Friday, July 23, 2010

Pickup Opportunity - Secretary of State

Anyone who doubts the importance of the office of Secretary of State need only remember Florida, in November 2000, when Republican Katherine Harris played a pivotal role in stealing Florida's electoral votes for George W. Bush. In Alabama's stolen gubernatorial election of 2002, Alcibiadean Secretary of State Jim Bennett had a key role in blocking the recount of the "After-Midnight" 6,000 vote swing in Baldwin County that handed the election to Riley. Even in the absence of a cliffhanger, the office has a lot of influence over the entire electoral process. In a state where there are always Republican schemes afoot to disfranchise minority voters, either illegally or by changing the law, it's a big advantage to the party controlling this office to be able to collect the media coverage that follows a Secretary of State's pronouncements on any voting issue.

In short, this is an important office.

And, despite the fact that Republican incumbent Beth Chapman avoided a primary challenge (which speaks volumes to the lack of depth in the Republican bench), this office presents a key pickup opportunity among the so-called "constitutional" offices. The Democratic nominee is Scott Gilliland, a Birmingham lawyer. Despite the usual advantages of incumbent name recognition, this office represents a real pickup opportunity for Democrats in 2010. In order to understand why, we need a brief look at how the race for this office fared in the last two cycles.

In the 1998 Democratic near-sweep of statewide offices, one of the few losers was former AEA president, and retired high school Latin teacher, Nancy Worley. She was running against incumbent Jim Bennett, who had switched to the Republican Party after being one of the few Democrats to win statewide in 1994. Other than betraying his party, Bennett had managed not to become entangled in any scandals or controversies, and his name recognition proved too much to overcome. Worley, however, made an effort in 2002 to succeed the term-limited Bennett. This time, she was blessed by circumstances. First, despite premature media political obituaries, Governor Don Siegelman won re-election, though not by a sufficient margin to prevent the "After Midnight" recount theft. Worley was also the beneficiary of an internal bloodbath in the GOP primary between State Representative Dave Thomas of Springville and Roy Moore acolyte Dean Young. In one of the more famous moments in recent Alabama politics, their joint appearance on Alabama Public Television's For the Record degenerated into a shouting match which included repeated offers to step outside to settle matters "mano a mano." When your fall opponent is threatening a fistfight on television with his primary opponent, that is almost always a good sign in politics. As shown on the map, Worley carried most of the more heavily populated counties en route to a 50.1%-49.9% win.

2006 would prove more difficult for Worley. She had made numerous changes in her term that did not sit well with holdover staff from the Bennett secretariat. She was challenged in the Democratic primary by her own elections division director, Ed Packard. Worley handily won the primary, 75.8%-25.2%, but Packard made repeated accusations of improprieties on Worley's part. These accusations were of course amplified and repeated by some of the more Republican-leaning media in Alabama. GOP attorney general Troy King, then still in favor with the Republican High Command, initiated a criminal investigation of Worley. This resulted in felony charges against Worley, which were later dismissed by the circuit court, but reinstated by the GOP-dominated Court of Criminal Appeals. Many legal observers doubt that the charges - which are still pending - will stand, as they are based on the innocuous - and probably Constitutionally protected - delivery of a short letter to State office staff, asking for their votes. (King had not charged GOP Treasurer Kay Ivey for a fundraising letter sent to her office staff.) The relentless repetition of "investigation" and "possible charges" in the media, combined with a strong showing by Bob Riley at the top of the GOP ticket, proved more than Worley could handle. The significant shift in votes to the Republicans is shown in the map to the left, and Chapman beat Worley 57.6%-42.4%. Not only did Worley lose some swing counties she had carried in 2002, Chapman carried several counties considered part of the Democratic base, such as Lauderdale, Marion and Etowah.

If Chapman - pictured to the left - wait, wrong Beth Chapman, pictured to the right (not sure there's any improvement) - was so formidable a candidate in 2006, why is she vulnerable in 2010? Well, what goes around, comes around. This time, it is Chapman who can't seem to put one foot in front of another without crossing an actual ethical boundary. For starters, it emerged that, in her 2006 campaign, she put her teenage sons on the payroll at far above manual-labor rates to "distribute signs" and other material, allowing her to divert campaign funds to Chez Chapman. But it doesn't stop there. In 2008, an Associated Press story revealed that Chapman - who frequently refers to herself as a "full time" Secretary of State - is paid $50,000.00 a year by her "consulting firm." To most Alabamians, that sounds like a full-time salary. What's worse, her "consulting firm" counts among its (apparently few) clients a charity, Shelby County CASA, which gets funding from the State. State funding doled out by the administration of Bob Riley, of whom Chapman is a political ally. Although Chapman was not formally charged in these affairs, the stink lingers.

