Democrats Needed Money — And Other Assets As Well

January 4, 2011

Phoenix Democrat Eric Meyer has campaigned both ways, participating once as a Clean Elections candidate and once not.  In a competitive legislative district, he won both times.

His experience proves, perhaps, that money isn’t everything.  But it sure helps.

 Meyer represents Republican-leaning District 11, which stretches from the affluent northeast part of the city into Paradise Valley and Scottsdale.  Running clean, he was helped along by the Democratic surge in 2008 to eke out a victory for the state House.  Then, running traditional, he survived the Democratic purge of 2010 to become one of the few of his party representing a competitive district to win re-election.

Eric Meyer

Eric Meyer

Although Democrats won one of District 11’s two House seats in 2006, 2008 and 2010, Meyer disputes that the district is truly competitive.  Facing a voter registration disadvantage that favors Republicans by 12 percentage points, Meyer says he is “digging out of a deep hole.”

The added funds he had at his disposal in 2010 turned out to be indispensable, but there was much more to his victory than that.  It’s a case study of all that it takes for a Democrat to win in a district that tilts Republican.

Formidable Assets

  • He is presentable, well-spoken, smart, with a solid academic and professional background.  In addition to holding an undergraduate degree in economics, he is an M.D. who ran the emergency medicine department of a major hospital in Portland, OR.
  • He has been well-served by his first elected position, going back to 2004, on the board of the Scottsdale Unified School District.  The seat has provided him the aura of being pro-education – in an affluent district that values education – as well as providing him with more overall exposure.  Because legislative candidates face the problem of very low name recognition among voters, his simultaneous campaigns in 2008 for re-election to the school board and election to the Legislature reinforced each other rather than being dilutive.
  • He is a tireless campaigner, bicycling around the district to knock on, he says, “thousands of doors.”  The visits are just part of a campaign that also included carpeting the district many times over with mail pieces and heavy phone canvassing.  In his words, “you have to touch voters multiple times to get their vote.”
  • He quite deliberately glides his bike right past the homes of Democrats to visit independents and Republicans.  Other Democratic candidates look somewhat enviously at District 11 Republicans who they see as more reasonable than the hardened beliefs of Republican voters they find in some other areas.  Nonetheless, Meyer encounters plenty of constituents who “yell at you and crumple up your literature.”  Undeterred, he maintains that seeking out those of the opposite persuasion provides valuable insight into what’s upsetting people, sharpens one’s message, and every so often wins over a voter. 
  • As the only Democrat vying with two Republicans for two House seats, he unabashedly runs a “single-shot campaign” asking voters to cast only one of the two votes they’re entitled to make for the House.  The argument he makes is: Vote just for him; don’t cancel out its effect by also voting for one of his opponents.

Meyer is not alone in any one of these traits.  He is not the only M.D. in the Legislature; nor the only legislator who doubles as a school board member; nor the only candidate to use a bike to go door-to-door; nor the only one who, with varying degrees of follow-through, targets voters with opposing viewpoints; nor the only one who runs a single-shot campaign.  But he might be among the few to put together the whole package.

More Hostile Environment

Even so, he had to scramble – and scramble hard – in 2010.

He and other Democrats had a favorable wind at their backs in 2008.  Not so in this past election.  The anti-Democrat, anti-incumbent mood, which in Arizona was to sweep seven Democratic legislators out of office, created a hostile environment.

And on top of that, one of his District 11 opponents was raising a mint to run against him.  Republican Kate Brophy McGee ended up with a campaign fund of $163,000, including a loan she made to herself of $91,000.  It made the District 11 campaign the most expensive in the state.  See listing.

Two years earlier, Meyer had been recruited by the Democratic Party at the last minute to run as a write-in candidate in the primary election.  That left him little choice for financing the campaign other than to hurriedly qualify for Clean Elections funding.

But it was not a choice with which he was particularly happy.

Downside of Clean Elections

Meyer objects on philosophical grounds.  Almost all Clean Elections funding comes from a surcharge on court penalties and a voluntary $5 check-off on state income taxes.  Even though the funding sources are different, he felt hypocritical accepting public money to run for office while the Scottsdale school district was laying off teachers.

There are practical considerations as well.  In competitive districts, independent political committees – which by definition must operate without input from the candidates – take over a larger portion of the action when their candidates don’t have the funds to fend for themselves.  Meyer noticed “signs going up and mailers going out” on his behalf – without his knowledge and outside of his control.  Independent political committees ended up spending twice as much on his behalf as the $44,000 he had available to spend on himself.

Part of that amount was matching funds he received from Clean Elections because his two privately-funded Republican opponents were outspending him.  But the extra funds were distributed at the end of October – too late to do much, at least intelligently, with the money. 

Immediately after his election, he began laying the groundwork for 2010.  He eventually raised a total of $106,000.

That was an accomplishment, but it still fell far short of Brophy McGee.  She was rewarded on Nov. 2 with the most votes.

Fortunately perhaps for Meyer, the other Republican in the race, Eric West, was participating in Clean Elections.  Without the benefit this year of matching funds, West was limited to $39,400.

Meyer needed all of his assets, both the non-financial kind and every dollar of his spending advantage.  Working with less money in 2008, he won the second seat in the district by 2,000 votes over the third-place finisher.  In 2010, with his formidable attributes and much more money at his command, he again won the second seat.  The margin was just 1,500 votes.

– Richard Gilman

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