Yesterday’s U.S. Senate debate between U.S. Senator Al Franken and Republican Mike McFadden was a much different debate than Governor Mark Dayton’s debate with Republican Jeff Johnson and Independence Party candidate Hannah Nicollet.
The performance of the Republican candidates and their campaigns yesterday provided political observers of both races with a clear contrast. The electoral dynamics of the two races are different, but yesterday’s performance by McFadden and his campaign solidified their placement as the top Republican candidate and campaign operation in Minnesota.
McFadden and Johnson both find themselves trailing their DFL opponents in recent polling, but a new poll released today shows a close race between McFadden and Franken. Both Republicans candidates need to work hard for the next 33 days. But while McFadden started yesterday morning like a fresh hot cup of strong coffee, Johnson ended the day like a warm glass of milk and a bedtime story.
During yesterday’s U.S. Senate debate in Duluth, McFadden’s campaign sent out nine rapid response press releases during the debate and two press releases after the debate. McFadden’s campaign was also sending out rapid response tweets during the debate, as did Franken’s campaign. The intensity between Franken and McFadden during the debate also extended to the messaging spin and rapid response from both candidates’ campaigns.
Hours later in Rochester, Dayton continued his text-book execution of a rose garden strategy, which I described to MinnPost as “campaigning by being governor, focusing on his accomplishments and not acknowledging or recognizing there’s a race.” As I wrote in an earlier post today, Dayton was never pressed aggressively by either Johnson or Nicollet in their responses to questions. Dayton was able to message directly to the audience and those watching the debate on TV or online about his record as governor.
Johnson’s self-described “scrappy fighter” persona didn’t make an appearance at the debate last evening in Rochester, nor did his campaign pick up the slack when their candidate failed to perform. Johnson’s campaign did not send out any rapid response press releases during the debate. McFadden’s spokesman Tom Erickson sent out almost 40 tweets and 11 press releases yesterday about the U.S. Senate debate, while Johnson’s communication director Jeff Bakken sent out just 7 tweets and one press release about the gubernatorial debate.
The Minnesota DFL issued two fact-check press releases about inconsistent statements made by Johnson during the debate. The Republican Party of Minnesota issued no fact-check press releases about any statement made by Dayton or Nicollet – a standard practice in debates, as I noted earlier today.
Aside from Johnson’s campaign manager drawing the high card to determine the speaking order for the first question in the debate, I do not know what Johnson’s campaign staff did at the debate. For many communication and political operatives I spoke with today, the lack of any recognizable messaging and political strategy for the debate from Johnson’s campaign was just shocking.
Johnson’s self-proclaimed “scrappy fighter” image has suffered a series of setbacks over the last few weeks. Johnson and his campaign have not followed through on the statements Johnson made in his boxing-themed convention video that “…we are gonna take the fight to Mark Dayton and to his liberal friends.” Republicans who voted at the Republican State Convention in Rochester for Johnson likely endorsed the weakest of the major Republican candidates. I could credibly make the case that any of the other candidates – especially Dave Thompson – would have been a stronger candidate against Dayton than Johnson.
If the race between Dayton and Johnson gets closer, I have my doubts that Johnson and his campaign could do anything to get Johnson over the finish line before Dayton. Johnson describing himself as a “scrappy fighter” was a mistake, as Johnson has not been able to establish himself as anything close to what could described as “scrappy.”
But Republicans do have a “scrappy fighter” running for office with a “scrappy” campaign: Mike McFadden. Republicans, including the staff at Johnson’s campaign, should spend time studying how McFadden and Franken’s campaign responded during the U.S. Senate debate. Johnson’s campaign was much more nimble in the days and weeks before the Republican State Convention. But since winning the Republican primary election, Johnson’s campaign has lost focus and intensity and it really showed yesterday.
Balls & Strikes is a feature on politics.mn focused on examining the tactics and strategies of Minnesota politics, politicians and candidates.