The Roanoke City Council
VC Note: This piece has been written by Terry Franklin, a Roanoke County Republican.
The following is written not from the standpoint of a political campaign guru of any sort but from the viewpoint of an observer of local and district Republican campaigns. This is how to lose an election.
The Roanoke City Council elections held on May 5, 2014 should have had the potential to get the first Republican on this City Council since Ralph Smith left the Mayor’s office in 2004. The stage was set with three open City Council seats and seven Democrats/Independents vying for them. Add in our three Republican candidates (Roger Malouf, Jim Garrett, and Hank Benson) to complete a field of ten candidates, and the potential for splitting the Democrat vote to gain at least one seat should be apparent. So what went wrong? Roanoke City is a known bastion for the Democrats in Southwest Virginia so it was an uphill fight from the start. But, is the Republican ‘brand’ so tainted in Roanoke City that a Republican can’t get elected? Fairly recent history suggests otherwise given that Republican Sheriff Octavia Johnson was voted out only this past November.
The Campaign Staff – Assuming that you have good candidates, acquiring a good campaign staff with a record of winning seems like a no-brainer, or at minimum, a staff that doesn’t have a proven record of losing elections. The Roanoke City Council campaign staff included Republican City Unit Chair John Brill acting as campaign manager, Roanoke Tea Party activists Greg Aldridge and Chip Tarbutton as consultants, and Tiffany Riffe, also a consultant. There were ZERO general election wins between all of them to include the election campaigns of E.W. Jackson (twice), Tripp Godsey, and Troy Bird.
Campaign Funding – There are several aspects of the ‘Republican’ campaign funding and expenditures in this Roanoke City election worth taking a look at. Campaign funding is a crucial element to winning elections and getting funding is a major function of a campaign staff. While it does take some money to win a local election, it doesn’t mean that you have to have an overwhelming campaign treasury to win. Value for the money spent is the mantra, or votes per dollar spent.
The contributions for the three Republican Candidates in this City election through the end of March 2014 was about $7,000 each, or $21,000 combined. Two years ago, Republican candidate Mark Lucas for Mayor, who only lost by 348 votes, gathered almost $56,000 through the same reporting period ending March 2012. It is notable that this Republican ‘ticket’ could only raise 37% of the Republican monies raised in 2012, or broken down further that each Republican candidate could only raise approximately 12.5% compared to that previous campaign by Mark Lucas. It could be argued that the Mayoral race is higher profile and would garner more in contributions, but given the stakes of Republicans again being shutout of this election you would think the contributions would have been more than they were with these three candidates. Have all of the Republicans left Roanoke City in the last two years or was there an issue with the campaign that would explain the funding problem? Also interesting is that the Roanoke City Republican Committee (RCRC) contributed a total of $7,700 to the campaigns. Although most of this money has not shown up on the campaign finance reports yet, it can easily be said that the RCRC is a major funder of this election loss. What is troubling is how the to-date reported monies were spent. One third (approx. $7,000) was spent on ‘consulting’ fees. $7,000 is not an alarming figure on its own, but as a percentage of total campaign funds it brings back the question of value for the money.
The campaign finance reports can be viewed by typing in the name of the candidates here: http://cfreports.sbe.virginia.gov/
The Campaign Plan – What the campaign plan actually was and how it was implemented is speculative to some degree by this observer, but I question the wisdom of the three candidates running as a ‘ticket’. Keep in mind that the goal was to get at least one elected, yet there was nothing discernable to identify one Republican candidate from the next. There were no individual talking points to make any of them particularly identifiable or electable. The vote tallies are indicative of a ‘one lose-all lose’ scenario with each Republicans being in the 10% range of total votes received.
Politicos always preach door knocking, phone calls, yard signs and direct mail as the foremost effective tools to winning an election. Those are acknowledged fundamentals to any effective political campaign and that brings a note of humor to this Roanoke City Council loss by Republicans. The one and only campaign mailer arrived in the mail the day AFTER the election. Is that value for the money? Maybe it was considering the content.
Yards signs were scarce to non-existent in much of Roanoke. The ones that were visible were barely, or not, readable with all three candidates names on them. If the paucity of yard signs was indicative of not identifying Republican voters, then that was clearly the case in the typically Republican South Roanoke precincts.
The Campaign Message – The campaign staff determined early to go with negative campaign ads in this local election. Negative ads are always distasteful though said to be effective. The effectiveness of negative campaigning might be true in a broader State or National political arena, but in a local election do you want to ‘throw someone out with the trash’ that you personally know, maybe do business with or interact with in some way? The mentality that would encourage negative campaigning would generally not be a neighbor, nor does it lend any credence to the reasons your candidate(s) SHOULD be elected.
Why compare Roanoke City to Detroit, Michigan with no explained basis for the ads placed? Is that comparison justified or just a figment of a campaign staffers’ imagination?
In Conclusion – Getting candidates elected is first a sales pitch and then a numbers game. The sales pitch was flawed from the start, but the numbers game is the tell-all in an election. Losing precincts that Republicans usually dominate or hold close shows that this election couldn’t have been won.
In the January 2014 special election, Republican Octavia Johnson received 30% of the votes district-wide, but got 46% in South Roanoke 1 and 55% in South Roanoke 2. The City Council candidates got 30% of the City-wide vote, but only 20% in South Roanoke 1 and 24% in South Roanoke 2.
The numbers don’t lie.