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Bonus Column: Where I Went Wrong with Worthington

Three of the four races I managed met unsuccessful ends on Tuesday night, but the most high profile election was the district 2 commission race. Stacey Worthington raised more money, had more community endorsements and yet still fell by about 14 percentage points. It’s not hard to see this was an error in management rather than that of the candidate.

Before we get into what that error was, politics is never explained in absolutes. It’s not always all of one thing and none of another, but in this case, I do think a glaring oversight on my end cost her the race.

My job is to help develop a message strategy then convey that message easily, consistently and effectively to the people most likely to vote. At the risk of self-congratulating in the face of humiliating defeat, I do think the last part was executed incredibly well. The message, or at least one part of it, was the problem.

Identity politics is a buzz term used with derision. There are two types of identity politics though: common ground identity politics and common enemy identity politics. Common ground has been seen throughout history, most famously in the Civil Rights Era, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would bring people together through the use of rhetorical brilliance.

Dr. King would often work ties to our country, our faith and our families into his speeches. Think: “My brothers and sisters (family), our Forefathers (country) laid before us certain rights granted by God (faith).” This provided a shared baseline from which a connected audience could then debate other issues.

But there is another type of identity politics. This is the common enemy approach. Instead of working to build stronger internal ties, this version points to the existence of an outsider and rallies support against them.

Several local candidates employed a strategy of common enemy identity politics, but none epitomized it more than Mary Seader running for school board. Seader’s sole qualification for the position was her willingness to push an orthodoxly social conservative platform. This earned her 5,439 votes. This number is interesting because it is strikingly similar to two other outcomes. Paul Reinhardt received 5,566 votes in the state house election in Citrus County and the opposition to Congressman Gus Bilirakis totaled 5,433 votes.

I don’t think these results are a coincidence. I also don’t want to mislabel this phenomenon. Some are tempted to dismiss this voting bloc as the fringe or the Far Right, but those terms have such negative connotations. I will call them the contrarian conservatives.

This group is strengthened internally through a shared belief in their perceived persecution whether from the media, the government or the good ole boy establishment, while their external enemy is anyone who doesn’t adhere to the philosophy that the world is a corrupt place at their personal expense.

I knew this group existed. I even have several similar platforms that are shared with this group such as my recent criticism of the Chronicle’s election coverage as well as past CARES Act allocations questions. I understand, to an extent, the way contrarian conservatives feel.

But I ignored it. I never gave Stacey Worthington a common enemy to campaign against. Instead the “We’re with Worthington” message campaigned solely on common ground identity politics. With a 3,214 vote margin, it’s clear the roughly 5,400 contrarian conservatives made a difference in this election.

But why didn’t they in any other race? These were all open primaries counter-balanced with votes from Democrats. The center-right candidates still won in each of these races. Rebecca Bays had positioned herself to the right of Murphy though not as far into the contraction conservatives as embracing the positions of Winn Webb. Joe Faherty and Linda Powers, who will advance to a runoff election, were the center-right candidates bookended between Deborah Daniels and Mary Seader.

To be clear, I’m not advocating for open primaries here even though I do think Stacey Worthington would have won if it had been open. The closed primary system works and it’s not worth sacrificing because I did my job ineffectively in this isolated instance.

Voters are angry, and an emerging contrarian conservative movement needed to fed a story of not only what Stacey stood for but also what she was fighting against, yet I failed to do this.

To those who feel let down because of this, I can only assure you I feel the same disappointment in my own heart.

This shouldn’t take away from a well-fought campaign from Diana Finegan. Certainly the Bilirakis closed primary outcome showed how easily a candidate can still win without the contrarian conservative vote but Finegan effectively communicated her position to keep her within the 5,400 vote margin in an election of less than 23,000.

Tomorrow’s regularly scheduled column will explain, however, how my approach to these shared contrarian conservative values differs and argue why I feel common ground still prevails over a common enemy.


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