The message of the memo seemed to be, “It’s not our fault.”
But who was trying to send the message?
On Tuesday, the Washington Post published a postmortem memo from U.S. Rep. Martha McSally’s campaign on why she lost her race for Senate to Democratic U.S. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema. The four-page memo explains factors, many of them legitimate, that contributed to McSally’s loss. It cites McSally’s difficult Republican primary race, Sinema’s high name recognition in Maricopa County and divisions in the Republican primary, among other factors. It, curiously, does not cite the conduct of the campaign.
The feeling the memo leaves is a list of excuses for losing a race that could have been won.
So who’s excusing their performance?
I would argue it is not McSally or her in-state campaign staff but her outside campaign consultants, Axiom Strategies. Axiom is a national campaign consultancy for Republicans based in Kansas City, Mo., that has worked with McSally from the beginning of her political career. Axiom also was the campaign consultant for Lea Marquez Peterson in her losing race in Arizona’s Congressional District 2.
In the story on McSally’s potential appointment to the seat now held by Sen. Jon Kyl, the Post said it had received the memo from “McSally’s campaign strategists.” When I asked McSally campaign manager Steve Shadegg, who is not from the Axiom team, whether it was his side of the campaign or the Axiom strategists who released the memo, he texted me that “it was Axiom.” Axiom did not answer my emailed questions.
So why would Axiom put out this analysis?
I took a look at the nationwide races of candidates who hired Axiom as consultants this year. Its record was not good. Among the 12 candidates who paid Axiom the most money this year, only four won. And one of those was U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, who had to fight for his political life against U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke in Texas. Among the company’s clients who lost were U.S. Senate candidate Matt Rosendale, beaten by incumbent Democrat Jon Tester in deep-red Montana, and Kevin Yoder, a four-term member of the House in Kansas who lost to a gay Native American Democrat, Sharice Davids.
That, I would argue, is the best context for understanding the McSally memo — as a way for Axiom to explain why its candidate lost a high-profile race she arguably should have won — and why it isn’t really Axiom’s fault.
Note, first, that the memo was given to the Washington Post, not an Arizona publication. A national consultancy might want to be sure potential nationwide clients know the loss wasn’t really their fault.
The lack of analysis of the campaign is also a giveaway. Jeff Roe, Axiom’s founder, laid out in March how he thought Republicans should run this year, in an op-ed piece published in The New York Times headlined “Don’t run from Trump.” The basic message, as Roe wrote, was “If you are a Republican on the ballot, you are in the same boat as Mr. Trump, whether you like it or not.”
He explained in more detail, “While some Republican candidates, in swing seats, may benefit from creating distance from Mr. Trump, a strategic retreat will work only in rare instances. The myth that midterms are decided by swing voters ignores the prevailing reality that large midterm electoral shifts are driven by shifts in base motivation.”
Motivating the Republican base is what McSally’s campaign did, much to the surprise of many observers. She didn’t run to the center in the general-election campaign to try to win over independent and moderate voters the way Sinema did. She literally embraced Trump during a rally in Mesa on Oct. 19.
In retrospect, that was not a good idea, but it was in line with the game plan that Roe and Axiom laid out for candidate clients around the country.
Arizona analysts have almost unanimously criticized the McSally campaign for running so negatively against Sinema, rather than telling McSally’s inspiring story, the way Sinema did for herself in her early ads.
“The biggest criticism I have is the lack of introducing Arizona voters to who Martha McSally is,” veteran Republican political strategist Doug Cole, of High Ground, told me. “The way we handle elections, you want to introduce your voters to who you are.”
The criticism of Axiom has not been universal. Marquez Peterson said when I asked her about Axiom, “I thought they did an excellent job for me.”
For her, their coaching, counseling and strategizing was extremely valuable. But of course, Marquez Peterson lost, too, in a district Axiom had won before with McSally.
So maybe the lessons learned from McSally’s loss should have been much shorter than all those laid out in the memo. Maybe they should simply have been to run a better campaign by following a wiser strategy.
In October, I wrote a column arguing that you could justifiably vote against retaining Clint Bolick as an Arizona Supreme Court justice because of his persistent involvement in politics and judicial activism.
Now there are a couple of more reasons to be concerned. As the Phoenix New Times originally reported, after John McCain died, Bolick lobbied Gov. Doug Ducey to appoint Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery to fill McCain’s Senate seat. Howard Fischer reported in the Star that Bolick defended his text message to Ducey, saying “Judges are allowed to privately express their views on candidates for office.”
Yeah, but ... Montgomery heads the county attorney’s office of the most populous county in the state. If I were at the state’s highest court arguing a case against the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, I’d feel less sure now that I could get a fair shake from Bolick.
Also, Bolick’s wife Shawnna, a Republican, has been elected to the state House. After she takes office in January, I’m not sure how Bolick is going to handle the cases involving the Legislature that make it to the court.
Jesse Kelly’s back
Former Southern Arizona congressional candidate Jesse Kelly was back in the news this week after Twitter suspended his account on the social-media platform.
Kelly, a Republican who lost races for the old Congressional District 8 in 2010 and Congressional District 2 in 2012, has long since moved to Houston and become a bit of a media figure.
Kelly writes occasional pieces for The Federalist, a conservative online publication, and has a radio talk show in Houston.
In a series of interviews this week, Kelly portrayed the multiday suspension of his Twitter account as part of a campaign against conservatives by social-media operators such as Twitter. But he also said he didn’t know why Twitter had suspended him, other than it said he had broken Twitter’s rules.
Kelly can’t know that his suspension was part of a campaign against conservatives, of course, since he doesn’t know why the company suspended him. But Twitter should always explain why it suspends or bans someone.
In any case, Kelly is winning in the end. He got a lot of media coverage and had the suspension lifted.