An election to confound Will Rogers

June 6, 2012

Will Rogers’ observation, a classic in American political folklore, has been proved true many times over the years. “I belong to no organized party,” he said. “I’m a Democrat.”

But today in Ventura County that line rings hollow.

The fact is, it was the organization of the Democratic Party that secured a big win for Assemblywoman Julia Brownley on Tuesday as she bested Supervisor Linda Parks — an independent candidate who began the race far better known — in the 26th Congressional District primary.

It is Brownley, not Parks, who will advance to face Republican Tony Strickland in the fall.

The result demonstrates just how difficult it is for an independent to prevail in a three-way race when both major parties are also engaged.

Parties have infrastructure. Independents, who have to build their campaigns from scratch, don’t stand much of a chance of competing against that — unless, like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, they have bottomless personal wealth.

Across California on Tuesday night, independents with high hopes were turned back. Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, who dramatically quit the Republican Party in March, finished out of the money in the San Diego mayor’s race. Ditto for Parks and Chad Condit in the 10th Congressional District.

Of those top independent candidates, Parks stood the best chance. She started the race ahead, as a well-known local elected official whose main Democratic challenger, Julia Brownley, was largely unknown in the district.

With the campaign over, some of those involved were willing to share with me on Wednesday polling results that had previously been kept confidential. They showed Parks leading Brownley 16 percent to 5 percent in early March, and 17 percent to 11 percent at the beginning of May.

But then the campaign was engaged, and the organization of a political party kicked in. On election night it was Brownley 26.8 percent and Parks 18.5 percent.

Much was made — and Parks pointed to it in a letter to supporters Wednesday — of negative mailers directed against her from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “It took two million dollars and dishonesty to capture this race,” she wrote.

But other efforts on Brownley’s behalf were more extensive — and effective — than that.

About three weeks before the election, Cal State Channel Islands political science professor Scott Frisch told me that, based on anecdotal evidence, it appeared to him Parks was still ahead. His evidence: Other faculty members inclined to vote for a Democrat had come to him asking, “Which Democrat am I supposed to vote for?”

Women Vote!, a super PAC affiliated with Emily’s List, helped to answer that question by spending $100,000 to send six powerful mailers to county Democrats. The repeated message: “there’s only one” candidate who represents their values: Brownley.

The House Majority super PAC spent $700,000, mostly on positive TV advertising for Brownley — the Democrat’s only TV presence during the campaign.

“Initially, no one knew who she was,” said House Majority PAC spokesman Andy Stone. “Once people found out she was a good, solid Democrat, they clearly moved in her direction.”

Attacks on Parks, he said, were never going to close the gap.

The institutional strength of the party came from within Ventura County as well as without. The county Democratic Campaign Council mailed 28,000 slate mailers to local Democrats promoting Brownley and volunteers dropped another 12,000 on doorsteps, said chairman Brian Leshon.

In addition, over the final 10 days of the campaign Democratic volunteers were mobilized to make 5,585 real person-to-real person phone calls.

“It was all volunteers,” said county Democratic Central Committee Chairman Richard Carter. “We have no paid staff — just passionate people whose only desire is to get Democrats elected.”

An independent, faced with having to build a campaign infrastructure from scratch, could hardly compete against that.

The one hope that Parks had — that the advent of the top-two primary could engage and empower independent voters — turned out to be a false hope. Voter turnout was as dismal as in the party-nominating primaries of the past. Independent voters stayed home en masse.

On Tuesday, the power of political parties became evident. Partly, yes, it was the power of money, as Parks complains. But money comes because parties have built an established base of donors. And it was the influence of partisanship, yes, but that is largely based on having built a base of supporters over time.

Parks had no such base to turn to, either for money, volunteers or for voters who were predisposed to support her.

It takes a whole lot in American politics to beat an organized political party — and as Tuesday’s results would have proved even to Will Rogers, that sometimes includes the Democratic Party.