Davis Accepts Responsibility for Loss, Will Not Run Again
The day after his 62-38 loss to Ron Sparks, Rep. Artur Davis granted us one final interview to discuss the failure of his bid to become Alabama's next governor. Unlike those who blame their staff and fire underlings, Davis accepted full responsibility for the loss, saying, "I did not do a good enough job as a candidate" and made it quite clear that he does not plan a future in politics. "I never intended to be a career politician."
Davis' 62-38 loss, and particularly the magnitude of that loss, surprised political observers and apparently even the campaign itself. As late as 7:30 pm Tuesday campaign insiders still believed they had a shot at winning a squeaker and staffers who were upbeat Tuesday afternoon and early evening looked positively stunned by 8:30. Davis said none of their polls predicted the magnitude of voters' sharp turn toward Sparks.
"Obviously, there was a dramatic movement in the last two weeks away from this candidacy. Every poll missed it. ... There certainly was a tightening race and a race that turned into a dead heat but ... no polling organization captured the dramatic movement that resulted in a 24 point win. ... There was some set of dynamics at work in the electorate in the last two weeks that was different from what existed before that."
Davis says it's inevitable that people will speculate that his vote against health care reform is responsible for the loss, but that isn't born out by the polling.
"That's not what the trend line of the race really indicated The race tightened substantially after the health care vote, then it opened back up again. Our polling showed that the race had opened up to a double digit lead ... then, frankly, we showed the race collapsing again. And we still don't have a good handle on why the race collapsed after that. Obviously we were not subjected to a negative television attack, we were not subjected to any adverse free media."
That certainly agrees with the publicly available polling we've seen -- throughout this campaign polls showed Davis leading by a large margin. After the health care vote in late March, a PPP poll showed the race had tightened, but another independent poll (R2K) showed Davis again had a comfortable lead about 2 weeks ago, though he was still under the 50% mark. So what happened?
"It just seemed that there was ... an accumulation of doubt that built up around the state. We had a substantial drop off in both black and white support in the final two weeks and I take the blame for that as a candidate. When you lose 62 counties there's not room for a lot of microanalysis of the campaign."
"The voters rejected me as a candidate. And I won't say that they rejected the message, I'm not sure that's fair to say. But we did not do a good enough job as a campaign making our message relevant and resonant with the Democratic core voters."
A big chunk of the problem, at minimum, is that Davis never developed a simple, short, "elevator pitch" message that would stick with voters. The very first time we interviewed Congressman Davis back in 2008 we commented that he is one of the most knowledgable and articulate politicians we've ever met, but he needs to edit the policy talk down to soundbites at some point. No easy task, although I still think "Change Alabama for Good" is miles better than "Common Sense." Nevertheless, voters and poll workers I spoke with Tuesday expressed confusion about what Davis stood for. Define yourself or your opponent will define you -- or at least cast doubts upon you.
"I do think that a perception built in some circles that this campaign lacked a core, and this campaign lacked a central premise. ... Voters knew what Ron Sparks' campaign was about. They knew it was about expanding gambling and the lottery. I'm not sure enough voters knew what my campaign was about, and too many voters thought that my campaign was about a very abstract proposition -- can a black be elected governor? My campaign was always about much more than that, but candidly, I'm not sure we did a good enough job burning our message into a few simple, discernable points."
"We had a message that's not a conventional message in the Alabama governor's race. Alabama governor's races tend to be driven by personality and they tend to be driven by, sometimes a few basic issues. Obviously, I did not do a good enough job as a candidate in connecting with certain groups in the Democratic base. That's not anyone's fault other than mine."
"The trendline in this race was not a freefall from healthcare on. The race moved back in our direction ... and we took a double digit lead into the final two weeks, according to both our polling and AEA's polling and then something happened. A double digit lead turned around completely ..."
We asked Artur Davis if he still believes the decision to skip the ADC and New South endorsement process was the right one, especially in light of the heat he took from traditional black leaders like ADC Chair Joe Reed and State Sen. Hank Sanders:
"It was the right decision for this campaign. We did not handle that decision well and communicate the reasons for the decision. ... That is a political choice. You make an assessment. Can you get it? What will it cost you? What's the cost of not getting it. ... I certainly reject the theory that had we gone we would have gotten the endorsements ... We did not handle the explanation well, we didn't do a good job of explaining to black voters. And there was a significant group of black voters who bought into the idea that we were minimizing the significance of black voters. That was unfortunate and again, the blame is on me for not doing a great job of communicating why we didn't go."
"Where we had a significant African-American advocate, Mayor of Mobile Sam Jones, we ran very well in the black community. In Montgomery, where Joe Reed is a polarizing figure, we split the black community. ... My campaign did not have enough validators in the black community. We did not have enough peole willing to stand up and say, 'here's why we support this campaign.' Now again, that's a failing of my campaign, because my campaign should have been able to attract individuals who were willing to stand up and say, 'this is a good candidate ...'"
The outsider thing -- a two-edged sword:
Davis' status as a Montgomery outsider made him an attractive candidate for those of us who think state government needs to see real reforms, but running against the establishment is never easy -- the establishment always has more resources and always resists change. That bit the Davis campaign as it became clear that major Democratic players were lining up behind Sparks.
"We did not do a good enough job over the course of the last 3 to 4 years in forming relationships with certain groups within the Democratic heirarchy. And it's not just the black groups," Davis said, mentioning labor and state employees groups.
