Looking back at the recall elections, I’m still pondering what happened


In the entry hall at Pueblo’s Union station hang two large portraits, one of Woodrow Wilson and the other of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. During the golden age of rail, each of these Democratic Presidents made campaign stops in this hot and dusty corner of Colorado. While Roosevelt was running for re-election at the time of his visit, Wilson was attempting to sell his League of Nations, created by the Treaty of Versailles, to an isolationist and skeptical U.S. Senate. Leaving Washington Sept. 3, 1919, on a 17-state marketing tour, Wilson stumbled ascending the stage in Pueblo on Sept. 25. Later that day it became apparent he had suffered a severe stroke and the President was whisked back to Washington where he spent the remainder of his presidency confined to the White House as a semi-invalid screening silent movies in the East Room.

Hidden from the press and public for nearly five months, opposition to the League solidified. In March of 1920, American membership was defeated by seven votes. This tragic story is recounted in Scott Berg’s current biography. Although no less an observer than Winston Churchill judged Wilson to have emerged as the “great man” among the Allied leaders following the First World War, Wilson was reduced to privately complaining that, “If only I could have remained well long enough to have convinced the people that the League of Nations was their real hope, their last chance, perhaps, to save civilization!”

Roosevelt was left to cope with Adolf Hitler and the consequences of Wilson’s failure to establish a framework for enforcing an enduring peace. Whether American participation in the League of Nations would have actually made a difference remains one of those tantalizing historical “what ifs” best debated over a snifter of brandy and a fat cigar.

Explaining yourself

Colorado Democrats would have been well-advised last week to emulate the wisdom of Wilson’s decision to take his case directly to voters. The recall debacles in Pueblo and Colorado Springs remind us of the adage that victory enjoys a thousand parents while defeat is more often than not an orphan. At the margin, there exists any number of excuses that Democrats can crouch behind: a shortened election, restricted voting locations, the absence of mail ballots and the relative intensity of feeling between recall proponents and their opponents. Each of these has been cited to claim the election results were a one off phenomenon that tells us little regarding voter intentions in 2014. And, there is a grain of truth in these rationalizations. But, these were incumbents, after all, with war chests that dwarfed the resources available to the barbarians at the gates. Is it at least possible that the Democratic campaign was misconceived both in message and strategy?

The affinity between Hollywood and the Democratic Party is based, at least in part, on a shared enthusiasm for sequels. Whenever a movie breaks a billion dollars at the box office not only will there be an Iron Man 2 and 3, but producers also begin combing through their childhood comic books for comparable protagonists. (There’s a solid business reason why Disney forked over billions to purchase the Marvel library.)

President Obama’s successful campaigns have created a parallel gold rush among Democratic political consultants in favor of demographic micro-targeting. Political messages are precisely crafted to echo the poll-tested preferences of voters. Don’t bother explaining your true priorities, just assure that 30 to 35-year-old high school graduate single mom you agree with her. Of course this approach only works if you ask the right questions at the outset.

Rather than forcefully defending the reasonableness of the gun restrictions actually enacted by the Colorado Legislature — universal background checks and a 15-round clip limit — Democratic pollsters discovered the generic mention of gun controls polled poorly despite broad support for these specific measures. Therefore, they crafted a campaign strategy that avoided direct references to the very matters that originally motivated grassroots insurgencies. Instead, they attempted to shift the public debate to a discussion about the wisdom of recalling legislators for their actions on particular pieces of legislation. Polling evidenced a majority of voters harbored concerns that this was an abuse of the recall process. Did it really make sense to re-litigate election results absent any evidence of illegal, unethical, improper or corrupt behavior on the part of an incumbent? “Probably not” was the general opinion. Yet, once a recall was certified, this objection was largely mooted.

Constituents expected that Senators John Morse and Angela Giron would defend and explain their votes, yet all voters heard from them were the sounds of silence. Meanwhile, phone banking micro-targeters were hounding them to return their ballots. What appears to have been missed is the fact that you could agree the recall was inappropriate, perhaps even unjust, and still support the recall once confronted with the choice. I heard numerous voters commenting that the incumbents had been “too arrogant” to explain what they had been doing in Denver. It had become a question of respect.

Protecting home plate

At the Downtown Democratic Forum breakfast last Friday, state Democratic Chairman Rick Palacio suggested as circumspectly as humanly possible that a little more attention to the folks at home might have gone a long way towards protecting both Senate seats that were lost. There is a reason why long serving officeholders like John McCain hold regular “townhall” meetings — including the recent drubbing he took from Arizonans objecting to his enthusiasm for yet another American misadventure in Syria. Demonstrating the courage to face down one’s critics earns grudging admiration even from those who disagree. Giron and Morse failed to cultivate a corps of supporters that could be activated on their behalf. The decision to import volunteers from Denver to knock on doors likely backfired with many Democrats.

The threshold for triggering a recall election is fairly high in Colorado. It’s not easy to do. That’s why two of four attempted canvasses failed. Once on the ballot, however, energy and momentum moves to the rebels. The “three plumbers” who spearheaded the recall in Pueblo proved both shrewd and relentless. Although in a decided minority, 48 percent of Pueblo Republicans cast their ballots in the recall, but even that would not have proved decisive without recall support from a significant segment of the Democratic base. There were indicators of what was coming. Too many Democrats had signed the recall petitions. Once polling places opened, Democrats weren’t voting at anywhere near the rate of the outnumbered Republicans. They were sitting on their hands. Asking them whether they thought the recall was fair proved the wrong question. A better inquiry would have been, “Do you think your Senator understands the concerns facing you and your family?”

Democrats have ample time to recover before 2014. They may even recapture both of these Senate seats, but they won’t accomplish that by merely trying to turn out more of their supporters than their opponents. They will have to stand for something.

Miller Hudson is a longtime Denver Democrat. He is a public affairs consultant these days and pens political commentary for The Colorado Statesman. He can be reached at mnhwriter@msn.com.

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