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Tax Increases are NEVER a Dead Issue for Democrats
Lessons on How to Defeat an Incumbent Southern Democrat (Part 2)

December 1, 2002

In my last column I began the first of several articles chronicling the successful campaign of Judd Matheny (I was Judd's campaign manager) in the November 5, 2002 election that resulted in the unseating of a longtime democrat Tennessee state legislator. (See the rightturns.com archives to catch up.)

To briefly recap:
This was a Tennessee State Representative seat that has never been in Republican hands! The democrat incumbent was considered a "safe seat".
The incumbent raised over $125,000!
And spent it all!
The Tennessee Speaker of the House (a Democrat, of course) pressured/threatened local officials to publicly endorse the incumbent.
The local newspapers virtually ignored Judd's campaign.
Only two incumbent Democrats were beaten in the 99 house seat races on 11/5/02.

Our plan, devised one year before the election, was straightforward:
1. Build name recognition
2. Learn how state government works
3. Track the incumbent's voting record, statements, and fund raising
4. Analyze the 24 precincts in the district for the last two election patterns.

Last edition I described #1 and #2 above. Now I will describe #3 and # 4:

3. Track the incumbent's voting record, public statements, and fund raising.

Voting Record: This is public record. We asked the Tennessee GOP party for this information. They gave us a printout of the incumbent's voting for the last 4 years. If you start a campaign 2 years in advance, you can track the voting on line. Here is where we began to see patterns: talking one way in public then voting another way; voting with the democratic caucus; and just as important, missed votes and abstentions. Tennessee legislators try their best to keep their votes anonymous. Committees voice vote and do not record the votes. When the incumbent voted for a state income tax, we took a picture of the green light next to his name on the vote board so we could use it in the campaign.

Public Statements: The state income tax vote failed in June 2002 with only 45 votes (out of 99) FOR; 46 AGAINST; and 4 abstentions. The majority of Tennesseans were very angry that it came up at all. When the election rolled around, all 45 democrats that voted FOR ran their campaigns saying the "tax was a dead issue so let's move on". Of course, we knew tax increases are NEVER a dead issue for democrats. So we printed Judd's yard signs with a simple message: "Judd Matheny", "State Representative", and "NO State Income Tax". In other words, we decided not to let the tax vote die! We heard from angry voters that the incumbent had "turned his back on us" and had "forgotten where he came from". We began using those words repeatedly. In early October, the state Supreme Court ruled against the Tennessee's current method of funding rural school districts. When interviewed about the ruling the incumbent said, "that the income tax might have to be reconsidered" as a way to meet the court's requirements. I repeat, "tax increases are NEVER a dead issue for democrats". We immediately began quoting the incumbent's statement. The important point here is to listen closely to what incumbent democrats say. They will give you plenty of sound bites to use against them.

Fund raising: Every state has campaign finance disclosure laws that require periodic filing with local authorities a form stating where a campaign's money came from and how it was spent. These are all public documents and so copies can be requested. We obtained every campaign finance disclosure statement for the incumbent since he was first elected ten years ago. The pattern was clear: the lobbyists and PACs were financing him. NOT by the voters of the district. One glaring example of this was the 1/1/02 - 10/23/02 financial statement: he raised $28,500 dollars of which $750 came from district voters and the rest from PACs and lobbyists. A perfect campaign issue. NOTE: One of Judd's challenges is to make sure this analysis is not later applied to him after he has been in office for a few years. Do not fear, he has a great tactic to make sure it does not. I will cover that in a future column.

4. Analyze the 24 precincts in the district for the last two election patterns

This is another essential step that needs to be done early. You have to calculate the simple mathematics how many votes you need to win and from what precincts will they come. Two elections will give you the picture of presidential year and "off" year election turnouts. We analyzed the '98 and the '00 elections precinct by precinct. We looked at what precincts we thought Judd could win and by how much and which ones he would lose and by how much. We came up with a vote total Judd needed to win.
Here is where you need to avoid a common trap. You cannot beat an incumbent just by increasing your votes in those precincts you will win anyway. YOU HAVE TO GO INTO THE INCUMBENT'S STRONGHOLDS. The mathematics told us that, to win, Judd had to reduce the incumbent's vote in his stronghold as well as build the "Judd friendly" precincts. Judd's fearlessness allowed us to pursue this tactic early. Judd was a constant fixture at events in the incumbent's stronghold. Invited or not.

Next edition, I will start to describe the battle as it unfolded. The campaign battle itself was not for the weak hearted. As I tell my business clients, expect the unexpected so you will never be shocked by what happens.


Sam T. Harper graduated cum laude from Vanderbilt University.  Following a tour in the US Navy and a stint as Operations Manager at Roadway Express, he earned his MBA from Stanford University Graduate School of Business.  He was a contributor to “In Search of Excellence,” the best selling business book of all time.  Sam was also Manager, Economic Planning & Analysis at Sohio Petroleum, Partner and Chief Financial Officer at investment-banking firm Bridgemere Capital, and Chief Operating Officer of the Institute for Contemporary Studies, a San Francisco Bay Area-based think tank and international publishing firm that specializes in self-governing and entrepreneurial public policy.  Sam was a chairman of the San Francisco Republican party and the GOP co-host of California Political Review on KALW-FM in San Francisco.  Sam is currently the co-owner of the Tennessee based Institute for Local Effectiveness Training, LLC – a management consulting, training, and coaching firm.