Tuesday Night's Primary Recap: an Interview with GOPAC's Frank Donatelli and David Avella

C&E: Was there a theme to Tuesday’s primary elections?   Donatelli: If there is a theme, it is the power of the outsider candidate—the battles in each party between so-called outsiders and establishment candidates.

C&E: Was there a theme to Tuesday’s primary elections?

Donatelli: If there is a theme, it is the power of the outsider candidate—the battles in each party between so-called outsiders and establishment candidates. There were tough primaries in Colorado, Georgia and Connecticut with varying results, but clearly this continues to be the year of the outsider as far as national politics is concerned.

Avella: Message maters. Money matters. Momentum matters. Also, the candidate matters, and the campaigns they run are important. Linda McMahon’s message and the money she put into [her race] was critical. Ken Buck’s ability to unite grassroots conservatives (although Jane Norton did as well), was what put him over the top. The same was true in Georgia. All ran competitive message-oriented campaigns. 


C&E: It doesn’t seem that Ken Buck’s latest gaffes impacted his turnout at all.

Avella: [Buck’s gaffes] may have had an appreciable impact; there is no telling how wide his margin of victory would have been without them. Did it impact a couple thousand voters? It might have. Everything matters that late in a race. 

C&E: Outsider candidates performed well on the GOP side, but can the same be said about the Democratic side?

Donatelli: Incumbent [Michael] Bennet survived, and that was by far the biggest contest. The Democrats did not have much of a primary night in Georgia or Connecticut, so I’m not sure if you can tell that much by one contest. For an incumbent senator to go to such lengths is unusual but, still, he survived. Incumbents have had tough campaigns in Pennsylvania, where [Arlen] Specter lost, and in Arkansas, where Blanche Lincoln was in trouble. This is the year for outsider candidates and, fortunately for my party, that theme plays much easier [for us] in the general.  

C&E: How competitive will the Connecticut races be? The polls don’t show much of a contest now.

Avella: There are few races where Republicans cannot be competitive. The money and momentum is on the GOP side [in 2010]. In many races, while not all, they have the money, the message and the momentum. Message and money go hand in hand; you don’t have to match dollar for dollar. Money is not always the deciding factor, but it is important. That narrative will be tested in Florida in their primary races on the 24th.

Donatelli: Connecticut’s Linda McMahon will have sufficient moneys, and [Connecticut Attorney General] Richard Blumenthal is untested. While Connecticut is a more moderate state than some others, a lot of the administration’s economic policies are not popular there either. For those reasons, I think Connecticut will be more competitive than people and the polls are saying it will be now. Remember, it started as a huge blowout, but now I have seen polls that are down to ten points.

C&E: Many of the polls going into these races did not reflect the results. Were you disappointed in the early polling?

Avella: Polling is a snapshot in time, and it is impacted by the sample interviewed. That said, it is hard to judge turnout and the ground game operation of any given campaign based on polls. Bennet had a better [ground game] than [Andrew] Romanoff, who was running on fumes and didn’t have the party structure behind him. Norton and Buck had great turnout operations; Buck just had a better one. Those campaigns that live and die by the polls have very stressful election days.

C&E: If Karen Handel loses in Georgia, as it appears now that she might, what does it say about the vaunted 2010 wave of Republican women governors?

Donatelli: Some win and some lose. Just because there is a wave doesn’t mean that a particular gender will always win. It is a very close race, and it looks like [Nathan] Deal will win, but I don’t know if that invalidates the story line that there are a lot of women leading the GOP tickets. There are still a large number of GOP women that are poised to run strong races. It is a story to watch.

Avella: Even if Karen Handel loses, there are still very impressive candidates in Nikki Haley, Susana Martinez and Meg Whitman. If Handel loses, it doesn’t mean that GOP women are not having success. The face of the party is going to be very different after 2010—in a good way. Finally, the diversity that is in the party will start showing.

Donatelli: There are possibly a large number of Hispanic Republicans [that will be making gains in 2010]; Marco Rubio, Brian Sandoval and Susana Martinez. If some of those candidates are successful, I think you will see a far different GOP than in the past.

Avella: The GOP has a very diverse ticket to present before voters.


C&E: The White House is touting Bennet’s win in Colorado as a victory for them. In the media, the narrative is that the center of the Democrat party has won out over the left-wing, and that will make it easier for Democrats to limit their losses in November. Do you agree? 

Avella: No! The White House is celebrating intraparty scrimmages that were won by eight points like they won the Super Bowl. This is the environment we are in. Look at the headlines: Michael Bennet’s win in Colorado is the big victory for Barack Obama? This is how bad it is for the White House.

Donatelli: I don’t know if there will be that much difference between Bennet and Romanoff as the Democratic standard-bearer. Romanoff could have run against Washington, Bennet cannot. He is an incumbent from the majority party and will have to defend the administration’s record, which is not popular right now.

C&E: DNC Chairman Tim Kaine is in Colorado today mending wounds from a contentious primary season. How will the unity drive play out? Was this cycle as divisive for Republicans as it may have been for Democrats?

Donatelli: In certain states, yes. The Republicans had some tough primaries in some states that were very divisive. Party leaders and candidates will have to get together and unify around the winner.

Avella: Divisiveness is a race-by-race situation. It depends on how successful the victor can be in wrapping his arm around the defeated opponent. Some campaigns are good at that and some aren’t.

Donatelli: I like our chances going forward. Once the Administration’s alternative becomes clear, I really believe that voters in those states will focus clearly and quickly on the choices candidates will be drawing this fall.

Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at nrothman@campaignsandelections.com

DAVID AVELLADavid A. Avella is currently serving as the Executive Director of GOPAC, the Republican Party’s premier education and training organization. Avella is also the Managing Partner of Donatelli Avella, Inc., a national political communications firm. Mr. Avella has been a close advisor to Chairman Michael Steele since 2001. Mr. Avella has created communications and advised campaigns and clients throughout the country.  As a Senior Advisor to GOPAC and a former faculty member for the Republican National Committee’s Nuts and Bolts Seminars, Avella has trained thousands of candidates and political operatives on running successful political campaigns. Avella also speaks at political conferences across the country.


FRANK DONATELLIFrank Donatelli is the Chairman of GOPAC. Most recently, Chairman Donatelli was asked by Senator John McCain to serve as the Deputy Chairman of the Republican National Committee during the 2008 presidential elections. His previous appointments have included serving as an Assistant to President Reagan for Political and Intergovernmental Affairs, and as Deputy Assistant to the President for Public Liaison at the White House. Mr. Donatelli served on White House Chief of Staff James Baker’s team that negotiated the 1984 presidential debates, a role he reprised as a Senior Advisor to Bob Dole in 1996. Donatelli was also a Regional Political Director for Ronald Reagan and was active in the presidential campaigns of George H.W. Bush.

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