Well, it was one great night- probably the best night for Lehigh Valley Democrats since the 2005 County Executive sweep. Now that the dust has settled, we realize that Lamont McClure won a historic blowout of the incumbent County Executive, an eight point win. We now see that Phil Armstrong won a surprisingly easy 5% win against a better funded candidate who started with a substantial name recognition advantage. The wins didn’t stop there though. Northampton County Council went from 7-2 Republican to 6-3 Democrat in one night. Democrats won races in Upper Milford, North Whitehall, Palmer, Bethlehem Township, South Whitehall, Bangor, Lower Saucon, and all sorts of other communities that Donald Trump won last year, some substantially. County wide Democrats regularly rolled up numbers in excess of 20,000 in Northampton County, let alone Lehigh County. Ellen Ceisler won both counties in her race for Commonwealth Court, while Maria McLaughlin rolled to a big win in Lehigh County and a strong second place in Northampton. Democrats even got surprisingly easy wins they didn’t expect- like the victory of Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski for a fourth term. How?
I’ve read many theories of what happened, and why we won, and many of them are insightful. I was actually a part of the County Executive campaigns though, and later in coordinating Get-Out-The-Vote efforts in both counties, so I might have a few insights to add here. Here are a few thoughts on what actually happened and why we won.
- In Northampton County, it’s the suburbs, stupid. Palmer Township and Bethlehem Township are the Ohio and Florida of Northampton County- if you win them, you probably win the county. If you lose them? Have a nice day. Lamont McClure won the key areas, and John Brown had a chance. Unions, activists, and candidates alike did a lot of door knocking and calling into Palmer in particular. It paid off.
- Taxes aren’t popular, and we didn’t embrace them. Look at the campaigns of both Armstrong and McClure, and look specifically at what they put on those walk pieces and mailers. Neither guy ever voted for a tax increase in office. Both told the public so. Both won. Obviously Democrats are the party of government solving problems, as opposed to doing nothing like the GOP wants, but Democrats cannot be the party of higher taxes and win here. It just won’t sell. Fiscal responsibility, being good stewards of the public bill, matters a lot to these voters.
- Ed Pawlowski embraced “identity politics” in government, and the campaign, and it saved him. Look where Pawlowski won in Allentown. Look where he lost. He won wards with high numbers of Syrians, African-Americans, and Latinos. He lost white wards. Non-white voters stuck by him, despite the indictments, because they believe his agenda and re-development of downtown has been good for them, and they want to see it continue. Had Pawlowski rejected identity politics, and not cultivated the relationships he has with these communities, he would have lost. Period.
- Negative and Comparative ads work, if you have the money to drive them. Much was made in some “inside ball” circles about the difference in tone between the two County Executive races, and a lot of people in Northampton County were nervous at it. There was no reason to be. Lamont McClure was challenging an incumbent Executive, and he stuck his record to him. He did so repeatedly, in mailer after mailer, and in his TV ad. It worked- he won a commanding 8% win in a county that Donald Trump won in 2016. By comparison, Phil Armstrong never dropped a single negative campaign mailer or ad against Brad Osborne in Lehigh County, nor did Osborne in return. Armstrong won the open-seat race by a surprising 5%. Armstrong did not have the same size campaign war chest, and had he dropped one negative mailer, with no follow-up, it would have backfired. Open races are different than challenge races, and Osborne is a different candidate than Brown. The big key here was that McClure was able to drive a narrative of negative, so it worked. Armstrong had the resources to drive a narrative based on his own common sense record, and since his opponent never went negative at him, it also worked.
- Women. Dr. Paige Van Wirt (sp?) got about 1,700 write-in votes in Bethlehem. Democratic women lead the way in the judicial races in both counties. Three women won brand new Council/Commissioner races in the two counties. Women did a lot of winning in the Lehigh Valley on Tuesday, because women voters came out and made their voices heard. If you’re a male candidate for public office in 2018, my suggestion is that you talk to women- tell them why they should support you. If not, you’ll lose.
- Activism. If I had to pick two groups as MVP’s of the election, I’d have to pick Lehigh Valley for All and the East Penn Democrats. These two clubs, both of which not officially the party, but mostly supportive of it, knocked on thousands of doors, staffed polls, and actively engaged up and down the ballot- maximizing the victories. As a manager, sometimes outside groups drive you nuts, because you can’t really “control” them, but the work these groups did was critical.
- Labor. Bodies on the street, financial contributions, sign distribution, and just advising the candidates- they did it all. The Lehigh Valley Labor Council, the Building Trades, and so many of their members took an active role in these campaigns. We would not have won without them, in fact we would have been crushed.
- Turnout Matters, so does Persuasion. Now for the thing that many people aren’t going to want to believe, but need to- Republicans got more votes than they did in 2013. John Brown received more votes in 2017 than he did in 2013, even though he lost this time. Brad Osborne received more votes than Scott Ott four years ago, and he still lost. I would not blow my entire campaign budget on field, for obvious reasons, but I don’t think a Democrat can win in this area without some investment in turning out voters- in the right places. In neither county did we just go knock everywhere our hearts desired. We hit the communities we knew could swing either way for weeks. We hit the communities we knew we would win very hard at the end of the election. We won the swing voters, and we won the turnout battle. We won the elections too. Last year, the biggest mistake the Hillary Clinton campaign made was assuming the only thing that mattered was turning out our base vote. You can’t win that way, I don’t care what your algorithm tells you.
- Coordination matters. DNC member and Lehigh County resident Murat Guzel pulled together a meeting, about a month before the election, and charged several of us with coordinating the Democratic ticket’s “GOTV” efforts. It was a little bit like herding cats, but we managed to basically divide up the turf for each group in the coalition, and the efforts won us a lot of elections. Left all on our own, I don’t believe we would have won as much as we did.
- Talk about things they care about. Both Democratic County Executive-Elects talked about open space, human services, and elder care- and they won. These are things that fit well within our Democratic values, and we made our case to the public and won. Here’s the truth- Democrats shouldn’t abandon our values, per se, but we should talk about the values we hold that are relevant to the people voting in the election. Green space is relevant to suburban voters, it’s part of why they’re there. Schools are relevant to suburban voters, it’s part of why they’re there. Retirement security and caring for our seniors is relevant to suburban voters, it’s part of why they’re there. We can and should hold our values dear, but we should also not get caught up in a one-size-fits-all trap, where we aren’t addressing the relevant needs of voters in any given area.
- Run the tough races. Democrats beat four people who have been on Northampton County Council on Tuesday, and very nearly beat the fifth (we should have). We won races in places we lost substantially last year. Shoaib Chaudhary and Bob Elbich took on very well known, well liked individuals in Lehigh County District races, and while they didn’t win, they improved Democratic performance in those areas, which greatly helped the rest of the ticket. If no one ran in Upper Milford, South Whitehall, or North Whitehall, we wouldn’t have won those races. Same in Lower Saucon and Bangor. Run the tough races, people appreciate guts.