REGIONAL - In a congressional district that has only voted Republican twice in seven decades, losing is a big reason to explore where things went wrong. Now that the dust has nearly settled on the …
REGIONAL - In a congressional district that has only voted Republican twice in seven decades, losing is a big reason to explore where things went wrong. Now that the dust has nearly settled on the 2018 election, it’s clear to Joe Radinovich’s campaign manager Jordan Hagert that a combination of factors led to the DFL loss in a district that had long been considered a safe one for Democrats.
“The first turning point was when we walked out without an endorsement in April,” he said. The DFL endorsing convention, in Duluth, had deadlocked after candidate Leah Phifer fell just short of reaching the 60-percent majority needed for endorsement. In the end, DFLers in the district spent the next four months in a heated primary fight for the party’s nomination.
“Going back, we should have gotten the endorsement in April,” Hagert said. “We could have made a stronger argument of why we needed to hit the ground in May, not August.”
Timing was another factor, particularly the late announcement by Congressman Rick Nolan that he would not seek re-election to the seat he had held for six years. Nolan had originally announced his intention to seek a fourth term, so his withdrawal from the race in April after a strong showing by Phifer in precinct caucuses left DFLers scrambling to assemble campaigns.
Meanwhile, Republican Pete Stauber had already been laying the groundwork for his bid for more than six months. During that time, he had lined up key endorsements and assembled a substantial war chest that left him well-positioned to take advantage of the disarray on the DFL side.
Despite that, Radinovich seemed to emerge from the August primary with an effective campaign in place and polls showing the race was tight, leaving open the possibility that the DFL could hold the seat in a year with substantial Democratic enthusiasm.
The August primary would give way to what was potentially one of the campaign’s greatest challenge— a veritable flood of attack ads produced and paid for by outside Republican-leaning political action committees.
“Character attacks hurt both professionally and personally,” said Hagert. “Joe is a tower of integrity and we should have taken those character concerns head on.”
The ads, which were judged mostly false by fact-checking organizations, were relentless and focused on Radinovich’s unpaid parking fines, and other mostly traffic-related infractions. Outside groups, like the Congressional Leadership Fund and the Trump-affiliated America First Political Action Committee, poured an estimated $7 million into the negative attacks against Radinovich. Hagert admits the response from the campaign was too little too late.
Hagert said he was dismayed by the hypocrisy of Republican backers and others who believed the ads. “The President has more credible sexual assault claims against him then Joe has parking tickets,” he said.
But, Hagert acknowledges, the ads worked. While early polls suggested the race was even or that Radinovich even held a slight lead, that changed noticeably after weeks of the relentless attacks.
NYT poll a factor
Polling in the district was a major source of contention, especially in the final weeks.
The New York Times began a series of “live” polls in September that allowed online viewers to watch in real time as the newspaper and its research partner, Siena College, called hundreds of thousands of voters in districts across the country.
Their first look at the district, in September, suggested a tight race, with Radinovich clinging to a statistically insignificant 44-43 percent lead.
It was the Times’ second poll, released in mid-October, that proved a shocker. After revising their polling methodology and assuming a much-larger GOP turnout than the earlier poll, the Time’s showed Stauber up by 15 points. The numbers were hotly contested by the DFL, and calls from the Timberjay to Siena College and the Times resulted in the latter issuing a statement that the poll’s results could be off by as much as ten points. The Times, however did not retract the information nor reconduct the poll.
While polls don’t elect candidates, they often affect fundraising, and that proved the case with Radinovich. Just days after the Radinovich campaign announced that it had set a record for campaign fundraising in the district, with more the $1.2 million raised in a single quarter, the flow of campaign cash began to dry up.
“We wanted people on the ground to know that by no means was this a 15-point race, same with the donors,” Hagert said. “One bad poll shouldn’t define a race, but sometimes it can.”
Hagert said around the time of the poll, the DCCC did pull its ad money from the Eighth District, however Hagert said the poll likely didn’t have much to do with the decision. Instead, the DCCC opted to put more resources into races in the Twin Cities area, where it appeared that two GOP congressmen, Jason Lewis and Eric Paulsen, were vulnerable to defeat. In the end, both Lewis and Paulsen were defeated, but their victories came, at least in part, at Radinovich’s expense.
“It makes sense that the DCCC would go after Lewis and Paulsen,” Hagert said. “They were easier candidates. Stauber was a stronger candidate.”
Hagert expressed dismay, however, that the DCCC did not try to match the millions being spent by outside Republican groups, particularly in the expensive Twin Cities media market, where the Radinovich campaign lacked the resources to fight back.
Overall, the DFL estimates they were outspent three-to-one in advertising in the race, which the GOP had identified as one of only a handful of seats they had the potential to flip.
Despite the loss, Hagert said he’s optimistic. While he pointed out the district had voted for Trump by 16 points over Hillary Clinton in 2016, he predicts the Eighth will continue to be highly competitive.
“When the congressman-elect has to take party line votes, this district will be even closer than it was this time.”