[It's been 1 year and 4 months since I wrote my last blog post here. For readers of The Next Right, I left my position as the RNC's Deputy Research Director back in May and am currently a Senior Communications Strategist with New Media Strategies in Rosslyn, VA. It feels good to be back in the blogosphere.]
Lisa Murkowski has now conceded. I have a great amount of respect for Joe Miller, but I have been a loyal supporter of Lisa Murkowski since her 2004 campaign. As a conservative from Alaska, I have disagreed with her positions on a few issues, but I believe she has been a good Senator for Alaska. Murkowski has been a thoughtful policymaker among her peers as well as an articulate leader on several key national issues including energy security.
Yet despite the enormous amount of admiration I have for her, I believe Murkowski has no one to blame except her own campaign for what is a stunning primary defeat. Bottom line up front: Lisa Murkowski's primary campaign should serve as a lesson in what not to do when you are being attacked by your opponent.
There has been a lot of talk about how wrong the polls were, the ballot initiative concerning abortion, and why Lisa Murkowski decided not to "go negative" on Joe Miller. Yet it's just not as simple as that. Here are four very interconnected reasons why Lisa Murkowski lost:
1. When attacked by Miller on health care via paid media, Murkowski chose to respond directly only via earned media.
Joe Miller didn't raise a lot of money, but he had enough money to buy a swarm of radio ads throughout the summer claiming that Murkowski wouldn't vote to repeal President Obama's health care reform package. Murkowski's direct response to this claim only showed up in the newspapers, talk radio shows and TV.
Now, as an Alaskan, one might think that this is a relatively good strategy seeing as though most of Alaska media is dominated by one newspaper, one television station and a handful of talk radio outlets. Plus, Murkowski's response was a good one: that Joe Miller's claim was an outright lie and that she voted several times to repeal portions of Obamacare and co-sponsored other pieces of legislation to do the same. (More on this in point #3.)
But do the math: Joe Miller's several radio ads and robocalls constantly spreading this claim vs. the maybe one story per day Lisa Murkowski got rebuffing this claim. Republican primary voters probably heard Miller's message 5 to 10 times as much as Murkowski's direct response during the summer. You can't bring a knife to a gun fight.
2. Murkowski's paid media message strategy centered on "I'm a conservative too."
It wasn't as if Murkowski didn't have the money to respond; she had millions to spend on paid media. So what kind of paid media did she put up as her closing argument? Watch below:
Summary of her closing argument: "You don't like Obama? Me neither." When you're being attacked in paid media in a Republican primary in this environment, the right response in paid media isn't to say "Here's evidence that I'm a conservative." It shows a certain sign of weakness to the electorate, maybe even a hint of phoniness.
3. Murkowski had the right response to Joe Miller ready to go, but never used it.
That's right. Lisa Murkowski had exactly the right response to Joe Miller's claims about her support/opposition for Obamacare. And the Murkowski campaign put it in a 2 minute web video. (Watch it all the way to the end for the kicker.)
If you're thinking what I'm thinking, you're right: what a brutal response! Joe Miller was in the audience at a health care town hall Lisa Murkowski hosted, where she made her opposition to Obamacare very clear. Did this video appear in a 30 second TV ad? No. Instead, the campaign left it on YouTube to garner 1500 views.
4. While Miller's supporters had all the motivation in the world to show up, Murkowski gave no motivation to her base of supporters to go vote for her.
Elections aren't won by people who rest on their laurels and hope those laurels carry voters to the ballot box out of a sense of respect to the candidate. Elections are choices made by voters between candidates.
In this political environment, no more motivation was necessary to get Joe Miller's supporters out to vote, whether or not there was an initiative concerning abortion on the ballot. And while there were a lot of national stories about Murkowski's refusal to run negative ads on Joe Miller, the fault in the campaign's strategy was deeper than that. The campaign decided to run Murkowski on her laurels instead of comparing her record and experience vs. Miller's record and his experience. The campaign decided not to run what I would call "compare/contrast" ads that give your base of supporters a reason to make sure you win and your opponent loses.
There is one particular example of the complete antithesis to Lisa Murkowski's 2010 primary strategy: Congressman Don Young's 2008 primary strategy against then-Lt. Gov., now-Gov. Sean Parnell. Watch the ad below:
When Parnell and the Club for Growth attacked Don Young over spending and earmarks, Young didn't cower into a corner saying "I'm a conservative too." Agree or disagree with Young's position, he turned the negative into a positive very creatively and effectively, and Parnell's 30 to 40 point lead 5 months before the August 2008 election disappeared. That's what I call a "compare/contrast" strategy: giving your supporters a reason to come to the ballot box.
I would welcome other persepctives from Alaska, DC or other places as to why this happened to Lisa Murkowski. But I firmly believe that her campaign stuck to a particular strategy that ended up being a detriment to her re-election.
On the other hand, there could be a silver lining to her loss: in the long term for the Republican Party, this could serve as an example to candidates (both incumbents and challengers) on what to do and what not to when attacked by an opponent.