Drawing Contrasts Without Drawing Blood – Jane Harman, Steve Kuykendall, California’s 36th Congressional District campaign
While Republican Steve Kuykendall was not the only California congressional incumbent to lose his re-election bid last year, his race against former Democratic U.S. Rep. Jane Harman did not become the brutal, bare-knuckled fight that characterized the neighboring 27th District race between incumbent GOP U.S. Rep. James Rogan and Democratic state Sen.
Jane Harman vs. Steve Kuykendall in California’s 36th
THE RACE for California’s 36th Congressional District was heralded from the beginning as potentially the most costly and divisive campaign of the 2000 election.
While the race did prove costly, predictions of a political bloodletting did not materialize in the way campaign watchers expected for a race that pitted two indistinctly defined moderates against each other in the suburban Los Angeles swing district.
While Republican Steve Kuykendall was not the only California congressional incumbent to lose his bid, his race against former Democratic U.S. Rep. Jane Harman did not become the bare-knuckled fight that characterized the neighboring 27th District race between incumbent GOP U.S. Rep. James Rogan and Democratic state Sen. Adam Schiff. The Rogan-Schiffrace degenerated at times into petty attacks and outrageous accusations.
The Harman-Kuykendall race, instead, evolved into a campaign in which their strategists were able to clearly define their candidates without straying too far from issue-based contrasts. It helped, of course, that the national campaign committees took on much of the responsibility for the tougher attacks that were levied against both. The result was a relatively balanced, substantive, fair-minded campaign on both sides that proved you don’t have to be dirty to go negative.
Harman’s eventual win arose from a variety of factors, but part of her victorious strategy can be attributed to her campaign’s dedication to sticking to national issue themes, such as health care. And Kuykendall’s downfall, though admirably played, rests partly on his campaign’s inability to find a palpable issue against Harman beyond political opportunism.
Republican Kuykendall, the moderate congressman facing his first re-election battle, already had a precarious hold on this West Los Angeles County swing district. With the politically split city of Torrance in the middle, the district hugs the Pacific Coast and includes the liberal-leaning areas of Venice to the north, as well as the more conservative and well-to-do Palos Verdes Peninsula in the south. Voter registration in the district is close between the two major parties, with a slight Democratic edge.
The district’s former representative, moderate Democrat Harman, had held the seat for six years before trying her hand at a bid for governor in 1998. She lost in the primary to Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, who eventually went on to win the governorship.
Like Harman’s previous squeaky wins in the district, Kuykendall, a state assemblyman and former mayor of Rancho Palos Verdes, barely won his first election to Congress in 1998. Against well-known businesswoman Janice Hahn, Kuykendall eked out a 49-47 percent win.
Because of its political make-up and a growing Democratic tendency in the state as a whole, the district proved irresistible to Democratic strategists seeking to win enough seats in Congress to take back control of the House of Representatives in 2000. But they had to find a “name” candidate with whom to take on Kuykendall.
The best name Democrats could come up with was, of course, Harman, but she took some convincing. Only after receiving promises from Democratic party leaders, such as House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, that she would retain her seniority in the chamber and receive substantial outside financing help from the Democratic party apparatus did Harman jump in at the eleventh hour- just three days before California’s early Dec. 10, 1999, candidate filing deadline.
Kuykendall’s political strategists had already anticipated Harman’s candidacy. His campaign worked feverishly before the filing deadline to amass a campaign war chest to scare away challengers. Knowing that Democrats intended an all-out national effort to take back the House, Kuykendall’s campaign also knew that they’d have the support of the National Republican Campaign Committee in putting together a financial plan.
Despite the race’s elevated status by the national party groups, Harman and Kuykendall had enjoyed a good working relation ship while he was in the state Assembly and she was in Congress, representatives from both campaigns said.
