Monday, April 2, 2012

Progressive Lessons: Campaign Early And Often

Ilya Sheyman, the 25-year old former national mobilization director at MoveOn, ran an impressive grassroots progressive campaign to become the Democratic candidate for Congress in Illinois' newly drawn 10th Congressional District.

Sheyman mobilized more than 650 volunteers and nearly 20,000 individual donors. He garnered attention and support from progressives across the country and won the backing of the Progressive Change Campaign Committe, MoveOn and Democracy for America.  He was endorsed by former DNC Chair Howard Dean, progressive icon former Senator Russ Feingold, the Sierra Club, labor leaders from AFSCME to the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the Steelworkers, and many others.

He even out-fundraised his primary opponents and was leading in the polls up to election day.

But Ilya Sheyman lost in the Democratic primary to businessman Brad Schneider by eight points.  What happened?

 Amanda Terkel summed it up:  1) low turnout; 2) negative advertising, painting Sheyman's opponent as more conservative then perhaps he was, backfired; and 3) the flaws inherent in a 25-year old candidate who looked even younger than 25. 

Here's Sheyman's own analysis:

1) Late Money and Who Is the Progressive

We ran on the same platform from day one: Put people back to work through federal jobs legislation, restore fairness to our tax system, and invest in America.

Our main opponent entered the race as a self-described "pro-business" moderate. Eventually, we pushed the whole field of candidates to come out for an agenda that looked a lot like ours -- ending the Bush tax cuts, eliminating the cap on income subject to Social Security taxes, and letting Medicare negotiate bulk rates on prescription drugs.

Our opponent then defined himself first as the progressive in the race, through a direct mail program starting two months before Election Day. Meanwhile, we held off on any paid communication with voters for an extra four weeks -- not knowing about the windfall of contributions that would come in at the end, which would have enabled us to have run as aggressive a mail program as he had.

So the takeaway isn't that a progressive can't win -- our opponent won because he ran as a progressive, thanks, in part, to the power of our campaign's message.

2) Astonishingly Low Voter Turnout

For the second election in a row, voter turnout hit a record-breaking low, not only in the 10th District, but all over the Chicagoland area, throwing off some of our targeting plans and strategy.

Illinois has a problem when it comes to voter disenfranchisement and civic engagement. A big reminder from this race is that if progressives are going to win, we need to focus on turning that trend around and getting voters to feel a stake in the political process again.

3) Last Minute Smear Campaigns Work

In the 10th District, Jewish voters are a key bloc. I should know -- I'm a product of that Jewish community, where my family and I have lived since arriving in this country as Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union in 1991.

Despite my personal history and my pro-Israel positions, something happened in the final week of our race.

Those who opposed my candidacy sought to cast a shadow of doubt over my commitment to a Jewish democratic homeland in the State of Israel, through a dishonest whisper campaign, the extent of which I may never fully know.

This highly targeted effort -- in robocalls, emails, and synagogues -- combined with the very low voter turnout in the election, undoubtedly had a disproportionate effect on the outcome, and came too late for us to respond meaningfully. It also proves the importance of early voter-to-voter organizing. We had the truth on our side -- but we didn't organize as effectively in that community -- my community -- to deliver the facts and counteract the dishonest attacks.
Sheyman was quick to point out that the lesson was not that progressive campaigns don't work or that young people can't run for office.  As he argues: 
If you've got an idea or a deeply held conviction, if you're going to run on progressive values, and work hard every day to build something real -- skip the line. Don't wait. Even if they say you're too young, or that it's not your turn.

The challenges this country faces are far too great to let something as arbitrary as age, or the conventional wisdom, stand in the way of you helping steer this country in a new direction.


Lulaine @ RD Legal Funding said...

Running a campaign is very hard work especially in these times. 24 hour news services and the internet have changed the landscape for campaigning. After the Citizens United decision more money will pour in and that will make it infinitely harder for candidates with a message that may not be receptive to some big money circles.

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