How has this played out among the chattering classes? Not very well. Consider the following editorial thunder about the lapses:
Chapman is cozying right up to the ethics wall, and she likely cracked a few bricks. But she dodged "official" sanction when the Alabama Ethics Commission voted 4-1 last week to close the complaint against her, finding there was insufficient evidence to take it further.

But Chapman should have known she was in the red-flag zone to begin with. It's not like she's unfamiliar with state policies or the ethics law, considering she served as state auditor before running for secretary of state. And if Chapman didn't know she was tip-toeing awfully close to the line, well, that tells us something, too.

* * *

This shows again that a public official doesn't have to do something illegal to do something wrong. Paying yourself and your family to work in your campaign months after the campaign is over is wrong.
Who came down on Chapman like a ton of bricks? One of the handful of Democratic-leaning newspapers, like The Decatur Daily or The Anniston Star? No, this condemnation came straight off the editorial page of the usually-Republican Birmingham News. Now, if the News stomps on Republican toes this hard, it tells us several things. First, the toes are connected to a true slimeball. Secondly, that even the News is going to be hard-pressed not to prominently feature issues about which it editorialized so strongly, when it runs stories on the race this year (not to mention the implications for its own endorsement). Thirdly, that the News's position can be used to leverage both editorial endorsements and favorable coverage from other media outlets.

It is management of free media coverage, probably more than anything, that is going to be the key to Gilliland's success vel non in this campaign. Chapman, more than any Republican on their statewide ticket, has set herself up for the same sort of death-by-a-thousand-cuts that she was able to inflict on Worley in 2006. If my name were Scott Gilliland, I would identify the beat reporter assigned to this race at every major newspaper in the state, (if not every daily), and at the AP in Montgomery, and have their numbers in my BlackBerry for at least weekly chats, feeding them a weekly diet of something newsworthy. I wouldn't be bashful about educating them (if they don't know) about Chapman's ethical lapses, and giving them juicy, quotable quotes. ("I will be an ethical Secretary of State," won't get quoted. "Beth Chapman is the Rod Blagojevich of Alabama politics," just might.) In a related vein, he should set up some organized group of 5-10 friends, relatives, supporters, or clients who owe him money, and get each of them to each email a letter to the editor a week to every paper in the state. These letters should not hesitate to rehash the dirt on Chapman. Even though only a percentage of such letters are printed, some will be, and the cumulative readership of the editorial pages of all Alabama newspapers is in the tens, if not scores, of thousands. And such readers are high-frequency voters. These letters will have the added impact of influencing editorial endorsements and the quantity and tenor of news coverage.

What both these ideas have in common - and I by no means think they are the only such ideas - is that they are almost cost-free to the Gilliland campaign. Most newspapers accept emailed letters, and copy+paste makes sending a letter to every paper a job of a few minutes a week. Leveraging resources in this way is another absolutely necessary step for Gilliland. As he is probably learning, this is not a race that gets well-bankrolled, even for an incumbent. Few interest groups, other than financial firms that mass-file UCC filings, have a vested interest in relationships with the Secretary of State. Gilliland will be hard pressed to match Chapman financially, as she is the darling of Tea Party types who will give her $100 a clip, so this leveraging is vital. Another resource (more political than financial) for which he can reach in this race are the Democratic probate judges, most of whom long for a Democratic Secretary of State. Probate judges have juice in their respective counties, and no one was ever hurt by having the local probate judge quoted in the local paper as being a supporter. Not to mention, it is rare that a probate judge can't give at least one valuable pointer about something in his or her county. Finally, Gilliland can probably benefit from linking Chapman to Bob Riley in Houston County, where his ongoing crusade against employment (see, "Country Crossing") has him extremely unpopular in that must-win county for a statewide Republican. To the extent Gilliland does expend financial resources - on signage, paid media, or whatever - he will have to focus on those counties that switched from blue to red between the two maps above - and take back the Democratic base.

To overcome Chapman's structural advantages, Gilliland is going to have to approach this race on an around-the-clock basis from this point forward. He's going to have to be willing to draw clear lines between himself and his ethically challenged opponent, and not hesitate to land as hard a punch as he can throw when her guard is down. If this is a contest between an all-positive Gilliland message and Chapman talking about her version of "God and Country," Gilliland won't win. If he can take the attack to Chapman, not only is a nice job in Montgomery waiting in January, there are likely to be term-limited constitutional officers in 2014 in both parties. Finally, he has one natural advantage: everyone roots for the underdog. This race is absolutely winnable.