I have a special fondness for Oklahoma’s Second Congressional District. Not only did I grow up in the district, but most of my family still lives there. It’s a mostly rural district with only a couple of urban areas of over 30,000 people, covering most of the eastern portion of the state, including my hometown of Tahlequah. So it’s with a little bit of excitement that I get to write about the Republican runoff currently in progress there.
The GOP primary got underway late last year and saw several individuals jump in, especially following the announcement of Rep. Dan Boren’s (D) retirement. (Boren, a blue dog Democrat and son of the state’s former governor and U.S. Senator, has represented the 2nd District since 2005.) Among the candidates vying for the Republican nomination were three-term State Representative George Faught (R-Muskogee) and businessman Markwayne Mullin (R-Westville). The primary was held on June 26, 2012, and these two candidates were forced into a runoff to be held on August 28. (Oklahoma primaries are closed and require a candidate to secure 50% of the vote to receive the nomination.)
Because of my affinity for the district, I began following this race fairly closely and “Liked” both Faught and Mullin on Facebook. In observing this contest, I saw a seasoned, conservative state legislator (who represents the largest urban area in the district)—Faught—running against a political newcomer with no record besides his business record to run on—Mullin. I saw the conservative endorsements flowing in for Faught. I saw a much larger social media presence by Faught. I thought to myself, “George Faught has this one in the bag, and with Oklahoma being the ‘Reddest State in the Country,’ he will easily beat any Democratic candidate in November and become the next congressman for Oklahoma-2.”
Needless to say, I was more than a bit surprised when polling in the race started making its way to Washington. The first poll I saw was paid for by the Mullin camp and was reported by “At the Races,” a Washington-based elections blog operated by Roll Call. Mullin led Faught two-to-one (30-15) with 34% undecided. I was shocked that this political newcomer was doubling up a proven conservative like Faught.
I generally don’t place a whole lot of emphasis on polling, especially polls commissioned by the campaigns. But then Election Day rolled around and the numbers held true. Mullin secured 42% of the vote to Faught’s 24%. The runoff was set.
Then yesterday, I received a phone call from one of my strategic partners, John Couvillon of JMC Enterprises of Louisiana. He had just finished a poll in the runoff and, knowing that’s my home district, wanted to share the results with me. (Isn’t it funny how politicos know one another by which Congressional District they’re from?) The JMC poll found that among 547 likely voters, Faught still trailed Mullin 57-26, with a margin of error of +/-4.2%.
While I don’t strategize based on polling numbers, polls like John’s are essential for securing endorsements. As a campaign veteran, I understand endorsements and the role they play in elections. I also understand how to get them. The first question a candidate, or the campaign staff, is asked is, “Can you win?” Any candidate or operative can respond, “Yes, and here’s how we plan to,” but that’s not enough. They want proof; they want to see polls. Polls, if in your favor, generally lead to endorsements.
And there have been a lot of endorsements in this race. Faught has secured a significant number of endorsements from conservative organizations such as the Oklahoma Conservative PAC and conservative darlings like former Arkansas governor, Mike Huckabee. His ability to secure these endorsements is particularly interesting knowing the poll numbers in this race. But what’s equally intriguing is that Faught’s colleagues in the state legislature are endorsing his opponent, Mullin. This tells me that although Faught’s conservative credentials may be unimpeachable, he may not be the easiest person to work with. And in Congress, a working relationship with other Members is essential, especially for a freshman legislator.
WHY MULLIN’S LEADING
This race should have been as cut and dry as I expected it to be. A proven conservative candidate running in a conservative district should easily dispatch a political wannabe from Adair County. So why is a seasoned campaigner and legislator having problems defeating a newby? While I’m not on the ground in Oklahoma and don’t know everything happening there, I see two things that are hindering Faught’s congressional bid: Polish and tarnish.
I watched a debate between the two candidates, held at Rogers State University in Claremore, and moderated by the lieutenant governor. The differences couldn’t have been clearer. Mullin is a country boy. You can see it in his clothes; you can hear it when he speaks. He’s just a good ol’ boy running in a district full of good ol’ boys. Mullin is likeable; he’s that candidate everyone wants to go have a beer with. Faught appears likeable, too, but not as much so as Mullin. Because Faught is a seasoned politician, he has been polished ‘til he shines. The problem is that shine isn’t moonshine so it is repelling, rather than attracting, Eastern Oklahoma voters.
Traditional campaign wisdom is that you don’t go negative if you’re leading. And that appears to be the wisdom Faught’s campaign is following. Right around the time Mullin’s camp released its poll, the mudslinging began. Faught commenced a series of attack ads and launched a “Mullin Facts” website aimed at discrediting his opponent. Negativity typically works well but Faught’s team didn’t take into account two things. First, negative ads will sway a few voters but they won’t move enough voters to overcome a 2-1 deficit. Secondly, this year, people are fed up with the mud. The problem this cycle is that roughly 80% of all ads out there are negative, thanks to the presidential campaigns and the SuperPACs supporting them. If you’re going to go negative, or use attack ads, you have to take into account the political climate; this is where Faught’s camp failed and thus tarnished his campaign.
BRINGING IT ALL HOME
So, what should the campaigns do at this point? If I were advising George Faught, I would make three suggestions. First, be prepared to lose. With only 18 days until Election Day, Faught’s chances of overcoming a 31 point deficit with only 17% undecided are next to zero. Insert live boy or dead girl analogy here. Second, stop the negativity. The mud isn’t sticking and all it’s doing is making Faught look bad. It’s not going to work this time; it won’t move the needle that far in your direction. Lastly, write a remarkable concession speech. When the final votes are tallied on August 28, Faught is going to have to thank his team and congratulate Mullin. And he must do so with humility and grace.
Advising Mullin, I would also make three recommendations. First, remain above the fray. Even though Faught has called him irresponsible and “not ready for Congress,” Mullin has to remain positive. Sure it’s tempting to strike back, by there’s no reason to. His positive message is working and he’s winning. Second, be humble. Congratulate Faught on a race well run (even though it really hasn’t been) and put the attacks behind you. Finally, start running against the Democrat. While he’s on the trail, Mullin should start talking about how he is better equipped than Rob Wallace (D-Muskogee) to be the next Congressman for Eastern Oklahoma.