What stands out about the Republican primary between Jerry Moran and Todd Tiahrt is just how much the conventional wisdom was wrong.
While Moran consistently led in the polls heading up to Tuesday’s election, on the subject of message, at least, Tiahrt should have come out ahead.
Politically, a message consists of the following elements: It should be a story (facts tell, but stories sell), it needs to be relevant, it is usually brief, it’s repeatable and it’s unique. It’s less than a platform, but more than a slogan.
Tiahrt had most, if not all, of these things. He might not of had his own story, but he had several to use, such as Gracia Burnham and Greg and Missy Smith. Given the mood of the country, Tiahrt’s railings against the federal government and Obama were absolutely relevant. Tiahrt’s message was appropriately brief – fight, fight and more fight. Was Tiahrt’s message repeatable? I heard the phrases “real deal” and “real conservative” so much, I thought my ears would start bleeding. He tried very hard to be unique, but when you have an almost identical voting record as your opponent, you want to find any distinction you can and exploit it.
Tiahrt had a message, though, as well as the discipline to stick to it.
Moran, on the other hand, did not really have any message. The slogan, “Jerry is Kansas” found zero traction. His staff, at least in the communications department, had truly epic turnover. Throughout the entire campaign, however, Moran’s message (or lack thereof) never really solidified. You knew that Moran was a Republican and a conservative. You knew he was running for Senate. You knew he was a congressman. That was really about it, though.
Moran had an unspoken message, however, and that was “I’m a nice guy and a good congressman.” The sauce was weak, but it worked. Why?
For starters, a cook is only as good as their ingredients. That’s not saying Tiahrt was bad, as much as saying Moran was more palatable to those not on the hard right wing – and that’s the wing Tiahrt was banking on. An old saying is that one campaigns in poetry but governs in prose. The right wing seemed more interested in poetry – the art of the standoff – drawing a line in the sand and refusing to compromise on principal. Tiahrt gave them what they wanted. He brought in other right wing “poets” like Sarah Palin, Karl Rove, Sean Hannity and the Tea Party. However, the result of all this “poetry” was nothing more than the construction of an echo chamber. Tiahrt’s base liked the rhetoric, and they considered themselves to be “real conservatives”, so other conservatives should eat it up.
Moran, on the other hand, campaigned in prose – quite boring prose, in fact. He stayed on the defensive most of the time. He refused debates. He avoided the “real conservative” rhetoric. He was Jerry, and he was a nice guy. Take it or leave it.
He also knew he sat on the single biggest, and loyal, block of Republican voters in the state. Were they conservative? Yes. Were they hard right wingers? Possibly. Tim Huelskamp ran to the hard right and won the 1st District with room to spare in a very crowded field.
Tiahrt was angry, and Jerry was Jerry. The lesson to be learned from this is exactly that. Being mad, and even having all the right campaign ingredients, just isn’t enough anymore. More than money, endorsements, advertising or anything else, personality seemed to matter most to Kansans on Tuesday night.