The demise of the Val Demings Campaign yields important lessons for Democrats

Val Demings’ withdrawal from the Orange County Mayoral Race was a shock to most observers of Florida politics. It seems all so surreal because after years of misfiring Democrats had actually landed a highly-touted recruit for a big race in the state of Florida. Local Democrats had recruited a superstar, someone capable of commanding tremendous interest both on the grassroots level and in terms of fundraising.

Theresa Jacobs, like her predecessors Rich Crotty and Mel Martinez, faced weak Democratic opposition in the past and had won some crossover Democratic support. However scandals including the infamous textgate affair as well as several policy initiatives had progressives licking their chops about the possibility of defeating Jacobs in 2014. This particular office is non-partisan, thanks largely to the first occupant Linda Chapin who was a moderate Democrat then serving in a conservative Republican county. But since 1998, we have seen Republicans hold the office with little opposition thanks to the non-partisan nature of the elections, low-turnout summer primaries and a weak Democratic commitment to running strong. 2014 was supposed to be different.

Identifying a top-tier candidate was a priority of Orange County’s progressive community and the Florida Democratic Party. That candidate, Val Demings, was at least on paper a perfect fit – the former Orlando Police Chief who gave Congressman Dan Webster all he could handle in a Republican leaning district in 2012. The wife of the elected Sheriff of Orange County, name ID was not a problem.  Since Jacobs had become connected with scandal and the county’s progressives were better organized than ever, the opportunity seemed ripe for a prestigious Democratic victory.

But as we now know, it was not be. What appeared to be setting up as one of the highest-profile and most watched races in the state never really began. But why?Various rumors and theories have floated in the week since Demings withdrawal.  What has become obvious from talking to multiple local sources is that Demings own tenor and that of her campaign had changed during the course of the race. The reason appears to be the over-reliance on political consultants, pollsters and vendors associated with both the state and national Democratic parties.  Demings started out her campaign early this year as an agent of change, concerned about the plight of working class families in the county as well as being concerned by the scandals associated with the county government. Grassroots energy and support were initially quite high. The State Party made the race a priority and not only donated generously to Demings campaign but gave her office space in Orlando.


But in time the consultants that had been brought into the effort, many Washington DC based national Democratic Party associated operatives, re-positioned the candidate. Coinciding with this were the efforts of some Florida-based operatives who work closely with the state party and statewide Democratic candidates to move Demings from a reform minded progressive candidate to something in the middle of the political spectrum.  Much of the energy for the candidate and campaign began to dissipate. Also of note, in February both Demings and the FDP received generous contributions from Disney, contributions that some local activists feel may have begun to push Demings campaign into a different posture. Whether this is in fact the case can be debated but no doubt exists the campaign began pushing in another direction around this time.

 

Despite the generous support the FDP provided the candidate, the campaign moved from party donated office space to an expensive location elsewhere in town. Under the direction of the consultants, particularly those from the national party, the focus on grassroots was shifted to TV and Direct Mail. By early May the campaign was looking to spend upwards of $1,000,000 on local TV buys. Much like the Alex Sink Special Election where voter turnout and activation would be a key, this election with an August Primary would have to be a turnout war. But the national consultants felt that massive and largely untargeted TV buys in a media market that stretches from The Villages to Palm Bay and from Celebration to Flagler Beach would be an efficient use of the money the candidate raised. The logic of this strategy is inane.  Much like the Sink campaign it would have almost certainly led to failure.

 

As grassroots enthusiasm for the candidate began to wane thanks to the consultant driven nature of the campaign, Jacobs appeared to be firmly in control of the race. While the one public poll that showed a 15 point lead for the incumbent was probably a bit skewed, realistically Demings was going to have a very difficult time making a real race of it. Additionally, many leading money people locally had made deals already with the incumbent Mayor before Demings got in the race and while her fundraising was not terrible (she raised nearly $250,000 before dropping out) this race required well over a million dollars before July the way the consultants were running it, and unfortunately Demings was well behind on this score.

 

Ultimately the lessons of the Demings campaign much like the failed Alex Sink Special Election is that political consultants, DC operatives and even some Florida based vendors are not the best strategists for what are essentially local campaigns. Tip O’Neill once said all politics is local, but much like the failed Sink Campaign, Democrats forgot that in a big way in this race. Despite the best efforts of many leaders in the party and progressive movement in Orange County to control the narrative they were overwhelmed by slick and well-connected operatives.

 

So once again the Democrats have managed to turn a big opportunity into a big mess. But Democrats in Orange County have noted the lessons and we can be rest assured many of these mistakes will not be repeated if local forces are kept in control of the destiny of a local office (albeit one with statewide and even national implications. Let’s not forget Mel Martinez used this office to become a Cabinet Member and a US Senator, skipping state office or the US House in the process).
What we have learned from Demings aborted campaign coming so rapidly after the Alex Sink Special Election debacle should give Democrats across the state pause when consultants and vendors come to Florida in the fall professing they have all the answers that will lead towards a victory.

