Listen up, Democrats.
District 8 Congressman Ric Keller needs a challenge, and one of you three is the man to give it to him. He hasn't had to run a real campaign in six years, when he narrowly upset Linda Chapin. He's won his last two elections in walks against weak opponents.
Keller's given us plenty of reasons this should be a competitive race: He apes GOP talking points on Iraq, taxes and immigration, for example.
Still, political insiders think Keller's seat is safe. The Cook Political Report, for instance, lists the race as competitive but "likely Republican." Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call offer similar prognostications. In 2004, Keller got 61 percent of District 8's voters, while President Bush got just 55 percent. Eighty percent of his constituents are white, and while Republicans have a narrow advantage in terms of party registration, the district's party-less voters — 24 percent — have broken for Keller the last couple go-rounds.
It will be a tough slog, but Keller's become complacent in Washington, D.C., and he's long overdue for a campaign that makes him answer tough questions. If nothing else, a heady challenge would help Ricky-boy — that's what Dubya calls him, you know — realize that his biannual trips to the Capitol aren't guaranteed.
With that in mind, here is our completely unsolicited advice to the three Dems vying to take on Keller: attorney Alan Grayson, Orange County commissioner Homer Hartage and business consultant Charlie Stuart. A tough Democrat will make for a tough race for Keller, and that's good for everyone.
Our consulting bill is in the mail.
Alan, you've got a hell of a résumé; three degrees from Harvard? Holy crap. But there's also a good chance you're going to get your butt kicked if you come off as a weirdo, elitist snob. Here's how to prevent that:
- Shave the goatee. It makes you look like a comic-book villain. As one political wag told us, "If the Republicans are going to make you out to be the Antichrist, don't look the part."
- Go ahead, show off the kids. You're a family man, and that always plays well. But do not make a point of listing off their names: Skye, Star, Sage, Storm and Stone. They're probably lovely and all, but this is Central Florida, not central California.
- Speaking of which, the Wall Street Journal described your mansion as "pink-painted." You corrected them in an e-mail to us: "The exterior tile is pink. The exterior paint is more of a beige. You know, like Cinderella's Castle." Do not describe your house that way again. In fact, you might consider a quick paint job.
- Emphasize that résumé. You're smart and almost overqualified. You got your undergrad, law degree and master's in government from Harvard. You were a judge's assistant in the Washington, D.C., Circuit Court of Appeals, working under judges Antonin Scalia, Robert Bork and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. You worked at Ginsburg's husband's law firm. You were the first president of an international long-distance provider that now has $2 billion in annual sales. Lately you've made quite the name for yourself prosecuting war profiteers, including a $10 million verdict you won against a Virginia contractor in April.
- If you win the primary Keller's going to paint you as a carpetbagger, so be ready to trot out your 10-year residency in Central Florida. That almost makes you a native. Make sure to act like one. Eat barbecue. Trade in the Cadillac sedan for an Escalade (preferably with flex-fuel capabilities so the environmentalists don't lose faith in you). Learn to say "y'all."
- The Iraq War is unpopular, and you've got a great platform to demonstrate that you're against it. Keep saying things like, "The development fund of Iraq was raided by war profiteers and war whores," as you told CNN's Anderson Cooper in April. Nice sound bite there. Advertise that Rudy Giuliani joined your anti-corruption crusade, because Rudy's more popular than Ric around here.
- You've done something with your life, from IDT Corp. to serving with the Alliance for Aging Research to lawsuits against scumbags who see Iraq as a never-ending government trough. What has Keller done in Congress? It's a good question. Make him answer it.
- More money. You already put more than $300,000 into your campaign account, but you need to show the national party and pundits you're serious. One million dollars ought to do it. Keller's going to say you're trying to buy a seat in Congress no matter what. If you're buying a seat, show us what you think our votes are worth. And like the feminist group Emily's List says, "Early money is like yeast. It raises the dough."
