Monday, May 20, 2013
Angus King entered the U.S. Senate race with a reputation any politician would envy: well-liked, successful, forward-thinking and statesmanlike. By any measure, King remains all those things even though his campaign hasn't matched the polish and sophistication of its candidate.
King set out to run a classic front-runner campaign: Stay above the fray, don't make any unforced errors and run the clock down to Election Day. Smart and appropriate. But that approach still requires a focused and proactive effort to maintain existing support, bank popular goodwill and pre-emptively take the sting out of opposition attacks.
The King campaign knew the attacks were coming, but instead of telling King's story and continually reminding voters why they like him so much, the campaign has played small ball, never producing the sort of disciplined narrative or big ideas worthy of the candidate.
Let's be clear, Angus King is still very likely the next junior U.S. senator from Maine, but this race never needed to approach competitive.
Self-inflicted distractions, process arguments, and passivity have created the running room for Republican interests to define the message landscape, diminish King's political brand and put King's campaign on its heels.
We experienced the first taste of the campaign's myopia when it moved aggressively in May to remove a parody account from Twitter. The episode created a news story, raised the offending account's profile, and showed little initial understanding of the medium.
The campaign threatened to conduct background checks on voters who won a contest to eat a hot dog with the candidate. It edited an otherwise excellent piece by Maine Sunday Telegram reporter Colin Woodard before posting a revised version that removed a handful of less- than-perfect passages.
Its earned media program has been disjointed, swinging from a motorcycle tour to broadband deployment to the debt crisis but failing to reinforce any overarching campaign message.
Surrogates have been deployed reactively, such as when the U.S. Chamber launched its first ad dubbing King the "King of Spending." The campaign did roll out former Clinton chief of staff Erskine Bowles and actor Sam Waterston to endorse King. But few know Bowles, King doesn't fully support the Simpson-Bowles plan, and it's not clear why the TD Ameritrade front man and former "Law & Order" assistant district attorney is relevant to Maine voters.
Most recently, the campaign called a press conference to threaten legal action to remove television ads produced by the National Republican Senatorial Committee that it found objectionable. For the supposed frontrunner, the move appeared weak and panicky.
These are not the strategic, thoughtful and disciplined actions of a sophisticated campaign executing from a coordinated playbook. Rather, they smack of a campaign reacting to events day by day and throwing ideas at the wall to see what sticks.
Missing in all the King campaign's activity is the most indispensible and fundamental campaign element: a compelling and memorable narrative for King's election to the U.S. Senate rooted in his life experiences, values, accomplishments, priorities and ideas.
The campaign hasn't even run a bio ad to (re)introduce King to voters, promote his vision for Maine, or establish the issues central to his candidacy. Simply "thinking independently" and professing an ability to "get things done" and "shake up Washington" isn't sufficient. People want to know what you stand for, where you come from, your ideas for moving Maine and the nation forward.
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