When you make your political comeback—here are a few things you may want to bear in mind. I know—everybody’s playing Monday morning quarterback about your congressional campaign these days. By now, you’re probably sick of it all. But I’m coming from a decent place, so I hope you or someone on your staff may find something useful in it down the road.
- You never properly defended yourself to the right audience against the negative frame your opponents placed around you. When they branded you as an “outsider financed with outside money, a man who doesn’t even live in the district,” it was not enough to say you were raised in the district. It wasn’t even enough to have your mother send out letters saying basically the same thing. You needed to have video of yourself in the community. Here’s where I studied, here’s where I prayed, here’s where I went to school, played soccer. Here’s the community organization I belonged to, the trees I helped plant, the animals I helped rescue, the place where my scout troop learned to build a campfire. And you needed to run those ads on Fox News because that’s where the people who defeated you could be found.
- One of the things your campaign established is that Georgia is now indisputably purple. In the staunchly conservative 6th Congressional District, you corralled 48% of the vote. Not bad for a 30-year-old “upstart.” But here’s the thing: 48.1% of the vote is what you polled in the April 18 Special Election. In the June 20th runoff, you finished at 48.13%, a gain of only 3/100’s percent. What does that mean? It means you flushed out the diverse like-minded segment that constitutes your base. It also means you failed to penetrate the Republican base of your opponent, an audience that was already predisposed to dislike you simply because you’re part of a political party that has been thoroughly demonized by Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. Your opponent’s base lives in that corral. And they’re not likely to leave.
- So what could you do? Well, you might look at how Barack Obama handled the situation. He went into that corral. Not on Fox necessarily but into the places where its audience actually lives when it’s not watching TV. Their picnics and barbecues. Their churches and PTA meetings, their bowling alleys and pubs. You wouldn’t have been able to bring all of them over to your way of thinking, and neither could he. But you might have found a way to make them like you, respect you, and see how you could represent them as well as your base at the same time. Tough, I know. But that’s how POTUS 44 did it.
- And I’ll tell you what: That’s how the whole country needs to do it. We all need to find ways to get away from the web pages and channels we’re comfortable with and get to know the people who look like our enemies online but who in reality are our neighbors and might, if given a chance, one day become our friends.
- One more thing about that Republican audience. When one looks at your advertising, you come across as urban. You’re talking hi-tech jobs and economic growth with the skyline framed behind you. The people in your glossy flyers are diverse, a veritable coalition of race and gender, the full spectrum of our rapidly changing demographic—the kind of coalition that elected people like Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young to the mayor’s office and congress in the 1970s. But that happened in Atlanta. The suburbs are a different story. Look at your opponent’s advertising. The people in those ads are older, established white folks standing in front of beautiful homes set way back on green well-tended lawns. When Karen Handel appeared on screen, she looked like she might be sitting in the living room of one of those same homes. Even her friend, the one suffering from breast cancer whose argument didn’t come close to refuting your ads, was framed against a bay window in an upscale home. She was likable, and people believed her. Everything about your opponent’s messaging supported what one of her voters told a newsman upon leaving the polling place. “I feel like she’s one of us. She’s like me.”
- You see, Jon, you grew up in Northlake, which is a lot different from East Cobb, Roswell and parts of Alpharetta. Northlake is diverse. I know because I spent seven years working in the Northlake area. But those other northern suburbs are not so diverse. Up there, the folks care about property and wealth. A lot of them are one-issue voters. Many of their homes and gardens look like they could be featured on the pages of Southern Living. That ain’t urban, Jon.
- The people live up there do so because they don’t want anything to do with urban. Look at what’s been happening the past few years. They’re breaking off from Atlanta to form their own townships with their own police and fire departments. Where they feel they have more control. They repeatedly vote down expanding rapid transit because they don’t want to make it too easy for urban dwellers to mosey up that way. Those folks are not all that different from the ex-urbanites and flyover people who live in the so-called Red States. The successful candidate—and the successful America—will be the one that finds a bridge that connects those two seemingly un-reconcilable populations.
- A few weeks before voters cast their ballots in Georgia's 6th District, I attended the 85th birthday celebration of Civil Rights legend Andrew Young, who in addition to his heroic work alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., also served his country as Congressman, UN Ambassador, and two-term Mayor of Atlanta. During the evening's festivities, I was struck by something he said: "People don't really trust the political system. It's when you go into the community and approach one another as brothers that change begins to happen."
- Your "defeat" in the Special Election for Congress reminds me of another 30-year-old "upstart," who ran for the United States Senate against a dyed-in-the-wool segregationist, who was also the incumbent. Although he "lost" that race, Maynard Jackson received one-third of the vote statewide. He was easily elected Vice Mayor of Atlanta his next time out--and went on to win three more elections as the city's mayor. In a way, this running-for-office thing is a little like American Idol. You don't have to win it to win. Just ask Jennifer Hudson. When you do come back - and I hope you do - you will be a lot smarter and wiser for having had this experience.
Love is but a song we sing
Fear’s the way we die.
You can make the mountains ring
Or make the angels cry.
Come on people now
Smile on your brother
Everybody get together
Try to love one another
Right now, right now. Right now.