39 comments

  1. “the efforts of some Florida-based operatives who work closely with the state party and statewide Democratic candidates to move Demings from a reform minded progressive candidate to something in the middle of the political spectrum.”
    —– Dave’s been saying this for years – we can’t elect Democrats by watering down our values and having our candidates become ’empty skirts’. We saw this with Sink, CD13, and now Demmings. So sad

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  2. Yup it’s all the fault of those nasty state party and national Democrat consultants…..again!

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  3. Nailed it!

    Spot on!

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  4. Tyler · · Reply

    Seeing how she paid as much as she did for polling before qualifying was even completed should say enough about the way the consultants were handling her race. She was being simply programmed by political professionals.

    No wonder she flamed out so quickly!

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  5. Democratic Guy · · Reply

    Here we go again…

    This is a masterful piece of propaganda. Well-written and well argued very convincing

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  6. Democratic Guy · · Reply

    This is masterful propaganda. Those in orange county were pushing the candidate to scandal Monger and not spend as much money on television and I’ll direct mail as she needed are also close allies of this author.

    So author waits a week to write article slamming consultants. He uses great prose and argues very logically why those of us in the political consulting crowd that may or may not have some involvement in this race were responsible for the demise of the candidate.

    Yet he never poses the question as to why local activists and Democratic Party officials had pushed the candidate into such uncomfortable and untenable positions. He never admits that TV is what wins races of this size.

    It is absolute horseshit if you think a grassroots campaign and money spent on the field operatives is going to win you a campaign of this stature and size.

    But those who are friendly with this author also felt like we could win the governor’s race based on having groups that simply protest any time the governor shows up in town.

    If you leave races of this size and this importance the local grassroots operatives they will lose. And it is the fault of the local operatives that their enthusiasm for the candidate waned.

    If they wanted to get rid of Theresa Jacobs so badly they should’ve just stuck with it.

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  7. Susan Smith · · Reply

    It amazes me how people argue that we have to keep doing the same things over and over or we’ll lose. In case you haven’t noticed, we haven’t won a hell of a lot lately by following the old playbook.

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    1. Exactly. Another point is that those “consultants” from Florida only have a track record of losing.

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  8. Cheryl · · Reply

    The truth hurts.

    Yet another example of consultant malpractice that doomed Florida Democrats.

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  9. Fla Dem · · Reply

    Looks like the Randolph clan have this blog shilling for them again.

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  10. Franklin · · Reply

    The lessons are very clear from this debacle. Not only what is talked about here but also that candidate recruitment for these sorts of offices cannot be based on reputation or based on who is connected with what consultants.

    She was always going to be a mistake. We need someone who’s going to work. It is a lost opportunity because it August the Democrats had a bunch of primaries Republicans don’t have any of note. With the right candidate we could have won.

    Not paying attention to local activists is unforgivable. The DC folks have made a living out of this.

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  11. Larry · · Reply

    This is a brilliant article. Should be shared everywhere.

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  12. Blue Dog Dem · · Reply

    Nice to see that even in the post pink slip Rick days if Scott and Susannah need to spin their failures they have good ole Kartik to do it for them!

    Not that this article is in any way off base, but we know why it was written.

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  13. I’m not a fan of the current OCDEC leadership but must say whether this article is Randolph pushed or not shouldn’t mean anything.

    Is it accurate? Yes. How accurate? The first truly analytical narrative about what happened. It’s good reporting and analysis no matter the agenda of the writer.

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  14. It does appear that leadership believes that decent, critical thinking candidates who know that we are loosing our core foundation and equalizer (the middle class) can’t win elections……no wonder about 42% of the people associate themselves as Independents…..according to a new poll, Scott has moved ahead of Crist by two points…..

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  15. Democratic Guy · · Reply

    The excuses are laughable.

    somehow you could run a campaign without a media component is just plain idiotic

    Those supporting this writer and his theories must simply like losing.

    Again this is well produced a d argued propaganda. But it is nothing more than that.

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    1. Orlando · · Reply

      Funny. Orange County has a pretty good record of winning without Dave Beattie.

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  16. Mark Smith · · Reply

    I am a longtime Democrat and my view is that Val never did her homework. She wants to be a superstar without doing the hard work that comes with it. She underestimated the grassroots support that Jacobs has built over 12 years in office. During the last week of April, my friend got call from a research company doing polling about the Mayor’s race. From the tone of the questions she describe it must have been from the Demings camp. I am guessing that she saw there was no path to victory. I am going to vote for Jacobs not because she is a D or R, but because she has done a good job overall. Not perfect, not for those of our party on the far left, but for most of us who have gravitated to the middle.

