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.