- Hit up the liberal activists on the netroots and volunteer to match any contributions they give you dollar-for-dollar throughout September. They'll help if they think Keller's assailable.
- Go national. Get prominent Dems to campaign with you. If you've got internal polling that shows you within striking distance, leak it. Make those Beltway guys see Keller as vulnerable. Never refer to Keller without including the names "Tom DeLay," "Jack Abramoff" and/or "Duke Cunningham."
- You're a liberal. You favor abortion rights and withdrawing from Iraq. Can you see the attack ads coming? You'll be portrayed as a terrorist-appeasing, baby-killing, illegal immigrant—loving America-hater. Hit back. When the talk turns to family values, ask Keller about his 2003 divorce and subsequent remarriage. But be funny about it, not nasty.
- Debate Keller. He's not the best public speaker. Be self-effacing. Voters like that.
- Shave the goatee. Seriously.
Homer, no one we've talked to thinks you're going to win the primary Tuesday, except you. But miracles happen. And quite frankly, we've started to think your competitors underestimate you. But your fund-raising has been lackluster, and we won't know how well your grass-roots strategy has worked until Sept. 5. If you do make it out of the primary, here are some tips to take Keller down:
- Highlight your local experience. It's your edge over your opponents in the primary; exploit it for all it's worth. You've spent eight years on the Orange County Commission, where you've been an outspoken voice for your district. You've been the commission's foremost proponent of the arts, and you've stood up to Sheriff Kevin Beary.
- Let's talk about fund-raising. Pardon our French, but so far your fund-raising has sucked. You've been running (or at least talking about running) for a year, but less than $6,000 in your war chest two weeks before the primary? You've only raised $125,365, total? What the hell have you been doing? You're the only contestant in this race — besides Keller — who wields any power right now, yet none of the money guys are behind you? Time to work those connections, call in those favors, bulk up that bank account.
- While we're on the topic of fund-raising, don't go around saying, "This is a grass-roots campaign." That's code for "I can't raise money." Of course you're knocking on doors; that's called "campaigning." It's a big district and you need TV and radio to reach the people who don't know you. More importantly, if your bank account is empty, that's not going to look good to the kingmakers in Washington, and they'll direct their resources to more competitive races.
- You're strong on the issues, so talk about them. Endlessly. You favor an Iraq strategy that would have the military playing less seek-and-destroy and securing more big cities. Makes sense. You want FEMA to separate from the Department of Homeland Security, and you want to take a hard look at America's energy consumption. People can get behind that, especially these days. But you've also been one of the county's more fiscally conservative commissioners, and that's a good point to trumpet. No one likes waste.
- Return reporters' phone calls promptly. Without a fat bank account, you need all the free media you can muster. Hell, call them before they call you.
- Stop playing the racism card. We know racism exists, and as a black politician you've experienced it. Still, the district is overwhelmingly white — black voters comprise less than 7 percent — so it doesn't help your cause. In 2002, you accused this newspaper of racism for questioning why a former mentor backed someone else in your county commission race. In 2003, you accused Orlando city officials of racism for not letting you on the mayoral special election ballot. Then you demanded Orlando Police Chief Michael McCoy's resignation on charges of racial profiling earlier this year. When you cry wolf, no one takes you seriously, especially in a district gerrymandered for a white Republican.
- Speak Spanish, if not fluently, at least for a sentence or two on the stump. Twenty percent of the district is Hispanic, so reach out to them and get them to the polls in November. Keller is staking out a hard line on immigration. Point out how short-sighted his strategy is.
- You've got one hell of a life story. Talk about it: Born to sharecroppers in Georgia, grew up in Leesburg, beat a white Republican for a county commission seat when no one thought it was possible, etc. You run a business building affordable housing. You take criticism in stride and you're an affable fellow. Let's hear more about that kind of stuff on the campaign trail.
