First, should he run? I was talking to an old state politics veteran the other day, and he said that Martin is “too smart” to get in the race. This fellow reasoned that Martin, a rising star in the party, would wait for a slam dunk. After all, he could just as easily flame out (see: Ballantine, Patrick). And a Senate race against a nationally-connected incumbent in a Presidential year is an uphill battle for even the most seasoned veteran. So why should Martin get in the race? I would argue that it’s precisely because he’s a rising star. Even if he loses, he will have spent a year and a half building statewide name recognition, building support with party activists, and talking to voters in their living rooms. He will have gone from obscure state legislator to one of the most prominent faces of the NC Democratic Party. Then, in 2010, he would have a number of options. He would be a frontrunner against Richard Burr, or he could run for U.S. House if Brad Miller decides to run against Burr. With a sizeable fundraising network and considerable name recognition, he could improve on his results from 2008. In other words, there’s no down side to running.
But how can he win? Dole won’t be easy to beat – she’s a well-funded, nationally-connected Washington insider in a conservative state. To me, it’s obvious that we need to take a page from recent history – say, 2006. A relatively unknown Democrat, Jim Webb, takes on a well-funded, nationally-connected Washington insider named George Allen. Remember, when Webb got in the race, Allen was making trips to Iowa and South Carolina to audition for the White House. A macaca or two later, and he’s packing up his office. The Webb campaign was a thing of beauty, and many of its strategies capitalized on peculiarities of Virginia politics, strategies we can’t field here in North Carolina. But there are, I think, some basic lessons from the Webb campaign that would go a long way towards giving us Senator Grier Martin (D-N.C.):
1. Be the populist candidate. Too often, Democrats let Republicans co-opt the language and ideas of populism for their silly “culture war.” We become mealy-mouthed and long-winded, while the GOP gasbags are claiming to speak for families. Jim Webb never backed down from his message of economic populism, and it resonated in Virginia. Economic populism can work in North Carolina, especially against some like Sen. Dole, who consistently votes against North Carolina’s families.
2. Be the military candidate. Jim Webb, a bona-fide war hero, made sure that every voter in Virginia knew that he was the only candidate who had put his life on the line for our country. When he talked about Iraq, he spoke as a decorated veteran and the father of a Marine. This message resonated with voters in Virginia, a state with a large military population. Like Webb, Martin has served in uniform, and can speak to the issues the concern military families. Elizabeth Dole has a consistent track record of voting against our veterans, and who better to call her on it than a veteran?
3. Be the North Carolina candidate. One of the most powerful narratives the Webb campaign developed was that of the absentee George Allen. Instead of listening to the people of Virginia and standing up for them, he was taking trips to Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. He was more interested in being President than in being Senator, and Jim Webb called him out on it. Similarly, Martin should highlight the fact that Sen. Dole is almost never in North Carolina, and she’s more of a Washington insider than a North Carolinian. People feel very strongly about the cultural difference between someone from North Carolina and a career politician from D.C. Martin should never hesitate to mention that he’s the candidate for North Carolina communities.
4. Be the aggressive candidate. When voters are upset, they want their candidate to be upset. In 2006, voters were upset with the direction of the country. They were impatient about Iraq, disgusted with ethical scandals, and angry about Katrina. Accordingly, Jim Webb ran an aggressive campaign that held George Allen accountable for what was going on in the capital. He never appeared angry or unhinged, but he definitely seemed outraged. The mood may be different in 2008, but the approach should be the same. In 2008, I predict that the electorate will largely be looking for “freshness” – a new start. This is good news for all challengers, obviously. But the key is to stay on the aggressive, constantly pushing the ways that the candidate represents a new page in our history. With Martin, it could be his youth, his service, his philosophy, etc.
Seems to me that Grier Martin has no excuse for not getting in the race. And once he’s in, he has a very good shot of becoming a U.S. Senator, provided he follows the cues from the Webb-Allen race. So I say, “Run, Grier, run.”