[... or, "How to Win an Election." Journal contributor John Osborn's thoughts below. -- Ed.]
The first reaction that came to mind after the initial absentee ballot results trickled in last night was this: It would suck to be Linda Atkins right now. That reaction didn't change as the night rolled on.
The moderate-conservative sweep across Humboldt County last night was part predicted, but also part shock and awe. The extent in which progressive candidates would be trounced by their counterparts was grossly underestimated by media and local pundits. But why did it happen? What led to this virtually all-encompassing victory last night?
Last night, progressives were denied representation on the Eureka City Council, save for Atkins. Bonnie Neely, a prog candidate with a 24-year record on the Board of Supes, was delivered her pink slip in a the form of a landslide defeat by Virginia Bass. District Attorney Paul Gallegos nearly lost his re-election bid to Allison Jackson, and still may. Ryan Sundberg commands a narrow lead over Pat Cleary for the Fifth District Supe seat.
Progressives should bust out a notebook and scribble down a lesson or two on politics, because the conservative elements in the county not only did their homework, they executed an amazingly effective campaign which hinged on harnessing a key central issue to rally voters, flooding campaign coffers with cash and ensuring a strong turnout.
Progressives should be kicking themselves in the backside for not taking the opportunity to counter the Measure N (Marina Center) machine, even though they opposed it every step of the way, whether publicly or in private. Their candidates' insistence on distancing themselves from the issue throughout the election, refusing to take a hard stand, only fed strength to the candidates who fully seized upon the issue to help shape their campaign. The tens of thousands of dollars doled out by Security National to launch a Get Out The Vote campaign for Measure N was also an indirect mobilization for the slate of candidates who rallied behind the issue: Bass, Marian Brady, Mike Newman and Frank Jager. They enjoyed, essentially, about a $30,000 campaign infusion of advertising each as a result.
This brings us to another major reason for the sweep this season: money. There is no doubt that a handful of business interests in Eureka colluded at some point in the election to pool their money together and financially prop up a slate of candidates that included the above-mentioned Jackson, Sundberg and Johanna Rodoni for Assessor. Much of the financial support came from allies of Rob McBeth, who has ownership interest in O&M Industries and the Humboldt Builder's Exchange non-profit. The hundreds of thousands of dollars injected into these candidates campaigns secured their financial superiority, and an effective propaganda campaign distracting their eye-widening fundraising habits by attacking the candidates receiving large donations from Bill Pierson worked to shield their own activities.
The "Marina Center Slate" had message and financial dominance; the Progressives, on the other hand, had little in an organized resistance to that bloc and gave their base little reason to rally. They remained fractured and relatively weak in their responses to the advertising blitz made by their opponents, deceptive as some ads were. Neely's response, perhaps miscalculated, was to launch a negative attack blitz on Bass which arguably backfired but might have worked if she targeted the Marina Center or Security National -- the foundation. Lack of solid response and the absence of a coordinated message to rally the progressive vote ultimately showed in the polls, as the conservative base, rallied by the Marina Center and general national fervor, prevailed. But the progressives always suffer from their support base - youth, liberals, the poor, all demographics that are more likely to not turnout during an election unless there is a damn good reason to.
Over the next two years, conservatives will enjoy power in Eureka and on the Board of Supes, and as a result the spotlight will be shining bright on them. In Eureka, with Larry Glass gone, conservatives lose their scapegoat for all the city's problems, and time will tell if Newman and Brady are more than Marina Center cheerleaders. And the unknown here is who Jager will appoint to take his seat. Sundberg and Bass will have to prove that they are truly independent politicians and not lackeys of the special interest money that filled their campaign coffers. These are tests that will shape the next election.
If they succeed, progressives should be equally worried in 2012 and be prepared to brace for more sweeping loses. Humboldt progressives can learn much from their massive defeat last night: Unifying under the flag of a divisive issue, tons of money, and turnout win the day. It should be a lesson remembered for 2012 and on; if you want to play the game, be prepared to get dirty.