A Tim Holden Post Mortem
Two weeks ago, Lackawanna County Attorney Matt Cartwright unseated Rep. Tim Holden, the dean of the Pa. congressional delegation. Details, reports and analyses after the fact shed some light on how an incumbent who’d dodged 20 years of challengers fell.
Holden immediately endorsed Cartwright on election night. The Republican candidate in the strongly Democratic district is Laureen Cummings, a nurse and co-founder of the Scranton Tea Party.
The Columbia Journalism Review’s Swing State Project tracked every television ad that aired the entire primary, and the found something fascinating: the margin of the race was almost identical to the margin of TV advertising dollars (hat tip Morning Call).
Holden was the target of several national PACs – namely the Campaign for Primary Accountability and the League of Conservation Voters. Pro-Cartwright and anti-Holden ad spending was $659K, or 57.93 percent of the total. Pro-Holden and anti-Cartwright spending was $478K, 42.07 percent of the total.
The vote total on election day was Holden 42.9 percent, Cartwright 57.10 percent.
Thanks to so many third parties going negative, Cartwright’s camp was able to stick to a positive, quirky message. Here’s a good example.
When you’re being outspent, wasting money isn’t an option. PoliticsPA hasn’t been shy about criticizing Holden’s TV ads, and we talked with a few Democratic media consultants who concur.
“This was a winnable race for Holden, but when it came time to communicate with real voters, Holden’s ads couldn’t get the job done. His positive ads failed to capture who Holden was,” said one. “His negative ads not only were ineffectual, they actually led to a backlash.”
Said another: “They were a lazy, rehashed product out of the 1980’s. They were either trying to save money or had a really dated media consultant. The messaging was weak.”
56 percent of Democrats in the new district live in Lackawanna or Luzerne County – Cartwright’s base. This awesome map from Hamilton Campaigns shows just how devastating that turned out to be.
A closer look at the returns shows that Cartwright performed about as well as other native sons (and daughters) on the ballot. In the Attorney General race, Kathleen Kane took 82.4 percent of her home in Lackawanna County and 72.4 percent of Luzerne County. Cartwright took 77.9 percent of his native Lackawanna and 71.4 percent of Luzerne. Bill Vinsko, a Wilkes-Barre attorney running for Congress in PA-11 won 71.2 of the Luzerne County vote.
The Casey (Non) Factor
Was a game change moment possible for Holden? Perhaps not. But imagine if the Congressman had aired a TV ad featuring him with NEPA’s most popular Democrat and Scranton’s favorite son, Senator Bob Casey, Jr.
That was the idea behind a planned Holden campaign rally with Casey in Scranton on April 14. Except that after the rally was announced to the public, within 48 hours of the event, Casey cancelled for personal reasons. It was not rescheduled; a spokesperson cited Casey’s busy schedule.
Sources close to Holden said in addition to the TV ads to be cut from rally footage, there were also staff requests for the Senator to record robocall of Holden. Those, too, were not fruitful.
A Casey spokesman said there was no record of the request, and pointed to a three-sentence statement Casey issued on Holden’s behalf in lieu of the rally appearance:
“I am supporting Tim Holden in his campaign for reelection because of his good work for Pennsylvania families. I’ve worked with Tim while I served as a state official and as a member of the Pennsylvania delegation and I believe he would serve the people of the 17th District with distinction. I will vote for Tim in the Democratic primary on April 24.”
The problem? Holden referenced Casey’s tepid support in a TV ad, but his opponent’s ad had a photo of Cartwright with the Senator. Endorsement neutralized.
“Our biggest concern was to see Casey and Holden shoulder to shoulder at that rally and then blasted out in a TV ad in the final week,” said Cartwright Campaign Manager Shane Seaver.
He needn’t have worried; Casey essentially stayed on the sideline.
Casey may have stayed out of it in an effort to maintain his relationships on all sides; he has close ties to Holden, but also to Cartwright’s prominent in-laws, the Munleys. Munleys and Cartwrights have contributed over $35,000 to Casey’s campaigns in the past decade.
In February, PoliticsPA called Holden a 2011 fundraising loser. He had just $480K on hand at the end of last year. In Q1 of 2012 he raised a more substantial $438K, but it was barely enough to outdo Cartwright’s $680K of fundraising and self-funding. That’s even before the outside spending.
The dean of the PA delegation and the second-ranking Democrat on the powerful House Agriculture Committee, Holden could have raised millions of dollars each year. He didn’t.
As one Democratic operative put it: “There’s one difference between the money that Allyson Schwartz raises each quarter and what Tim Holden could have been raising: willpower.”