There’s a lot of science behind running political campaigns, but it’s anything but certain how best to reach voters and earn their votes.
Every single decision, from who to cast in a television ad, what topics to address and how to address them, when to spend money and when to hold onto it to something as simple as whether to use stock images of random people on campaign literature, can sway a campaign for better or worse.
St. Petersburg City Council member Darden Rice’s campaign might be making the wrong choices.
On the same day a poll found her knocked from the top two candidates in the race, a third mailer hit voters’ mailboxes Friday tying opponent Ken Welch to former President Donald Trump.
The claims are laughable, they smack of desperation, and voters are taking notice.
Former St. Pete City Council member Charlie Gerdes perhaps put it best, expressing his frustration with the onslaught of negative attacks with a dose of appropriately placed sarcasm, issuing a BOLO for Welch.
“The man pictured below is a person of interest in charges made by the Donald Trump Supporter Police (DTSP) for finding and advancing common ground, listening to and discussing solutions with, accepting support and endorsements from, and (God forbid) maybe even having friendships with people that supported and voted for Donald J. Trump,” Gerdes wrote on Facebook.
For the uninitiated, Gerdes was referencing claims arguing that because Welch has been endorsed by Republicans, and has contributions from them, he absolutely must be a Trump acolyte.
Welch does have endorsements from Republicans, some of whom indeed backed, at one point or another, the former President. There are some donors, too. But, in an act of pure hypocrisy, Rice’s campaign has taken in thousands from Republicans herself, many of whom fit the Trump-supporting bill.
Some critics were more direct.
“This shouldn’t need to be said, but in every way, @Kenwelch is the opposite of Donald Trump. The recent mailers targeting Ken are paid for by Trump supporters/Friends of Darden Rice. Don’t be swayed by this foolishness. Ken is a progressive who draws broad support in every way,” incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman, who endorsed Welch, tweeted.
This shouldn't need to be said, but in every way, @Kenwelch is the opposite of Donald Trump. The recent mailers targeting Ken are paid for by Trump supporters/Friends of Darden Rice. Don't be swayed by this foolishness. Ken is a progressive who draws broad support in every way.
— Rick Kriseman (@Kriseman) July 22, 2021
Indeed, Welch served as a delegate for President Joe Biden. That’s not very Trumpy. His campaign platform reads more like a Democrat’s dream than a dystopian TrumpWorld vision. He once got into a verbal spat with then-fellow County Commissioner Kathleen Peters after she took issue with Welch’s use of a Black Lives Matter street mural as a Zoom background. At last check, Trump wasn’t keen on Black Lives Matter supporters.
Scott Wagman, a prominent St. Pete businessman and former mayoral candidate, put it like this.
“An almost comical distortion of Ken Welch’s supporters was disseminated in a mailing by ‘Friends of Darden Rice.’ It attempts to smear Ken by linking him with the Trump supporter faction of the Republican Party,” Wagman wrote. “The truth is that Ken has a 20 year history of collaboration with constitutional officers and other elected officials that has greatly benefitted the citizens of St. Petersburg.”
In a subsequent post, he furthered his critique of the campaign strategy, calling for Rice to apologize.
“Instead, in her desperation as her polling shows a loss of support, she doubles down even more outrageously in her attack on Ken. Clearly she co authored and/or approved the message of the ridiculous mailers.”
Now Rice has tripled down. And before anyone uses the, but it was a third-party mailer from her PAC, argument, remember that she herself levied these claims at Welch during a recent candidate forum.
Also consider that the person managing her political committee is Meagan Salisbury of Blue Ticket Consulting. Salisbury, a smart operative for whom I have good deal of respect, is frequently quoted as a campaign spokesperson.
And let’s face it, she should know better.
Salisbury runs Blue Ticket with her husband, Tom Alte. Look back two years and note that Alte managed a City Council campaign for Orlando Acosta, which he lost to incumbent Ed Montanari. Like Rice’s campaign, Alte was behind a spate of campaign literature attempting to tie Montanari to Trump.
If it didn’t work then against an actual Republican, what makes them think it will work this time against a Democrat who has publicly documented opposition to Trump?
Let’s not sugar coat, this is a foolhardy campaign strategy, and as Wagman alluded, it has desperation written all over it.
The campaign had no way of knowing when they sent the most recent mailer how the attacks would affect polling. Now they do. Rice, once considered the top dog in the race, now finds herself in third place and flirting dangerously with elimination Aug. 24.
Welch, meanwhile, is untouched. He remains the top-polling candidate and leads hypothetical General Election match-ups against both Robert Blackmon, a Republican, and Rice.
Clearly the mailers show Rice’s campaign saw Welch as her top competition. But they ignored Blackmon and the fact that even though St. Pete has a solid advantage for Democrats based on voter registration, there are still nearly 50,000 conservative voters in the city. If any candidate could reasonably be tied to Trump, it’s Blackmon, who refused in an interview with Florida Politics’ Janelle Irwin to say whether he ever supported the former President.
Of course, attacking Blackmon with the Trump label would probably do little — his support largely relies on Republicans and independents. Blackmon leads among both. Neither demographic is likely to be significantly swayed by the Trump issue. So in that regard, the strategy seems to make sense. But at least with Blackmon, Rice wouldn’t have been laughed out of the top two.
Time will tell whether the Rice campaign will backtrack or if they will quadruple down in hopes that polls aren’t capturing the true effect of Trump’s influence on local politics.
But she would be wise to knock it off, move on to something else and go back to the substantive issues for which she has a good record. She should have never deviated from them in the first place.