- Make the race about Keller. You've got eight years of mostly noncontroversial recorded votes and one minor-league scandal (that property you bought at a discount from the YMCA while the county was helping it get bond money). Keller, on the other hand, has six years of votes in Congress, and no matter how he spins it he's basically been a generic, lock-step Republican. Rub his face in it.
Charlie, you've been the favorite from the outset, at least until Grayson threw his considerable wealth into the mix. You're a smart guy, and you have all the makings of a decent, middle-of-the-road lawmaker. But you're also boring. Let's work on that:
- Nice job on issue positioning. You've set out to occupy the center and thereby force Keller to the right. As an ardent centrist, you probably have the best potential for pulling moderate Republican votes. Keller can't call you a liberal, at least not with any credibility. In fact, if the liberals knew how un-liberal you were, you'd have trouble in the primary Tuesday. You call yourself "pro-life" and you say you want a troop withdrawal from Iraq once we "finish the job," whatever that means. Whether or not that translates into good governance remains to be seen, but in a right-leaning district, the politics are well-conceived.
- Added bonus: Let Keller try to beat you with the family values label. You're a Bible study teacher at the First Baptist Church of Orlando, and you've been married for 32 years. Make a note of that at every opportunity.
- Don't rely on your family name. You have a terrific pedigree. Your brother Jacob heads the Orlando Regional Chamber of Commerce. Your brother Robert is on the Orlando City Council. Your brother George was a state senator. Your father was a prominent business owner who marched with civil rights leaders in the 1960s. Wonderful. Now get over it. Outside of College Park no one cares or even knows who you are. It's a big district, and you're not owed the right to represent it.
- Don't waste your money. You've been in the race longer (July 2005) and raised more money ($474,458) than any other Democrat, yet Grayson beat you to TV. At this writing, less than two weeks out from the primary, you've had former Sen. Bob Graham film an ad for you, but only now is it hitting the airwaves. And we haven't seen many "Charlie Stuart" yard signs. What'cha waiting for? Consultants are great, but it's better to spend your money getting your name out there. There are people in Marion County, for instance, who haven't a clue who you are.
- Be the establishment guy at your peril. Graham and former (for 24 days) Gov. Buddy MacKay have endorsed you. That's fine to point out. Graham still has some pull, especially among old fogies. And you've received some support and endorsement from other party heavyweights and some unions. That helps with money, but not to get your base out to vote. If anything, you're susceptible to the "Republican-lite" label, which could turn off otherwise reliable Democratic votes. Midyear elections are base elections. Just ask Karl Rove.
- Make the base believe in you. Sure, they'll turn out to vote against Katherine Harris, but will they want to vote for you? Or canvass for you? Or raise money for you? Or tell their friends what a great guy you are? Or put your sticker on their bumper? You need to rally the troops. Pick an issue Keller's not talking about and make it your own. Grayson has war profiteers. If you're not ready to be painted anti-war, choose something safer; say, identity theft or overhauling a tax structure that allows too many corporate loopholes. And then, as Dr. Phil would say, claim it.
- Learn the art of sound-bite politics. You're a student of history and well-versed in foreign policy. You articulate the administration's — and Congress' — shortcomings very well. But you have to keep it short and simple. For instance, this "leave Iraq when the job is done" thing. When will that be? Say that Congress should set real criteria and you'll help by asking tough questions. On immigration, say that instead of building a $7 billion fence along the Mexican border, we should ensure that our ports are safer.
- Lighten up. You come off way too serious. These are serious times. But people want someone they can relate to, someone they can laugh with. Be that someone.
- Memorize the following taglines: A vote for Ric Keller is a vote for Dennis Hastert. A vote for Ric Keller is a vote for Tom DeLay. A vote for Ric Keller is a vote for George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. Repeat them until your mouth goes dry. The fact is, Keller voted with the administration over 90 percent of the time, according to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. And when he dissented, it's because Bush was too liberal. He voted with the House GOP leadership 98 percent of the time. You can't say it enough.