A look at a GOP consultant’s strategy

A must read for political insiders is an Op-Ed written by GOP political consultant Tom Blakely, reprinted with his permission, on the danger of running for re-election as an incumbent in 2008. Blakely's firm, Jamestown Associates, is the consultant to Anne Evans Estabrook's U.S. Senate campaign, and the House campaigns of Leonard Lance in the 7th district and Christopher Myers in the 3rd district. Last week, a Jamestown client ousted a Republican Congressman in the Maryland GOP primary:

Buried in Tuesday's defeat of nine-term incumbent Wayne Gilchrest (R-Md.) is a message that should be heeded by incumbents everywhere: You must earn the support of the people you represent.

When Gilchrest was first elected, incumbents were considered nearly unbeatable. But during the 18 years he served in Washington, the world changed and he failed to change with it.

The change is not Fox News, YouTube and text messaging; they are symptoms of the change. The real change is that elected officials can be held more accountable. And if you forget this lesson, someone will remind you.

For those who didn't follow the race, conservative state Sen. Andy Harris faced off against Gilchrest and E.J. Pipkin, a multi-millionaire state senator, who ran for U.S. Senate in 2004. Post-election news reports said the weather, the presidential primary and Pipkin's candidacy were the key factors in Gilchrest's defeat. One article attributed Gilchrest's vote against war funding as the key factor in his defeat. This is especially amusing since no advertising was done on that issue and his vote was largely forgotten by Election Day. Either way, all these presumptions are entirely false.

The real story is much more interesting, and for incumbents who wish to protect their seats, more important.

Campaigns are usually determined by three factors: demographics, issue and character. In Maryland's 1st congressional district race, all of the factors came into play.

The demographic element in this case is the fact that the district is divided roughly evenly between Eastern Shore Maryland (part of the Delmarva Peninsula) and the state's Western Shore, consisting largely of the Baltimore suburbs.

This division is further accentuated by news coverage and cable and broadcast television programming that is broken down between the Baltimore and Salisbury, Md., markets.

The most shocking fact to me during the whole campaign was the way Gilchrest (as well as Pipkin) ignored or even disdained the Western Shore of the district. It's true that the Eastern Shore of Maryland has a very different culture and attitude than the Baltimore suburbs. It's important to make a connection to the people living there. But the Baltimore suburbs make up half the district, meaning that to win, Harris only needed to do better in the west than Gilchrest did in the east.

And the election results very clearly show that the landslide victory for Harris was based on the overwhelming support he received from this area. The Gilchrest campaign had placed so much emphasis on his Eastern Shore roots, that to some degree, he alienated half the voters he hoped to represent. A better message would have been less chauvinistic, emphasizing instead a unifying theme based on a key issue like the economy or a strong-character message.

And character started out as Gilchrest's strong suit. A former Marine and Vietnam veteran, he once had a reputation for being unafraid to take an unpopular position. Initial polling indicated that Gilchrest's true strength was that even though a large portion of Republicans disagreed with his philosophy, they were willing to stick with him as long as he remained statesmanlike in his demeanor and maintained his integrity.

A key turning point in the campaign came when Gilchrest was caught putting a third-party candidate on the ballot in an attempt to siphon off votes from Harris. It was a relatively unreported event noticed by few people other than insiders connected with the camps. But such an action allowed Harris to question Gilchrest's character, and polling indicated that after just a few radio ads and a single mailer, Gilchrest's numbers dropped like a stone.

Early in the campaign, Gilchrest had also likened the campaign process to something similar to getting a colonoscopy. I sympathize with his analysis. But the voters did not. The statement fed into the perception that he had become aloof, out of touch and beyond having to do something as unpleasant as asking for votes. It was becoming clear to voters that "Wayne changed" and the Harris campaign capitalized on this perception.

Gilchrest could still have won an issue-based campaign. I tell candidates all the time "Be true to whom you are, but try to find a common ground." This was Gilchrest's greatest problem because being true to whom he was meant being the anti-Republican in a Republican primary. Overcoming that handicap is a tough challenge with the best of candidates, but it is possible. (If you don't believe me, ask John McCain.)

Yet surprisingly, Gilchrest never attempted to modify his language, reach out to the conservative base or hold party loyalists. Instead of articulating his credentials as a solid life-long Republican, his first instinct was to attack Andy Harris for raising taxes "as much as nine times." This attack was laughable since most of the voters already formed an opinion that Harris was a conservative. For Gilchrest, however, it had the effect of making subsequent attacks less believable.

It didn't end there. As late as December of this year, Gilchrest was issuing statements critical of the Republican Party in general, going so far as to say that Republicans did not have the "intellect" to remain a viable political party anymore.

Even if he believed it, it did him no good to thrust it in the face of party stalwarts. Many Republicans agreed with his overall thesis that the war in Iraq was misguided and hurting the party. But being critical to the party as a whole was remarkably foolish; it insulted not just those who believed we were right to take out Saddam but also those who believed we were still a great party with noble goals and strong moral values, even if the war was wrong. And from a practical standpoint, it was an insult to everyone who was going to vote in the primary.

In the end, what ultimately did Gilchrest in was failing or refusing to understand the needs and moods of the people he represented. He had been re-elected nine times and didn't feel that he should have to prove himself worthy after all that time. To him, the "colonoscopy" was too troublesome to bother with again. In his heart he felt a sense of entitlement and the voters felt it too. He had lost touch.

As pundits and candidates analyze this race, they will be well served to recognize not just the tactical errors of the campaign, but more importantly, the nature of the changing political landscape. The political world is shifting and will take many years to settle. The New Media is having an impact on this shift and candidates ignore it at their own peril.

But in the meantime, the Gilchrest-Harris campaign proved beyond all else this single lesson: No incumbent is truly safe.

A look at a GOP consultant’s strategy