How Steve Cooley Blew It: The Definitive Post-Mortem
Whatever the outcome of the attorney general's race, it's clear that Steve Cooley led most of the way and then blew it in the final days.
That's because Cooley ran a tentative and complacent campaign. If he loses, and trends suggest he will, it will be thanks to several tactical mistakes, an indifference to stumping for votes, and a gaffe on pensions.
Cooley can also blame Meg Whitman, whose 12-point loss probably sealed his defeat. But the fact remains that he could have won with a more aggressive campaign. Herewith, a post-mortem analysis.
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Kamala Harris declared her intention to run for attorney general in the afterglow of the 2008 presidential race. She was a rising star, a member in good standing of Generation Obama. Like the president, she was a biracial candidate who had proven she could attract white votes.
But the glow wore off as Obama's approval ratings dipped, and by the time Steve Cooley entered the race early this year, Harris was all but written off.
She was a San Franisco liberal. She opposed the death penalty. In an anti-Obama year, she was an Obama clone.
Polls consistently showed her trailing Cooley by about five points, though a large chunk of the electorate remained undecided. Conventional wisdom held that he would do well in L.A. County, his home turf, because he was seen as a competent prosecutor, not a partisan Republican.
But despite being out-raised and outspent, Harris waged an effective campaign. Meanwhile, Cooley rested on his lead.
Trailing in the polls, Harris was the first to go on the attack. Her campaign tried to knock the halo off Cooley's head, running ads that highlighted his acceptance of gifts such as cigars, wine and suits.
There was nothing illegal about the gifts, but the Harris campaign used them to portray Cooley as self-interested, even corrupt.
The Harris campaign scored a coup at the only debate of the campaign, on Oct. 5, when L.A. Times reporter Jack Leonard asked Cooley if he would "double dip" by accepting both his pension and his attorney general's salary of $150,000.
In a show of staggering tone deafness, Cooley not only defended double dipping, but complained about the low salary of the attorney general.
"I've definitely earned whatever pension rights I have and I will certainly rely on that to supplement the very low, incredibly low salary that's paid to the state attorney general," Cooley said.
The remark robbed Cooley of any moral high ground he might have won by taking on Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo, who became a poster child for public employee pension abuse by engineering a $1 million retirement.
The Harris campaign quickly turned Cooley's response into an ad, which asked "$150,000 isn't enough?"
Cooley's answer on pensions blunted the distinction between himself and Robert Rizzo
Photo by Ted Soqui
Cooley, meanwhile, did not respond with any negative ads until Oct. 18, the last two weeks of the campaign. This was not for lack of material, but Cooley didn't use most of it. Unlike the Harris campaign, Cooley's aides didn't work to plant a series of negative stories about his opponent in the media, which would have put her campaign on defense.
In the end, he mostly attacked Harris for not pursuing the death penalty for the killer of a San Francisco cop. The Republican State Leadership Committee amplified the attack, pumping $1.6 million into an independent campaign that hit Harris on the death penalty.
The overall effect of the attacks, however, was one-dimensional.
Meanwhile, Cooley didn't do much to make the case for himself. He banked on his endorsements from newspapers and law enforcement groups
and took a lax approach to face-to-face campaigning. At the same time, Harris kept up a rigorous schedule of stumping in black churches to build up her support in L.A.
On the Sunday before the vote, her schedule included appearances at six church services -- a feat of stamina and logistics.
"She did everything short of move to L.A.," said Ace Smith, Harris' campaign manager*. "She just dedicated herself to that project."
Cooley did very little to contest L.A., aside from announcing charges in the Bell corruption scandal. In the final weekend of the race, he held a couple of events with Latino and Asian leaders. But he didn't put himself in front of large audiences.
Meg Whitman didn't help either
Certainly, Harris benefited from the epic collapse of Meg Whitman. Cooley was leading Harris in the polls at the same time that Whitman was tied with Jerry Brown in the race for governor.
But when Whitman's campaign fell apart, it hurt Republicans down the ticket -- mostly Cooley.
The final Field Poll showed Brown beating Whitman by 10 points. In the same poll, Harris trailed Cooley by 1 point, meaning that she was underperforming Brown by 11 points.
On Election Night, Brown outperformed the final poll, beating Whitman by about 12 points. Harris still trailed Brown by 11, but his late two-point surge was enough to pull Harris across the finish line.
If Harris' advantage holds up, she could have a bright future in state politics. She is 46. In four years or eight, she could be a front-runner to follow Brown again into the governor's chair.
Cooley, meanwhile, is not expected to seek a fourth term as district attorney in 2012. Being attorney general would have been the capstone on a successful career.
Now, it seems he'll have to settle for that pension.
Update, Nov. 24: In the conference call conceding the race, Cooley consultant Kevin Spillane took issue with the idea that Cooley didn't do enough to stump for votes.
"Steve gave us everything we asked of him," Spillane said. In a down-ballot campaign in California, he argued, "there's no such thing as retail politics."
The Harris campaign clearly felt otherwise. Beyond whatever direct benefit Cooley might have gotten from appearing in front of actual voters, holding some campaign events would have given him a much-needed bump in "earned media." For reporters following Cooley's campaign, there just wasn't much to cover.
That's because the Cooley campaign fundamentally believed it had to do two things: raise money and run TV commercials. After blaming all the external forces beyond the campaign's control, Spillane said the one thing they could have done differently was... raise more money and run more commercials.
"We had hoped to spend $4-5 million on TV," Spillane said. "We spent less than half that... We did the best we could on fundraising. [But] we didn't have the money we needed to go on Bay Area TV."
*Corrected. An earlier version erroneously stated that Smith was Cooley's campaign manager.
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