VA Senate 10 shows why going negative works

Dan Gecker is waging a full out war on Republican opponent Glen Sturtevant in his mail campaign. And he's showing why candidates choose to go negative: it's working.

As I've noted before, the main thrust of Gecker's campaign is to attack Sturtevant on education, a classic move to rile up the Democratic base while trying to pick off moderate Republican voters who care about the issue. (Republicans do the same thing in reverse with taxes.) But his latest mailers up the ante considerably, noting that "Glen Sturtevant is being sued for his SECRET PLAN to redraw our school district lines." This is only somewhat true. Not to play Politifact here, but Gecker's claims are way more than misleading:

  • Yes, there's a lawsuit, but it targets the entire School Board, not Sturtevant specifically.
  • The lawsuit claims that Sturtevant "engaged in a series of secret meetings" with fellow school board members to redraw zoning lines. This is unfortunately true, but more likely done out of ignorance rather than an attempt to skirt public debate. (The lawsuit implicates School Board Veep Kristen Larson in these meetings, and anyone who knows Kristen would find the claims that she was avoiding public scrutiny to be ludicrous.)
  • The lawsuit also argues that the rezoning disproportionately benefited wealthy white students. In fact, the rezoning was done in part to try to bring more wealthy white students into the school system, in response to South Side activists who are trying to do just that. (Activists like my neighbor Bryce Lyle, who has never hidden anything about these efforts.)
  • Finally, the mailers reproduce e-mails from the lawsuit that suggest that Sturtevant knowingly allowed the rezone to go forward even though it puts Westover HIlls Elementary over capacity. What the mailer fails to note is that the e-mails are referring to POTENTIAL students; WH Elementary WOULD be over capacity if all those wealthy white students started going there (which they are currently not).

The lawsuit raises some legitimate issues about racism in school zoning and allocation of school resources, and the School Board and the City really need to deal with those issues more directly. But to lay this all at Sturtevant's feet is a bit much.

We don't have polling available for the 10th district, so how do I know that this negative line of argument is working? Because Sturtevant is now sending out mailers on education. His latest argues that "Dan Gecker is telling lies to cover his failed record on education." A second mailer sent this week compares the candidates on education funding, teacher pay, and smaller class sizes. This is a tacit admission from Sturtevant that his campaign is putting Gecker in the driver's seat, allowing the Democratic candidate to define the issues that the campaign is about.

Sturtevant's probably better off working the tax angle, especially in this Tea Party-influenced environment. And he is still doing this in some mailers and TV ads, arguing that Gecker voted to raise taxes and fees. (Although his own claims are not always truthful, as Politifact points out.)

But the more he talks about education, the more he shifts the campaign to Democratic ground, and the more he allows Gecker to define the campaign, and to define Sturtevant himself. Letting your opponent dictate the story of your campaign is never a good thing, and that may mean good things for Gecker in November.

Attacks start in VA Senate 10 race

Political ads are all about defining the candidate in the public eye (and in the media). Negative ads are no different: it's just the candidate is trying to define his or her opponent.

The 10th Senate race is on my mind lately, because it's showing up in my mailbox. Recent mailers from both campaigns suggest the line of attack each candidate will take when bashing the other. Both Democrat Dan Gecker and Glen Sturtevant sent mailers last week attacking their opponent; both were, unsurprisingly, disingenuous.

First, Gecker sent out a mailer promoting his work on education, including his vote on last year's Chesterfield County budget which included funding for additional teachers and, supposedly, reducing class sizes. The ad also makes this claim, though: "Glen Sturtevant is the only school board member who voted against a budget providing funds to reduce class sizes."

The claim is footnoted (as most claims in political ads are now, thankfully) by a May 2015 Richmond Times-Dispatch article. But go to the actual article, and you find that Sturtevant did vote against the budget - for other reasons entirely. The RTD reports:

The lone vote of dissent on the budget came from Glen Sturtevant of the 1st District. Sturtevant favored giving teachers a 2 percent raise and opposed adding professional development days before improving the quality of professional development the school system offers. He said he thinks suburban counties do a better job of finding ways to pay their teachers.

“I thought it important that we find ways to remain competitive,” Sturtevant said.

This may be wrong-headed, but class sizes have nothing to do with it.

Sturtevant's own attack has a stronger leg to stand on. His ad from last week breathlessly claims that Gecker "voted for a property tax increase costing homeowners $3,000,000 more a year." And, unfortunately for Gecker, this is true.

Again, context matters, though. Gecker resisted another board member's call for a 2-3 cent increase and advocated other budget cuts. Sturtevant claims that Gecker "repeatedly advocated for higher tax rates," but there are significant pressures on local government that might make that a sane choice.

In the end, both attacks play into prevailing narratives; the Democrat loves taxes and the Republican hates education. Still, Sturtevant's claims may hurt Gecker more than the reverse. Even back during the Democratic primary, Gecker's vote for a tax increase (in that very 2004 budget he touted in his own ad) was seen as problematic for his campaign. A good rule of thumb in politics is to never be on the "yes" end of a tax increase - particularly close to an election year. We'll see how hard Sturtevant hits this point in the weeks to come.