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  17. Concerned Democrat · · Reply

    Those leaving comments attacking the veracity of this article and the author ought to note that the Orlando Sentinel wrote a similar piece AFTER this was published essentially drawing similar conclusions.

    I don’t always agree with Kartik but this is one case where a blogger beat a newspaper to a big story and wrote it so well all the paper could do was add more layers of detail to what he had already reported.

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    1. Thanks! I appreciate it!

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  18. Blue Dog Democrat, your comments certainly indicate you were one of those “consultants” Why on Earth would someone need to spend a million dollars on TV in a 15% turnout race? That kind of thinking is what has the DCCC blow $8 million in another losing race involving Alex Sink, and then have no groundwork to build upon for a tenable opponent in November (even if Sink had wanted to run again–guess what, another negative TV ad isn’t what motivated voters to get off the couch and go vote). You consultants continue to rape candidates left and right over TV. This race involved communication to about 60,000 Democrats and maybe 10,000 NPAs. What a waste of money TV would have been.. Sure, it would have been nice to have, but that is the last bucket that needed to be filled. A targeted mail program to absentee ballot holders and aggressive chase program would have brought in 40% of the vote before Election Day. Even $1 million of TV couldn’t have started until after absentees had already hit the mailboxes of nearly 40% of the voters. That’s how bad of a consultant you are. You don’t understand anything in specific races. You’ve become a lazy consultant that cookie cuts races instead of looking at the specific facts and circumstance of each race. How pathetic that you continue to rape Democratic candidates in this state. And if I have to hear you one more time try to justify why your crappy work didn’t result in Alex Sink losing the Governor’s race in 2010, I’m going to puke. We are in the middle of a massive foreclosure crisis and you all thought that what voters cared about was Sink having her staff review their use of office supplies?? Really?? You are simply so out of touch with voters that elections have passed you by because you don’t want to ask the right questions. You don’t want to ask and talk about the 27% of Orange County children living in poverty; that Orange County is the lowest wage metro area in the country. Were you going to tell Val to run on office supplies again?

    Val got so ill-served by certain consultants that she probably thought she couldn’t bounce back in time. Candidly, I think she could have. The demographics have simply changed in this County to such a large extent that the numbers favored her tremendously. And with Geraldine Thompson now in a primary fight with Gary Siplin; a Commission District 6 race with 6 candidates; a District 2 race with 4 Democrats running; a very viable candidate in District 4 and Alan Grayson with a nominal primary opponent, all the cards were stacked at getting out Democratic voters in August.

    If the consultants had not sucked up the money like a Hoover vacuum for the first 5 months and destroyed her confidence by telling her that she needed $1.5 million to win this race (hell, Teresa Jacobs won on $650,000 in 2010 and that was with a race in August AND November, so remind me how she needed $1.5 million to be competitive). You consultants destroyed her confidence that she cold win. You all should be ashamed of yourselves and never let near another Democratic race again.

    Please, please, please, remind us again how counting office supplies during a massive financial meltdown was important to voters in a Governor’s race again? Enlighten us with your brilliance one more time.

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    1. Demokat · · Reply

      Bob makes some spot-on observations here. Folllowing on… no one thinks you don’t do TV. The point is to do it strategically, and in a way that doesn’t bankrupt the campaign or kneecap the candidate. Our “big league” consultants are behaving like racketeers when they push losing strategy (loaded with commissioned media buys) to justify absurdly inflated fundraising. Any good marketing professional can do campaign lit, direct mail and TV. Profiting from the media transactions casts doubt on the strategy – or, it should to anyone paying attention. Either your strategy is worth paying for, or it’s not. This is the best practice for ad agencies, and it should apply to political campaigns as well.

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    2. Demodaysi · · Reply

      This is why I always tell candidates to work locally first and not hire consultants until they feel they need to. So many other local and some state races are won without consultants and so many candidates run out of money by hiring consultants before they realize their mistakes. Some of these consultants work for more than one candidate in different races and its all about collecting the paychecks.

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  19. Democratic Guy,

    By the way, no one in Orange County abandoned her. There was entire programs revolving around her. But you consultants told her to stay away from all the Democrats in Orange County so that you could control the massive waste of money you wanted spent on TV. You want to spend $1 million on TV in a race where less than 125,000 voters will vote. In a media market that you pay to reach more than 1.3 million people. Less than 10% of the people that even see the commercial will vote.

    You’ve spent 4 years now trying to justify your polling of office supplies during a foreclosure crisis. You’ve spend 4 years criticizing everyone that says that Rick Scott is unpopular and should be used against Republicans like Obama is used against Democrats. And it’s all to justify and cover up the disservice you did to Alex Sink in 2010 having her talk about office supplies with 10% unemployment.

