Saturday, December 20, 2014

Grimes's deceptions became strong secondary factor in her loss, McConnell's campaign manager says

By Tyler Spanyer
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications

The deceptions of the Alison Lundergan Grimes campaign compounded Sen. Mitch McConnell’s attacks on President Barack Obama, and those were the two key factors in the U.S. Senate race, McConnell campaign manager Josh Holmes said in an interview.

Holmes said the outcome of the race was determined when Grimes refused to say if she voted for Obama. He said the McConnell campaign encouraged journalists to ask the question, and her response “ kind of felt like she wasn’t giving you the whole truth.”

The vote gaffe was in the news for more than a week, and “sealed it” for McConnell, Holmes said.

He said it validated the idea, advanced by the McConnell campaign and journalistic fact-checkers, that Grimes wasn’t being straight with the voters.

The key to this race, according to Holmes, was the inability for Grimes to define herself in the public eye. “We were trying to tell our story, because that’s what a campaign is all about,” said Holmes. “Meanwhile she was just throwing stones, instead of attempting to define herself to the voters.”

 For example, in the first round of Grimes ads that questioned McConnell’s voting record, “The advertisements were well designed,” Holmes said. “They were creative and interesting, but the facts were just wrong. Everything about that was perfect, but the research.”

The first of these ads was highly ridiculed by fact-checkers because it incorrectly said McConnell had voted to increase Medicare beneficiaries’ costs. McConnell just played it cool saying, “That’s the oldest, most cynical attack in the Obama playbook.”

Even though the ad was ridiculed for being false, Grimes released more questionable commercials. Glenn Kessler, “The Fact Checker” of The Washington Post, named one as one of the “biggest Pinocchios of 2014.” Kessler noted that an earlier, similar ad had already hit the top of his falsehood scale.

“The Democratic candidate who unsuccessfully challenged McConnell stood in front of the camera and made statements that she must have known are false,” Kessler wrote after the election. “Her central claim — that McConnell had pocketed $600,000 from anti-coal groups — had already earned four Pinocchios. The statement was based on money earned by McConnell’s wife, much of which came from being on a board of bank that finances coal companies. So the ‘anti-coal’ moniker was bogus.”

Holmes, 35, had been McConnell’s chief of staff for more than three years when McConnell campaign manager Jesse Benton was forced to resign in the wake of allegations involving misconduct by Ron Paul’s last presidential campaign in Iowa. This left Holmes with running a “presidential level campaign,” as McConnell had described it, for the home stretch.

“The McConnell chief of staff typically has a very heavy hand in the campaign,” said Holmes. “So I was prepared to take that next step. We wanted to run an aggressive campaign and that’s what we did.”

Holmes said of McConnell, “He said to me the most important word in the English language is focus, you just can’t lose sight in what your ultimate goal is.”

The McConnell campaign was record-breaking. According to Holmes, the campaign knocked on over a million doors, a number “no one has come close to.” Add that into the 70 total TV advertisements that it ran and it was a campaign that could rival even some of the most successful presidential campaigns.

“At one time in September, we ran 17 different advertisements in one week,” said Holmes. “Compare that to the 2012 Obama campaign, which ran 24 advertisements in one week.”

The obvious difference here is that the McConnell campaign was a statewide campaign, while the Obama campaign was nationwide. Holmes said most of the advertisements were regional, “so that when you looked out your car window you saw what the ad was talking about.”

So what’s next for Holmes, the campaign managing superstar? He said he doesn’t know, but what he does know is what his wife would think about him running a presidential campaign: “My wife would kill me.”

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Politico writers on C-SPAN discuss McConnell campaign

John Bresnahan and Manu Raju, Politico correspondents who wrote a long story about Sen. Mitch McConnell's re-election victory, discussed his campaign Sunday night on C-SPAN's "Q and A" with Brian Lamb. Some tidbits:

McConnell had a preliminary game plan for the race all the way back in 2010. When faced with the possibility of a primary challenge from millionaire Matt Bevin, his consultants showed Bevin's consultants ads they would run, and did run the day Bevin filed his candidacy.

"Think about that," Raju said. "No one had ever heard of Matt Bevin in Kentucky and Mitch McConnell took him seriously enough" to make a six-figure ad buy on the first day of the race.

On the other side, Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes and her father, Jerry Lundergan, met with movie mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg before she became a candidate, seeking wanted assurances of money.

The morning of the day Grimes entered the race, she told Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee that she wasn't running, then met with supporters and announced. From the start there was a disconnect between her and Guy Cecil, executive director of the DSCC.

Grimes wasn't a good candidate, the reporters said, though not in so many words. "She was never able to really define herself," Raju said. "It was not clear what she stood for, what she actually believed."

McConnell campaign manager Josh Holmes has said that Grimes's refusal to say whether she voted for President Obama sealed her fate. "Who do you think advised her to do that?" Lamb asked.

"Everybody denied it was them giving her that advice," Raju replied. "It was a really curious decision." He said that when he asked Grimes in January if she would vote for Obama again, she replied  "Your facts are mistaken" but wouldn't explain herself.

Bresnahan said, "Democrats up on the hill were just flabbergasted that she would say something like this. . . . "I've talked to some African American lawmakers who were kind of incensed by the whole thing." As for McConnell, "I'm surprised he didn't start laughing in the middle of that debate."