The two worked together on resolving how to use old U.S. Navy-owned land for homeless housing. Kuykendall consulted Harman on getting a federal law passed to allow local officials to determine the use for the land, which became the property of Rancho Palos Verdes when the base closed, said Kuykendall campaign spokesman Adam Mendelsohn.
“They had a prior relationship that was constructive and positive,” agreed Harman consultant Roy Baer, of Greer, Margolis, Mitchell and Burns media consulting.
Though the issues they worked on together were hardly dire, Kuykendall would later use Harman’s praise of his work in campaign literature.
From the beginning, the pollsters for both Harman and Kuykendall said the race was dead even.
Harman came into the race with higher name identification in the district. She joked many times that most residents still thought she was their congresswoman. Indeed, Kuykendall’s chief political consultant, Steve Rice of McNally, Temple and Associates, said the biggest problem Kuykendall faced from the outset was a lack of name recognition.
Kuykendall was well-known in Palos Verdes, where he was mayor for a year, and in Torrance, but the campaign needed to work on his image and visibility north of the Los Angeles International Airport and in Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach and Hermosa, said Rice.
Though Rice said the beach communities were more conservative than one would expect, Kuykendall had not been able to make as many inroads there in his year in Congress.
Baer agreed that Kuykendall had name identification problems but said that was not necessarily a plus for the Harman campaign. Harman’s campaign knew from the beginning that they were going to have to make an effort to distinguish Harman’s positions from Kuykendall’s.
“It wasn’t so much that people viewed him as a moderate, but people didn’t view him as not a moderate,” said Baer. That presented a problem for Harman in trying to grab the coveted middle ground in the campaign, he added.
Similarly, Kuykendall’s campaign also was trying to out-maneuver Harman on being a moderate. “Jane was always able to position herself as a moderate in that district, so we knew we had to seize the middle ground,” said Mendelsohn.
The first big test of the campaign came with the March 7 primary. Though the U.S. Supreme Court would later rule blanket primaries unconstitutional, California had a system whereby all candidates regardless of party appeared on the same ballot, with the top vote-getters of each going on to the general election. Because people of all parties as well as nonaffiliated voters could vote in the March primary, the vote was seen as foreshadowing how the race would eventually play out.
Though the election wouldn’t be decided until November, for Kuyken-dall, the vote totals in the primary were considered a “snapshot” of the challenge to come and critical to convince campaign donors that he could win the seat, said Rice.
So McNally, Temple, and Associates coordinated a series of targeted mailings to try to enlarge voter participation and increase Kuykendall’s name identification levels. The mailers went out to non-Republicans in his old state Assembly district, to women, to seniors, and Republican-base voters. The campaign did not mention Harman in the mailings, but spotlighted Kuykendall’s accomplishments in Congress.
In the final primary vote tallies, Kuykendall edged out Harman 42.8 percent to 40.5 percent of the popular vote — totals that reflected both campaigns polling data at the time.
Thereafter, preparing for the general election match, both campaigns focused chiefly on fundraising efforts as well as appearing at candidate forums and walking precincts.
But as the campaign reached the summer of 2000, the California Democratic Party and the AFL-CIO began running television ads on cable that slammed Kuyken-dall’s record on health care in an effort to drive up Kuykendall’s negative perception by voters. The ads contended that Kuykendall voted against providing a prescription drug benefit under Medicare.
Though Kuykendall’s campaign complained that the ads unfairly characterized his record, all of his consultants agree that the ads were a strategic failure. In a beach community in the summertime, “people don’t spend a lot of time inside watching television,” said Kuykendall pollster, Stephen Kinney of Public Opinion Strategies. “It never really hurt him.”
By September, both campaigns began airing their own ads in earnest, as did the California Democratic and Republican Parties. And the ads for the most part, lived up to the cordial atmosphere the campaigns had enjoyed up until that point.
