“Never punch down.” That’s a sage bit of advice given to me during my radio days. It means don’t legitimize lesser competition by attacking them.
That’s why it’s extremely interesting how the Utah GOP is reacting to Doug Owens’ performance following his first debate with Mia Love.
Owens attacked Love with a ferocity few were expecting, taking her to task over her support of the government shutdown.
The pushback from Republicans was almost immediate. They called Owens “dishonest” and said his attacks showed desperation. Party chair James Evans sent out an email blasting Owens for his behavior.
The most common comparison I heard was to Peter Corroon’s 2010 campaign against Gary Herbert where Corroon attempted to smear Herbert with the UDOT bid scandal where a $1.1 billion contract for reconstructing I-15 in Utah County was awarded to a major Herbert donor. UDOT then paid $13 million to the losing bidder to avoid litigation.
There’s one big difference between Owens of 2014 and Corroon of 2010. Timing.
Corroon’s attacks came toward the end of the campaign and had an air of desperation to them. They never really landed with the impact he was hoping for. There wasn’t enough time for Corroon’s offensive to take hold with voters.
Campaigns are repetition. Make your case over and over and hope it sticks. Then make that case again.
Owens unveiled his line of attack against Love early on. Plenty of time to keep making it over and over and over.
Now, here’s where it gets interesting. Will Love ignore Owens or engage him?
Both carry risks.
If Love ignores Owens, she runs the risk of allowing his accusations to go unchallenged.
If Love engages with Owens and counters his attacks, she’s “punching down,” and legitimizes a challenger who is not well-known and doesn’t have the resources to fight on a level playing field.
Do I think Owens is going to win this race? Not really. The outcome was pretty much decided when the Legislature redrew the districts before the 2012 election. Matheson barely held on to the seat that year, and Owens is not as well-known as Matheson. Not by a long shot.
Additionally, Owens likely won’t have the money needed to mount a vociferous challenge to Love. Yes, he did pull in $125,000 in the first week of his campaign, but that’s the “low hanging fruit” - mostly friends and family. It’s going to be a lot harder for him going forward.
My best guess about this unexpected reaction? I think Love and her team weren’t prepared for the ferocity of Owens’ attack. They were caught by surprise and it knocked them off balance for a bit. Republicans in Utah aren’t used to a feisty challenge from a Democratic opponent. Usually the toughest resistance they encounter comes during a caucus or convention fight - maybe a primary.
The expectation from the GOP is that Utah Democrats will play their predetermined role and offer up only token resistance in most cases. That’s a part that Utah’s minority party has been happy to play. When they deviate from that script, Republicans sometimes act a little dumbfounded.
In 2012 when Peter Cooke again brought up the UDOT bid scandal in his race against Herbert, Herbert’s campaign reacted sharply, saying they were “offended” by Cooke’s behavior.
Look at previous high-profile Democratic campaigns. Matheson vs. Love was the most intense of the bunch. Democrats usually offer up candidates who are reluctant to take the fight to their opponent. When they do decide to “take the gloves off” (which would be the equivalent of a slap fight anywhere else in the country), it’s often too late.
The reaction from Republicans in this instance is telling in one big way. They expected Owens to perform the same kabuki theater this time around, but Owens decided to improv a bit.
The worst kind of opponent is an unpredictable one - especially in politics.