections.

House District 51

By the numbers, House District 51 was the most challenging district of all the seats that changed hands.

(House District 51 includes areas such as Damascus, Powell Butte Nature Park and it touches Highway 26 just east of Gresham. See the diagram that accompanies this column).

An aggressive field campaign made the difference. In the eight weeks before the election, the WFP knocked 12,892 doors and had 6,307 conversations with voters for Democrat Shemia Fagan. On top of that, the Fagan campaign itself knocked on a whole lot of doors starting in the early summer and continuing through election day.

By the end of this race, our target voters could not miss the fact that there was an election, knew all about Fagan, and they often knew why we were at their doors before we opened our mouths. This’s a good sign.

Clackamas County and

the Urban-Rural Divide

“The whole urban-rural divide is still a huge issue, Clackamas sits just dead center on that divide,” said John Lee, chairman of Clackamas County Republican Party.

Two of the races into which the WFP invested resources this year were partly in Clackamas County. This was by design. It is no secret that Tea Party affiliated groups such as Americans for Prosperity and the Oregon Transformation Project have targeted Clackamas County.

They have been investing big in local politics, and they scored successes in several local races. Many of the flash points that have driven the political rancor in the region are rooted in the tense interplay between a growing metropolitan area on the one hand and towns wishing to preserve the rural nature of their communities on the other.

The fights over light rail, the Damascus city plan, and “Portland Creep” are a few examples.

Clackamas County is a mixed rural-urban area. It also is mixed politically. On Nov. 6, Clackamas County voters went for Barack Obama, but elected strongly conservative candidates in many down ballot races.

Clackamas County will clearly continue to be a battleground for Oregon politics in the future, and the WFP firmly believes it will be necessary to continue to build capacity and work for candidates in this region of the state.

Message (and messengers) matter

Our field team frequently reported a common experience on the doors: The Working Families Party message and our nomination of Shemia Fagan made a difference in their thinking about her as a candidate.

Our field team quickly learned that the most effective message on the doors was one that explained:

n Explained what the Working Family Party is;

n Explained why the Working Family Party was supporting Shemia;

n Discussed the issues that mattered to voters; and,

n Confirmed support for Shemia.

It is not a surprise that many voters are disillusioned with the political status quo, but we found that the WFP message opened reluctant doors and started conversations with voters that may have otherwise tuned out the election.

At the WFP we often talk about the power of providing “third party validation” to our cross-nominees. The WFP is an independent, grassroots party that applies our own set of bread-and-butter economic filters to evaluating the candidates.

In this most recent election cycle our filter led us to take on and defeat a Democratic incumbent in the primary, and a Republican incumbent in the general. On the doors we found that this brand of “call it like we see it” economic populism appealed to many voters who otherwise might be inclined to shut out politics all together.

This is anecdotal evidence, to be sure.

However, the experience of our field team is not inconsistent with past polling that the WFP has done in Oregon which showed the appeal of the WFP message, particularly with working class and independent voters. Additionally, the WFP’s statewide election results in 2008 and 2010 also point to a pattern of the WFP message appealing to these voters. As you will see, our statewide results show a pattern of support being strongest in some of Oregon’s most rural counties.

On top of that, you can sometimes assess the impact your message and messengers are having on a race based on the reaction one gets from the opponent.

If this is our measure, then surely Patrick Sheehan’s campaign decision to launch an attack directly at the Working Families Party and our field organizers is a sign that our work was showing signs of effectiveness.

In one of the wackiest campaign mailers I have ever seen, Sheehan resorted to a level of red-bating that would have made Joe McCarthy proud.

Given the fact the Cold War had ended when Patrick Sheehan was only 15 years old, his attacks seemed strangely out of place. But again, when your opponent is attacking both your message and your messengers it is a good sign you are making an impact on the race.

Conclusion

The WFP has had a significant impact on the complexion of the 2013 Legislature. We successfully unseated Democrat Mike Schaufler and Republican Patrick Sheehan — two races fought partly in Clackamas County, one of Oregon’s toughest political battlegrounds.

Our message and our aggressive field organizing played a big role in shaping the outcome of two critical legislative races.

In the future, we believe that the WFP message is well suited for continuing work in places like Clackamas County as well as other regions of the state where our form of “call it like we see it” economic populism will resonate with voters who feel disenfranchised with the current political status quo.

Steve Hughes is director of the Oregon Working Families Party.




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