Kuykendall’s campaign started off by airing a series of ads on cable television that highlighted his service to the district, such as his ability to secure funding for the dredging of Marina Del Rey. The spots featured local leaders from the district and were targeted to the cable markets. Ads with officials from Torrance, for example, appeared in the Torrance area, whereas officials of Palos Verdes were in ads for their area.
None of the spots mentioned Harman, at first. A few weeks later, though, Kuykendall’s campaign would begin to use the same commercials with extra dialogue about Harman’s inability to get things done for the district. In one ad, produced by McNally, Temple, a local official tells viewers that “Jane Harman was in Congress for six years and again got caught up in the bureaucracy.” Another criticizes Harman for having “never lived in the community.”
That message would remain the bread-and-butter of Kuykendall’s contrast strategy — the idea that Harman didn’t do anything for the district while in Congress and was not really from the district. Though his campaign hoped the strategy would resonate with voters, some of his strategists privately worried that the issues were not tangible enough, said a Republican strategist familiar with the campaign. Still, those twin pitches would be used as part of Kuykendall’s mail campaign in September as well.
Harman’s campaign also ran positive issue-based ads at the start of the end-game, and hardly mentioned Kuykendall. Both campaigns appeared to leave the negative attacks to the state parties.
The race didn’t really heat up until October — the time that both campaigns and state parties had been waiting for to pull out their big guns.
Feeling that Harman’s spotty voting record in Congress could be a defining issue, Rice said Kuykendall’s campaign began airing ads — along with the California Republican Party — that highlighted her roll-call absences during her gubernatorial bid. Her ill-fated 1998 quest for the governor’s mansion was also used to imply that she was not serious about representing the district.
Harman’s campaign cried foul over an ad – produced for Kuykendall’s campaign – that depicted a woman’s fingernails tapping on a table. “Jane Harman was bored in Congress, so she quit to run for governor,” the ad intones. It goes on to say that Harman missed 31 percent of votes in Congress in 1998, and asks the viewer, “What would happen if you missed every third day at work? Would you be hired again?”
Harman consultant Baer speculated that the ad was “over the top” and that it probably lost Kuykendall “more votes from women than it got them.”
As for Harman’s commercials, Baer said, “to the extent we were drawing contrasts against Kuykendall, it was strictly about issues.” He added that “from the beginning, our research suggested that the most efficient campaign we could run was one that was based on issues.”
One Harman commercial contended that Kuykendall opposed protecting personal privacy, citing two votes in which Kuykendall voted against Democratic proposals to restrict companies’ ability to use medical and financial records. Another charged that Kuykendall voted “for an irresponsible trillion-dollar tax cut,” but explained that Harman would use the projected budget surplus to protect Social Security and add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare.
But both campaigns said the relatively small amount of negativity generated by the campaign had no effect on poll numbers going into election day. Harman and Kuykendall remained in a statistical dead heat in the final days of the campaign, with neither jumping far enough ahead of the other to indicate a significant shift in the electorate.
Kuykendall’s campaign strategists don’t blame the negative attacks for their loss. They point to two events that were not directly related to the congressional race.
In the final weeks of the campaign, the California Right to Life Political Action Committee, an anti-abortion rights group, began mailing out fliers to Republicans in the district urging them to write in anti abortion activist Will Davies instead of voting for Kuykendall, who supports abortion rights. The flier states that Kuykendall is a “pro-abortion extremist who even joined [President] Bill Clinton and liberal Democrats to keep partial-birth abortion (infanticide) legal!”
Rice said he believed the mailer “had a big impact.” There were nearly 400 write in votes for Davies and other vote tallies for third parties were too high, he said.
Rice and Kinney also blamed lower voter turnout on the decision of many broadcast networks to declare Democratic Vice President Al Gore the winner of Florida’s 25 electoral votes at about 5 p.m. Pacific Standard Time. That call, they allege, deterred many California Republicans from going to the polls at the end of the work day. “White Republican males didn’t show up in their normal numbers in the Palos Verdes Peninsula” — a heavily Republican area, said Kinney.