    Your money grabbing techniques are just pathetic. And that’s what this column is about. The fact that old school/old guard consultants just suck up the money and try to run cookie cutter campaigns that tell the candidates not to run on actual ideas anymore.

    It’s a real shame that you all destroyed Val’s confidence and war chest.

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  20. Fla Dem · · Reply

    Who were the specific consultants in this race?

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  21. Democratic Guy · · Reply

    It is so painfully obvious who the so-called sources are for this hack job on those of us who make a living off getting Democrats elected to office.

    We’ve gotten Bill Nelson elected three times and Barack Obama twice thanks to the efforts of Florida-based political operatives. We have turned this state blue through our efforts.

    Simply because we decided to go in a different direction any better direction in the campaign against Rick Scott putting a silly novelty item white pink slip Rick out Does not give this author or his friends in orange county the license to attack the good work we have done and continue to do. We needed to be professional in how we attacked Scott not corny and silly like PSR.

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    1. Is it a white or pink slip? Sorry couldn’t resist your confusion in your own angry rant.

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    2. Demodaysi · · Reply

      Bill Nelson never really had a true challenger in his last three races and President Obama brought in his own team who did work with the local volunteers.

      Like

  22. Cheryl · · Reply

    Wow this blog could do a whole series on consultant malpractice!!!

    Like

  23. Dems in 14 · · Reply

    I like this article actually.

    Very well done.

    Like

  24. Dem Guy,

    Oh please, no one suggested that a small operation was going to take down Rick Scott, but I’m amazed at your 4 years at justifying the job you did in putting together the messaging for Alex Sink in 2010 through your polling. Still no response to the paper clip press releases during a foreclosure fiasco? I’m waiting….

    I’m still waiting for a valid response to the idea that less than 10% would vote in your media market you wanted to spend $1 million on. I’m still waiting for a valid response on the fact that TV wouldn’t have even started until 40% of the votes were already in people’s hands for at least a week.

    Rather than making childish responses, if you really want to defend your work as a consultant, then how about some solid responses to those criticisms.

    Like

  25. Happiest Mouse on Earth · · Reply

    I, for one, fail to see how it was local Democratic party leaders and activists who pushed Val into an “untenable position” when they 1. raised money for her; and 2. qualified her by petition before Teresa could do so. In fact, it was the “consulting” that caused serious cash flow issues that were likely the reason for her exit from the race. Being told to “keep progressives at an arm’s length” and to “not rock the boat” is probably due to limited experience by consultants whose main bread and butter are incumbents that face marginal and underfunded opposition. When you are a CHALLENGER, you have to go for it, rock the boat, throw the incumbent back on their heels. You certainly don’t “stay the course” because, dude, you don’t HAVE a course when you are a challenger. You can’t win the Daytona 500 when all you’ve ever done is set cruise control. Additionally, consultants should disclose conflicts of interest. You can’t be a good advisor to Democrats while also working for the Happiest Place on Earth. When your polls show that you should be talking about minimum wage increases, equal pay and sick leave, you shouldn’t be telling your candidate to stay quiet on those issues simply because you have bills to pay with Mouse Money. Let’s all just be honest here so our candidates don’t continue to suffer.

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  26. Mouse World · · Reply

    We are disappointed by the withdrawal of Val Demings. We had worked hard to ensure that we continued to control oh we mean have access to the Orange County Mayor by purchasing access ah sorry we mean persuading the candidate and those around her to take a pro-Disney sorry we mean pro economic growth view of affairs here in Central Florida. We regret her withdrawal but thank those who allowed us to take control oh we mean to gain access to the campaign.

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  27. Democratic Guy · · Reply

    This whole Disney discussion is out of line. The mere fact that something about Disney was written in this piece what is completely extraneous confirms the relationship between the author of this article, this blogger and a certain segment of the progressive community in Orlando.

    It stands without any question that that information came from one of three people all of whom stick together and think alike. All three are females. Need any more hints?

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  28. Looks like you avoided the question about conflict of interest, which is telling. Democratic consultants who are also working for the Mouse (or any other entity that has an interest in how a governmental body votes – especially one on which that candidate is seeking office) is an enor”mouse” conflict of interest. It is a small world after all but not small enough that candidates shouldn’t seek advisers and consultants who don’t have that conflict.

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  29. Donald Duck · · Reply

    Just because Disney has bought off multiple big-time Democratic operatives does not mean we have to roll over and play dead here in Orange County!

    Like

  30. […] Demings disastrous campaign for Orange County Mayor proved what a flawed candidate she is.  Despite her superstar status in 2012 when she ran a decent […]

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  31. […] Demings disastrous campaign for Orange County Mayor led to questions about her viability. She left local Democrats high and dry for one of then most […]

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