Lessons from Berman, Sherman clash

Lessons from Berman, Sherman clash
Testing California’s new top-two primary system.  

LOS ANGELES—Rep. Howard Berman wasn’t looking at the returns being projected onto a white wall in his Encino campaign office, which was probably a good thing, considering they showed him about five points down to Rep. Brad Sherman. Standing behind a lectern on top of a small stage, the veteran congressman told his cheering supporters, “We have seized the momentum.”

The contest between the two Democratic congressmen was the highest-profile intraparty battle in California, perhaps even the country. It ended, not surprisingly, with both Democrats advancing to the November runoff, but not before about $5.5 million was spent between them.

It’s increasingly clear the Golden State’s new primary system is going to be a boon to political consultants. But this contest, which Sherman took with 42 percent of the vote to Berman’s 32 percent, also highlighted the strategic questions facing consultants working a top-two primary contest.

Under the new system, the top two vote getters in congressional races, and contests for statewide and legislative offices, advance to the November election. So candidates are faced with the prospect of spending heavily throughout the spring to engage with the same opponent they’re likely to face in November. It means early decisions on when to start spending, when to go negative and how to deal with outside groups. Here’s how it played out in the contest between Berman and Sherman.   

When to spend: Berman came into this race at a disadvantage. Sherman had retained about half of his constituents from his old 27th District in the redrawn 30th District. Berman had to introduce himself, but how? The answer, his campaign decided, was to spend about $1 million on cable advertising compared with some $520,000 for Sherman. The early barrage was meant to broaden Berman’s appeal beyond the Democratic base, which is less relevant in the context of the new primary system that’s essentially non-partisan.

“We had a strategy that got us through the primary, but always had an eye on the general election,” Brandon Hall, of the Seattle-based firm Kully Hall, told C&E. “We’ve campaigned to Democrats, Republicans and no-party-preference.”

Sherman, meanwhile, kept his powder dry. “They out cabled us but we out mailed them,” said Parke Skelton, a Pasadena-based consultant for Sherman. “We’re going into the November race with $3 million in the bank.” Berman, Skelton added, “has basically spent down to zero. He’s counting on the Super PAC to fund his operation in November.”

How to deal with a Super PAC in the race: If you’re using the Berman, Sherman contest as a guide, the short answer is nothing. Berman was backed up by an allied Super PAC, The Committee for an Effective Valley Congressman, which was run by Jerry Seedborg, the congressman’s former campaign manager. Sherman’s camp sought to make Seedborg’s role a campaign issue. Moreover, the Super PAC’s presence may have served to confuse donors, some of whom could have opted to give to the PAC as opposed to the campaign directly. Hall brushed off those concerns. “They have no bearing on what our strategy is,” he said. “We want donors to donate to our campaign because we control our own message. We control our own spending.”

When to go negative: Sherman’s campaign opted to hit Berman on overseas junkets he’s taken and on his vote in favor of the Iraq War. Berman’s campaign said Sherman adopted the kitchen-sink strategy while they largely maintained a positive message. “He threw his best shots. We feel like we weathered it and we’re in a better position now than he is for the general election,” said Hall.

Skelton said he had no regrets about the strategy. “I think it was important to point out what the differences in the candidates were.”   

Where to make the pitch: The jungle primary system means that voters pick from the same slate of candidates regardless of their party registration. Sherman targeted his appeal to the Democratic base, using direct mail to draw a contrast with Berman. The Berman camp, on the other hand, spent the additional money to make a broader appeal through cable TV advertising.

“We reached a wider audience with our message,” Hall said. “Even folks who aren’t frequent primary voters saw our message and they’ll be voters in the general. We believe that was a smart strategy.” Berman also highlighted his bipartisanship in an effort to reach out to Republican voters, which worked, according to Hall. “We believe that we got a greater share of the Republican vote.”

But Skelton said the money the Berman camp spent on TV was a waste, in part, because many voters weren’t tuned into the race yet. “I think that was a major tactical difference between the two campaigns,” he said.

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