Sen. Udall’s Heckler and Handling Negative Information

For all the time spent talking, political campaigns are usually such well-orchestrated affairs. But every now and then, a seemingly random event vocalizes a key point – something proviously unspoken, but unquestionably known.  (Think the “macaca moment” of 2006, when the electorate was already whispering about then-Sen. George Allen, “Isn’t he kind of racist?”)

Sen. Mark Udall had a moment like that yesterday, when a donor – a donor! – called him out on his stuck-in-2012 war-on-women rhetoric about opponent Cory Gardner:

Then, finally, came the only reference to policy in Udall’s speech. “And by the way, I’m proud to stand with Colorado’s women,” he said, almost as an aside. “I’m proud to stand for reproductive freedom.”

An angry voice from the crowd jeered: “That’s not the only thing you stand for! Jesus Christ!”… The heckler was Leo Beserra, a 73-year-old who made millions on Wall Street and, since the early 1990s, has shared a generous slice of that wealth with Colorado Democrats.

Beserra’s grievance – that the senator’s narrow focus on abortion has backfired – is shared by others in the party, but rarely voiced in public and never in the midst of the candidate’s campaign speech.

That brought to mind a lesson we used to teach back at the Leadership Institute about handling negative information. The details come from an election in the 1960s or 1970s where the incumbent candidate had an affair. The tryst had been exposed by a sex tape, created in the days where that meant an audiocassette; the raunchy content made it impossible for newspapers to cover (not to mention radio). That didn’t prevent wide distribution, and soon most reporters and editors had heard the tape. Copies had been made and distributed to friends and friends-of-friend, and the philandering candidate (philandidate?) saw his poll numbers wane.

Then the challenger mentioned the tape as a joke in a public speech.

The joke went over well, but gave the newspapers license to cover the tape – and, more specifically, the challenger’s comments. It wasn’t long before the incumbent’s wife was on TV, decrying the challenger’s rudeness at bringing up such a private matter. The incumbent won a narrow reelection victory.

It’s not a perfect analogue, but Democrat candidates are imploding all over the place – whether it’s Martha Coakley’s even-I-know-this-is-BS rhetorical gymnastics in the Massachusetts gubernatorial race or Texas’s Wendy Davis repeatedly trying to point out that her opponents has overcome a crippling handicap. Republican operatives should let it happen – and not try to clumsily squeeze every drop of negative press out of an incident.

If I were advising Cory Gardner or an outside group looking to help tip the scales, I’d tell them to let the reporters have fun with Mark Udall getting heckled by his own supporter. First, a supporter of Udall has much more credibility when he says the “War on Women” crap is getting tired, and he probably speaks for lots of Democrats who are tired of hearing the same songs played again. Second, it reminds voters that the Democrats have plenty of deep pockets on their donor lists, too. That’s the story the reporters are telling.

Trying to weigh in would change the story – and not for the better.

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