Delaware state Senator Colin Bonini, a Republican from South Dover and a political fixture in the First State, filed his candidacy for state treasurer in August of this year. While he was certain this race would be a trial, he was relatively confident of a win given the pro-GOP wind that was rushing across the country.
In the end, he lost a very close race. Much of the responsibility for his loss is attributable to the drag at the top of the ticket from Republican Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell. O’Donnell became a prime target for Republican opponents attempting to characterize Tea Party candidates as extremists, and a Pew Research Center study from November confirmed that she received more media attention than any other candidate for office in 2010.
Ultimately, O’Donnell’s presence on the ballot did as much if not more to mobilize the state’s Democratic majority as it did to inspire the Republican base. Although Bonini admits that there were efforts that he could have undertaken to minimize the effects of the drag caused by O’Donnell, he says that his biggest obstacle was countering the negative media attention her candidacy attracted and the resulting inattention he received from the state Republican Party.
Bonini did not expend significant effort or money on voter ID or GOTV because, he says, those efforts are the responsibility of the state and national party. But when O’Donnell won the state’s Senatorial primary against longtime U.S. Representative Mike Castle, the party pulled its support from the state in favor of the many other races that Republicans were competitive in this cycle. “They literally pulled the phones out on midnight, the night of the primary,” recalls Bonini. “There were literally phones hanging out of the wall.”
Bonini is careful not to blame anyone other than himself for his loss and acknowledges that he was careless in neglecting to focus on GOTV, thinking that the state Republican Party had it covered. “They paid for statewide voter identification and GOTV and they were going to include us,” says Bonini. “When [Castle] lost, they pulled the funding for that program.”
“The biggest obstacle was tactical,” Bonini says. “We had no effective GOTV effort at all. I relied on the party and those races up the ticket.”
Bonini instead put most of his funds into advertising, including mailers and radio ads. He also invested in primarily positive robocalls that focused on his biography. “I am a believer in those,” he says. “First, they are inexpensive. Second, if the message is pleasant, positive and brief, I think people can get a good impression out of it.”
While Bonini says he got good mileage from the robocalls, he would have redirected resources towards GOTV if he had known how important it was at the time. “[The Democrats] had teams on the ground dragging people to polls,” he says. “Down-ballot races rarely have the resources to do it, but we would have pulled resources from traditional media to get that done.”
Bonini went on to lose narrowly, 51 to 49 percent. The only Republican to win a statewide election in Delaware this year was incumbent state auditor, Tom Wagner, who won by less than half a percent. “He usually wins by at least 15 points,” says Bonini.
The lesson? Pay attention to your GOTV strategy, and where it falls short, spare no expense to shore it up. Senator Bonini learned this the hard way. Ignore GOTV at your peril; you can be sure your opponent will not.
Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org