It was a great night nationally. Donald Trump wins. We hold the US Senate, the House and, in Texas, Trump wins 53% to 43%, and we hold statewide offices. It was truly an historic victory for the GOP.
Except in Harris County, Texas.
In a recent TCR article entitled "The Invisible Campaign," we described the vapid joint campaign for Republican candidates hoping to prod County Chair Paul Simpson into getting his act together. Of course, that didn't happen.
In an historic defeat the Harris County GOP lost every countywide race. That's right. We lost all races, including incumbents. Our overall ticket was of high quality, but no casual voter would know it since the campaign focus was "Harris County Works" and Houston doesn't. Did we read about any of our high-quality women running? Not much. Did we read about issues raised by Donald Trump that were resonating with voters? Nope. Did the Simpson-led party even mention Trump? Nope. But didn't the joint campaign become more effective over time? Nope. The Election Day vote numbers were the worst for the Harris County GOP compared to early vote.
Who devised this "joke" joint campaign? Paul Simpson, County Chair, was in charge. When Paul Simpson challenged long-time social conservative chair Jared Woodfill in 2014, he criticized him for a weak showing in 2008 and 2012, and said "he had a plan" to get the party back on track.
Well in 2008 and 2012, we won many countywide races while Obama was sweeping the country. This year, Trump sweeps and we get nothing. Based on the Woodfill standard, Simpson's utter and complete failure calls for his resignation so the party can bring in new visionary leadership that can begin to rebuild the decimated Republican Party in Harris County.
The fact is, the 2018 election starts today and waiting until the 2018 primary to oust Paul Simpson could be too late for our ticket, including our many great judges, in 2018.
This is not about ego! It is not about who is in charge. It's about the survival of the GOP in Harris County.
It's the Message, Stupid. The HCRP Can Learn Something from the 2016 Election
By Marc Cowart, Managing Editor
In the 1992 campaign for President, Governor Bill Clinton and his campaign staff had signs taped up throughout their campaign offices that read, "It's the Economy, Stupid!" The signs were a reminder to stay on message and hammer the issue (the economy) that resonated most with the electorate at that time. It was a smart tactic and one that dashed the re-election hopes of President George H.W. Bush.
In the 2016 campaign for President, Trump also had an easy to understand and aspirational message - "Make America Great Again." It was an effective message, because it celebrated the greatness of America, but with the recognition that we had slipped in recent years; but with the hope that we could restore greatness (by using the word "Again"). The genius of the Trump message is that it allowed each voter to apply his or her own definition of greatness. It was also effective for its ability to tap into a collective desire for change by those dissatisfied by the status quo, which was Trump's ideological base. Finally, it was memorable - you would be hard-pressed to find an adult in America who could not connect "Make America Great Again" with Donald Trump.
Trump's message was criticized by at least one of his rivals who said, "It's easy to say, 'Make America Great Again', you can even put it on a baseball cap." Yes, that's the point. A message should be simple but powerful. It should also be direct so that no one wonders what is its meaning. It should stick and be memorable. And yeah, it should probably fit on a baseball cap or a bumper sticker. That's marketing that works. You will probably not have much difficulty associating any of the following slogans with their brand or product - "Just Do It", "Melts in Your Mouth, Not in Your Hands", "Don't Leave Home Without It", "Hope and Change", "Plop, Plop, Fizz, Fizz, Oh What a Relief it is" and "Where's the Beef?" - which speaks to the effectiveness of the message.
Which brings us to the case of the Harris County Republican Party and the shellacking that its candidates took on Election Day. Remember, this was the largest defeat suffered in HCRP history. Just four years ago, critics (including the current chairman) of then-Chairman Jared Woodfill called for his head in response to Romney's loss to Obama in Harris County by 920 votes (2%) and the loss of about half the judges on the ballot. This year, by contrast, Hillary Clinton won by over 160,000 votes (12%) and we lost EVERY SINGLE countywide race.
And what was the Republican message this year? - "Harris County Works." It doesn't exactly have the aspirational ring of "Make America Great Again" or even Hillary's "Stronger Together." And it definitely does not tap into the desire for change sentiment resonating across the nation. It is very much a message of "everything is ok here, let's maintain the status quo." Those were my feelings going into the election, but I had to wonder if I was way off base, so I decided to get the opinions of voters in my area who aren't in the political echo chamber. The results confirmed what I suspected - people were confused and uninspired by the slogan. Most thought that it had something to do with street repair and drainage ditches. Hmmm...no, I think that is "Public Works", not "Harris County Works." The next common response is that it referred to low unemployment in Harris County. Again, not the intended result of the message.
I think with not much effort, that the HCRP could have crafted a message that worked. The North Carolina Republican Party had a slogan I preferred over the one here; it was, "North Carolina Judges: Our Last Line of Defense." The advertisement that I saw with that slogan featured 6 judicial candidates and, in case you were wondering, 5 of those 6 won their contests. In Harris County, we lost 24 out of 24 district court races, plus the Sheriff, Tax Assessor and District Attorney.
Speaking of North Carolina, you may recall that it was a state that was both extremely competitive (Clinton led in every major poll) and critical to the Trump victory. The Republican and Trump Campaign ground game strategy differed significantly from that of the Democrats and Clinton and is considered a significant factor in the Election Day results. The Republican/Trump model was high-touch, concentrating on paid staff and volunteers out knocking on doors and making calls. The Democrat/Clinton approach was more of a brick-and-mortar/television ad approach. For example, at the end of August the Clinton Campaign had 19 field offices in North Carolina compared to 0 for Trump (although Trump was planning to open his first one at that time.) During that same time period, Trump had reserved less than $1 million in television advertising compared to Clinton's $20 million. The NC GOP Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse had this to say about the ground game, "The entire model is to put more people in the field and less money in brick and mortar." In the day after the election, Woodhouse continued that refrain saying, "...brick and mortar just doesn't work." That is an interesting observation that the HCRP may want to consider in light of the fact that they bought in heavily to the brick-and-mortar strategy with a total of 7 offices across the county.
There is no question that many Harris County Republican grassroots activists worked hard to elect Republicans; but with the meaningless and ineffective "Harris County Works" message in their arsenal, the blame cannot be placed on them for this historic loss. What the grassroots need is a message - one that is inspiring, relevant and effective - a marketing campaign and the support they need (including paid operatives who are in the field, not an office) to give them the tools they need to be effective. 2018 represents an opportunity to regroup and recover from this undeniable failure.
"Harris County Works" did not work now and will not work in the future. It's the message, stupid, and we need a new one.
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About Your Editor
11-11-16: Election Post-Mortem
Gary Polland is a long-time conservative and Republican spokesman, fund-raiser, and leader who completed three terms as the Harris County Republican Chairman. During his three terms, Gary was described as the most successful county Chairman in America by Human Events - The National Conservative Weekly. He is in his nineteenth year of editing a newsletter dealing with key conservative and Republican issues. The last fifteen years he has edited Texas Conservative Review. As a public service for the last 13 years, Gary has published election guides for the GOP primary, general elections and city elections, all with the purpose of assisting conservative candidates. Gary is also in his 15th year of co-hosting Red, White and Blue on PBS Houston, longest running political talk show in Texas history. Gary is a practicing attorney and strategic consultant. He can be reached at (713) 621-6335.