"Most candidates who've run for governor of this state have had a long standing relationship with a set of forces in Montgomery. I did not have that. ... Because of that this campaign did not bring certain relationships to the table. And that was a weakness of this campaign in terms of its political foundation."
The Davis campaign had increasing difficulty fundraising in the last few weeks and was left without the resources to counter some of the claims being made against him. Davis said, in hindsight, the decision to split resources between TV, radio and field may have been unwise. He didn't believe they were outspent on television the last 10 days but said Sparks and other groups certainly outspent them on radio, which hurt.
About the low turnout and negative advertising:
"A group of voters who looked at race, saw a lot of attacks and made the decision that they didn't want to participate."
In a nutshell, that's what negative advertising that seeks to suppress voter enthusiasm and turnout is all about. And it works.
Davis very definitely and deliberately closed the door to any future candidacy:
"I certainly don't want to suggest that the campaign couldn't have made tactical and strategic choices that could have arrested that collapse, but the reality is that we didn't make them."
"I'll be very direct with you, yesterday's result was a thoroughgoing rejection by the party. ... I'm ready to move on to another phase of my life. I'm ready to move on to the things that I've done for most of my life, practicing law. I'm ready to get back to doing that. ... Ultimately, I spent a wonderful decade in politics, I'm not a career politician. Never intended to do this for the course of a life. Never intended to be one of those candidates who runs, loses, runs again, tries another race ..."
"I believe we had the right values and vision for this state, not enough voters agreed. I was not a good enough candidate. ... This campaign struggled to raise money when we had a 30 point lead in the polls and led every Republican in the polls. Imagine what the dynamic would be like coming off a 24 point loss without those assets. I accept the voters' verdict. ... You can participate in the civic life of a community without being a candidate. You can do good in a state or in a region without being a candidate. I accept the voters' verdict ... and my wife and I are ready to move on to a different phase of our life."
"I will certainly participate in civic life at some level but I have no plans to be a candidate for political office again. I'm eager to enter a new phase of life."
There is no simple soundbite for some of the issues on the progressive agenda, and that's a problem.
Over the last year and a half Davis has talked at length about progressive state issues like constitutional reform, ethics reform, attracting new industry to the state, making more capital available to business already here, reducing the high school drop-out rate, making the tax structure more equitable, etc. We asked if he thought Alabama voters are bored by an issues campaign? Davis disagreed, saying, "Voters will absorb issues if they're communicated effectively. Obviously, my campaign did not communicate them effectively enough. The fact that you can give a good speech in a room doesn't mean you are communicating your message in all the ways that it must be communicated. And I think Even in a room, I did not consistently do a good enough job condensing my message to a few simple points that voters could relate to. Again, that's my failing as a candidate."
"We worked hard, we tried hard, I know there are many who will denounce the quality of this campaign and obviously it was not a good enough campaign. But I'm proud of the campaign we ran, I'm proud of the way we ended the campaign and I look forward to seeing the Democratic party in Alabama grow and discover the roots that it needs on state issues to be a progressive party."
About the changing political landscape in Alabama and developing a strong progressive base around state issues.
Not all that many Congressmen have successfully run for governor here, and you can see why. Davis' opponent and his backers exploited that fact that many Democrats who are progressive on federal issues, and fairly engaged, don't understand or care about state issues. On state issues, Davis was absolutely as good as we were going to get. Yes, his message wasn't as refined as it could/should have been, but the audience was also deeply divided. And, mark my words, even if Davis had voted in favor of the health care bill, there were other federal issues his opponents would have used for the same purpose. Health care was especially effective because it was more current, but the forces who opposed Davis would have found another wedge, health care or not. His campaign should have been more agressive early on to try and control that "Davis is essentially a Republican" narrative. Which is bunk, of course, but if you repeat it often enough, some people will believe it. See Bush, George W.
"Being a candidate whose voting record and philosophy is not monolithically liberal is going to cost you in the Democratic primary. My campaign should have done a better job of countering them. ... Our message was not sufficiently attractive to core Democratic voters."
"I did not do a good enough job convincing progressive voters in the Democratic primary that this was a progressive candidacy."
"We as Democrats are leaving on the table some people who would be Democrats in other states."
"There is a difference between the progressive community that organizes around state issues like constitutional reform and the progressive community that organizes around federal issues. Sometimes those aren't the same sets of people. ... Ultimately, I do think a progressive base can be built in this state around state issues. Now my campaign failed to do that. That was one of the conspicuous failings of my campaign."
"We failed to energize voters who care about tax reform who care about constitutional reform and who care about ethics reform and we failed to frankly even make the case to the Democratic base that those are progressive issues. ... In this campaign, 'progressiveness' came to be defined as where you stood on health care reform and, to a lesser extent, where you stood on gambling. ... The failing of my campaign was its inability to make a case to core Democratic voters that tax reform and constitutional reform are bedrock progressive issues."
That's exactly why we need to keep having discussions about what constitute progressive issues in Alabama, and add to those discussions a healthy component of 'how can we capture the germ of this argument in 15 words or less.'
Congressman Davis left us with this thought:
"A better candidate and a better champion of these causes will come along and when that better champion, that better candidate comes along then you will see the party move in a different direction."
A better candidate and a better champion will undoubtedly come along -- someday. Will Alabama Democrats recognize him or her? Or -- and this is my real fear -- will the next champion of progress in Alabama be a Republican? Because progress is a bipartisan issue in any normal political environment.