Calder Clay and the Lost Art of Negative Attacks

It is never easy to write something negative about your own team, especially when he’s a neighbor, acquaintance, and political friend. This piece would have been coming sooner, but for that.

In 2001, the Georgia legislature, with the complicity of then Governor Roy Barnes, tried to turn the Republican majority of Georgia House members into a majority of Democrats. In doing so, the Democrats tried to bait Saxby Chambliss, the popular Middle Georgia Congressman, into running in Georgia’s 3rd Congressional District.

In the mid-nineties, Saxby’s hometown of Moultrie was cut out of his 8th Congressional District. The Democrats tried to make that an issue, but it failed. Then the Democrats tried to run Jim Marshall, the mayor of the most populous city in the district, against Saxby Chambliss. That failed. The Democrats then gave Saxby a choice. He could run in the 1st Congressional District and get Moultrie back, but face fellow Republican Jack Kingston, or he could run in the 3rd District, which included most of his old Congressional territory, but had a 30% black voting age population and, on paper, leaned Democrat.

Saxby did not take the bait and thought outside the small box in which the Democrats thought. He anointed Calder Clay as his successor and beat Max Cleland to become Georgia’s U.S. Senator. Calder Clay went on to lose to Jim Marshall by 1,528 votes and a margin of loss of exactly 1%.

This year, Calder is back to challenge Congressman Jim Marshall. Marshall, former a law professor, egotist, and liberal, has, in two years, restyled himself as a man of the people who shares their values, refrains from endorsing John Kerry, and defends our soldiers and veterans. Of the Democrats in Congress, Marshall is just about the most pro-military. In fact, Marshall is a true war hero and, unlike John Kerry, did not return after Vietnam to protest the war.

Calder Clay, in challenging Jim Marshall for the rematch, is testing the old adage that negative politics work. While most political consultants will advise a client that he must establish himself and build himself up before going on the attack, Clay has ignored the first part of the equation and gone straight for the attacks. So far it has not worked.

Much like Foghorn Leghorn trying to train Egghead Jr., Egghead, um . . . Marshall, has so far gotten the better of Foghorn, er. . . Calder. In the latest attack, Foghorn, er . . . Calder Clay has attacked Marshall for going on “a ten day junket to India” paid for by Indian corporations. In the ad, Clay attacks outsourcing and using an AFL-CIO quote to condemn Marshall.

Marshall’s response, like Egghead, Jr. getting the better of Foghorn on a camping trip, was to quote from his speech in India. Marshall claims his speech in India was about national security and how India, in an era of closer American ties to Pakistan, India’s rival, could help in the War on Terror and secure its place as an American ally. In addition, Marshall cited his own Congressional record as an opponent of outsourcing.

Calder Clay has yet to make a positive pitch for himself. Instead, he is trying to club Marshall with Marshall’s record, which is not fully and accurately portrayed in all cases. How is it going? In a survey of thirty Republican voters — party members throughout the third district — only three said they were solidly for Clay. Seven said they would vote for Marshall because he has been good for the district. The remaining twenty Republicans said they could not vote for Marshall so they would sit out the race. Women have, based on my conversations, had the most visceral reaction against Clay’s ads. All thirty said they wished Clay had painted a more positive picture of his vision before attacking, or in lieu of attacking, Marshall.

In a recent phone call I made the mistake of answering, a pollster asked if I would be more or less likely to vote for Marshall if I knew he went on a “ten day junket to India paid for by Indian corporations responsible for outsourcing American jobs.” I am the exception to the rule, but that makes me more likely to consider Marshall — aren’t Congressman suppose to take junkets to other parts of the world? Too bad Marshall doesn’t actually support outsourcing.

In talking with one Wilkinson County farmer, the man said that in 2002, Clay went out of his way to be in Wilkinson County. “Before he started running hard again,” the farmer said, “we haven’t seen Calder. I wonder if he’d do that if he got elected.” At a recent Republican event in Atlanta, several party leaders spoke to a group of us. The re-election of Max Burns and Phil Gingrey, both pre-existing Republican Congressman in Democrat leaning districts, were touted and praised by one of the spokesmen. He closed his folder and then, as if in an afterthought said, “Oh, and we need to defeat Jim Marshall and send Calder Clay to Washington.”

In the end, Clay has been met by two groups he has not convinced: a Republican machine that does not really think he can beat Marshall and a few Republicans who think they can mount a more capable challenge to Congressman Marshall. Clay has failed to satisfy the concerns of either group and will most likely long for a respectable 1% margin of loss this year.

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Erick Erickson

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