As the race wound down, there was a sense it would be very close. One poll taken Oct. 27-30 by Zogby International indicated a lead for the incumbent, showing Kuykendall ahead of Harman, 45-40 percent. But it would not be.
In the end, challenger Harman won by 4,452 votes – nearly the difference in Democratic and Republican registration in the district.
Emily Pierce is a Congressional Quarterly reporter. This case study is part of The Campaign Assessment and Candidate Outreach series sponsored by the Center for American Politics and Citizenship, University of Maryland, with a grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts.
The Toteboard — Handlers, Wagers
Jane Harman (D)
Manager Sean Sinclair
Pollster Garin, Hart and Yang
Mail Greer, Margolis, Mitchell & Burns
Media Greer, Margolis, Mitchell & Burns
Vote 115,651 (48.4%)
Steven T. Kuykendall (R)
Manager Renee Orefice
Pollster Public Opinion Strategies
Mail McNally, Temple and Assoc.
Media McNally, Temple and Assoc.
Vote 111,199 (46.6%)
30-SECOND TV SPOT
Jane Harman for Congress Producer/Consultant: Geer, Margolis, Richards, Burns
ANNCR: Our private information, sold to the highest bidder. In Congress, who’ll protect our privacy? Not Steve Kuykendall. Twice he voted against the bill to keep medical and financial records private. He also wrote a bill to let the government sell our personal financial information to corporations.
HARMAN: I’m Jane Harman. I’ll vote to stop insurance companies and banks from using our private records for their profit. In the new economy, more than ever, confidential information must stay confidential.
ANNCR: Jane Harman, our views, our values.
30-SECOND TV SPOT
Steve Kuykendall for Congress Producer/Consultant: McNally Temple & Associates
ANNCR: Jane Harman was bored in Congress. So she quit to run for governor. She told the L.A. Times she’d “been there, done that.” But now that she lost for governor, she wants to be in Congress again. But does she really? Her last year in Congress, Jane Harman missed 31 percent of the votes. Clearly she wasn’t interested in the job. What would happen if you missed every third day at work? Would you be hired again?
30-SECOND TV SPOT
Jane Harman for Congress Producer/Consultant: Geer, Margolis, Richards, Burns
STEPHAN SPERLING: The race for Congress in the South Bay comes down to priorities. Steve Kuykendall voted for an irresponsible trillion dollar tax cut that left no money to improve schools, strengthen Social Security or Medicare, or even reduce the debt.
HARMAN: I’m Jane Harman. I’ve got different priorities, and my record shows it. Let’s use the budget surplus to shore up Social Security, provide perscription drug coverage through Medicare for all seniors, reduce class size and pay down the debt. These things matter. They’re what I’ll fight for.
Lessons Learned from the California 36 Race
1. Candidates can strongly attack one another and draw clear distinctions between their records and philosophies without being nasty, unfair or dishonest. In fact, it’s important not to go too far when attacking an opponent Voters often react to what they perceive as being dirty tactics and unfair mudsligning.
2. Tone is a delicate, but vitally important, element in attack ads and mailers. If the tone of a piece is harsh or snide, regardless of the substance, it will likely turn off voters.
3. The most effective message contrasts in campaigns usually hinge on substantive issues. Attacks against an opponent’s political opportunism usually need to be buttressed with solid distinctions on salient policy matters to give all of the contrasting messages maximum impact.
4. Election-day get-out-the-vote efforts may be crucial to winning competitive district elections, even in a high-turnout national or statewide election years. This is especially true in hard-fought races where the party registration balance is close and both candidates are well known.
5. Cable television is an effective and efficient spot advertising medium to use when targeting messages based on demographics or geography. This is especially true when running in districts that are covered by large, expensive broadcast media markets.
6. Timing of media buys should take into account the lifestyles of the voters and various recreational seasons that may affect television viewership.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Campaigns & Elections, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group