Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Watkins and Burke Remain Positive on WA-01 Primary - analysis

With some irony, the weather cooled in the Puget Sound this morning after yesterday’s hotly contested primary. Winning teams are cautiously buoyant, and those who didn’t are contemplative. Pundits are running amok in their search to find a new story in their analysis of what was mostly a predictable result. This is my shot.

The results for Washington’s Congressional District 1 were strategically anticipated but the details were not. The reaction is interesting. With more than 75% of ballots on hand counted, incumbent Jay Inslee commands a whopping 57% this afternoon, checking James Watkins’ 27%, humbling Matthew Burke at 12%, and barely acknowledges the surprise of David Schirle’s 4%. In other words, the conservative message, even with all its newfound activism, barely dented Jay Inslee’s armor, taking only 11% off his 2008 general election win of 68%. Jay probably slept well last night.

Because the spread between James Watkins and Matthew Burke was closer than I expected, I called up Matthew to get his thoughts. He was surprisingly upbeat considering his loss. Though disappointed he didn’t do better and contemplative about next steps, he thought his numbers against James Watkins were pretty good considering the relative investment. Burke accounts his success to strong independent voters who want performance over talk, and those who believe in firm constitutional principles. This should be a clear signal to James Watkins, who not only needs to recover those votes but quickly turn the voters into active evangelists. Overcoming the incumbent will take a well-energized wave, not a ripple, and precise messaging on key issues will help him get there.

On a personal note, Matthew said that he learned a lot as a candidate and met many great people along the way. He and his wife, Jennifer, will continue to remain active in politics through their involvement with Tea Party groups. I think we can look forward to seeing more of them again soon.

In my conversation with Donald Rasmussen at the Watkins campaign, he readily acknowledged that the numbers weren’t what they hoped for at either end of the spectrum. On the right, Rasmussen sees the differences between Watkins and Burke primarily as a matter of personal style and framing of the message. He notes that while the tension between campaigns had recently become strained; both Watkins and Burke came out of the Tea Party movement and have a great deal in common. With the primary over, Rasmussen believes the campaign will be able to reach out and reconcile with Burke supporters in the near term. Picking up numbers on the left will be more challenging and rely on a different set of strategies, but will certainly involve balancing social issues with financial conservatism in a way that reflect the needs of a very diverse district. Rasmussen characterized Watkins as a kind of post-partisan candidate, keeping focus on jobs and less spending.

So the question is this: Will James Watkins be able to differentiate himself enough from Jay Inslee to woo moderate independents and Democrats without being labeled a RINO and lose conservative support? The Watkins campaign is optimistic they can. If I had the answer to that I could probably get a job on Fox News, but the simple no-brainer analysis is that retiring Jay Inslee is not going to be a walk in the park. Things that could be on the to-do list?

  1. Reach out quickly and decisively to Burke supporters. This group could account anywhere from 10-20% and they need to be on board early not just as recovered votes but as active evangelists. This is a force multiplier.
  2. Undecided conservatives and independents will need to be more pragmatic in their expectations and think about what is most important to them in the long game. With a Congressional District this diverse, narrow litmus tests may not get them what they want.
  3. More work on policy points and tactics without prevarication. Independents and moderate Democrats will want to see the difference between Watkins and Inslee. Tea Party conservatives will want to see firm commitments to financial conservatism and constitutional principles.

November is coming.

Photos: Left to right James Watkins and Matthew Burke speaking at Kitsap Patriots Tea Party event in Silverdale, WA, August 13, 2010

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