Grimes's repeated jabs that McConnell had grown wealthy in office "got under his skin," Bresnahan said. McConnell's campaign produced an ad showing McConnell shopping at Kroger and driving a modest car but didn't use it because a focus group didn't believe it.

The program also included two segments of an interview Brian Farkas of C-SPAN did with McConnell two years ago but has never aired. (It will soon on C-SPAN3, Lamb said.) In one segment, he talks about Henry Clay, author of major compromises over slavery before the Civil War.

Lamb asked if McConnell will be a compromiser as majority leader. "That's going to be the big question," Raju said: how much he tries to unite his caucus and how much he tries to attract Democratic support.

Student liked the course, but was disillusioned by his interviews with voters on Election Day

By Ben Tompkins
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications

Recently, students in a special journalism course covering Kentucky’s U.S. Senate race were staged at various precincts to interview voters about who earned their vote and what had shaped their decision. Prior to this course, I had no previous experience with political reporting, nor had I considered political reporting as a career. While our class has received paramount leadership from the co-instructors, Al Cross and Bill Goodman, conducting the interviews at the polls reinforced my stance that political reporting is not for me.

Let’s start from the beginning. The first half of the course was informative and there is no doubt in my mind that the excellent reporting skills that we’ve been taught from our instructors, and the A-list guest speakers they’ve hosted to speak to the class, have expanded upon my versatility as a journalist. Mike Ruehling, Scott Jennings, Sam Youngman and John David Dyche are among a handful of decorated professionals in their respective industries that have come and made our class smarter with each and every assertion made and question answered. The 26-plus years of experience and insight that Al Cross, the director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, and Kentucky Educational Television’s Bill Goodman provide to the course is second to none.

Stories on immigration and other situation pieces, follow-up interviews from the Bluegrass Poll, debate stories, and advertisement analyses have pushed my limits and forced me to grow as a reporter. The work that we turned in prior to Election Day was the facet of political reporting that I enjoyed. Professor Cross told the class that it was stories such as our situation pieces that made the difference in educating voters. The story that I wrote on immigration was written to present both sides of the story, covering stances from both sides of the aisle.

Stories like that were aimed at allowing voters to read valuable and informative information so they’d be able to sift through the rhetoric and stretched truths dominated in political advertisements. We were making a difference through our reporting and through the hard work that Professor Cross and a few of the students put into keeping the public informed on our blog. Then came the post-election interviews.

Standing with my blue Papermate pen, yellow legal pad and iPhone 6 outside Meadowthrope Elementary in Lexington, interviewing random voters about whom they had voted for and why, it became clear that a startling number of citizens – startling to me, at least – had no idea why they voted the way they did or what had factored into their decision.

Jeremy Stilz, a 30-year-old Democrat, said he had voted for Alison Lundergan Grimes not because he agreed with what she stood for, but because she wasn’t Mitch McConnell.

“Not necessarily who, but who I was voting against. I more voted for her [Grimes] as a way to get him out – the lesser of two evils kind of thing. It’s time for a change, he’s [McConnell] he’s had far too many terms and I feel like if you’ve had that much time in office you have a lot of knowledge about how to – not necessarily corrupt but change things for yourself instead of the actual agenda that you should be there for.”

When I asked Stilz what issues he felt like McConnell had failed to deliver on, he was unable to give me an answer usable for the purposes of a quote or story. He began to blame the gridlock on McConnell but was unable to put in words what he was trying to express; he didn’t know what the gridlock was or what it meant whatsoever. I had to finish his sentence for him and clearly that’s not what a reporter should do – lead someone to making a decision or statement.

Another man, Frank Monroe, a 62-year-old engineer, went on a tangent about candidates and Washington as the machine. When asked why he voted for Grimes, Monroe replied, “The incumbency of Mitch McConnell. They sit on a stump and tell you ‘I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna do that,’ until they get up there and become a part of the part of the machine. And you’re either a part of the machine or you throw a monkey wrench in the gears, but if you do that, you’re not going to last. That’s just how it is, everybody knows it.”

The cynical, poor taste that voter interviews post-election left in my mouth made me re-evaluate my enthusiasm for political reporting. I love presenting those around me with information that makes them think, grow and evolve – it’s why I’m working to become a journalist. However, hearing voters like Frank and Jeremy speak on what issues had shaped their decision (or the lack thereof), made me feel as if the work that I had completed in the previous months wasn’t as significant as I had thought.

I interviewed 10 voters on Election Day, certainly not a large enough number for a representative sample. It is not my contention that most people simply get in their car and drive to the polls without the slightest indication of who they like, but the people I interviewed had a difficult time explaining why.

Phyllis Ackerman, a 72-year-old Republican and retired administrative assistant, said she had voted for McConnell on every ballot but his first campaign. But when I asked what it was about McConnell that she liked, the only answer she could muster was his experience. She said that to her, McConnell was simply the best choice, but when pressed to explain, she was unable to express in words what exactly that meant.

While I realize that this experience isn’t representative of all voters, nor should this read as an indictment of them, the fact remains that a surprising number of citizens drive to the ballot box widely uneducated and complain months later when they are unhappy with the elected leadership. If there is one thing that I have no patience for, it is ignorance, and my experience with post-election voter interviews was exactly that – decisions made with no logical explanation of a how or a why.