Mending the rift in the political clubhouse

Last week’s return of the 2004 Red Sox to Fenway was highlighted by the first attempt to bring Manny Ramirez back into the fold of Red Sox Nation. Most will recall that in addition to being the most feared right handed hitter in baseball, Manny was a bit of disaster off the field and acted like an overgrown child in the clubhouse. He almost never reported to spring training on time, got in fights with team staff and his own teammates in the dugout, skipped out on high profile team events like visiting wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital and even quit on his team several times. Manny left Boston at the trade deadline in 2008 after several of his own teammates approached the management and asked them to get rid of him. He is the only MLB player to get caught using PEDs three times in his career. Considering that other 2004 heroes — with stellar reputations — were standing on the field without a starring role, it’s no wonder that there has been considerable grumbling from the media about the team’s choice to honor Manny.

In every election cycle there is period of clubhouse fighting (the primary) where candidates from the same party duke it out to become their party’s endorsed candidate. This is a tough time for many candidates to negotiate because sometimes they focus so intently on appealing to their party’s primary core voters that they position themselves far to the left or right of the more centrist general election voter. In Rhode Island, we have our primary late (this year it’s September 9) giving candidates very little opportunity to reshape their image for the general election on November 4.

In the past, this has worked particularly well for Republican gubernatorial candidates who have been able to run their race towards the middle as Democratic candidates have fought for the left side of the political spectrum. Rhode Island political pundits agree that bloody Democratic primaries helped elected Governors Lincoln Almond and Don Carcieri because the Democratic primary process produced a candidate that was weakened and too far to the left to win the general.

This year is especially interesting because there are hotly contested primaries on both sides of the aisle and surprisingly, the first negative ad — from the Fung campaign — has already been launched. While negative ads are frequently described as “comparative” by candidates’ camps, this one is negative — with a dash of humor — depicting Block supporters as less than intelligent “blockheads” while talking about why they support his candidacy. The timing of the ad is particularly interesting since negative ads are usually much later in the cycle, indicating to me that the Fung campaign wants to deliver a knockout punch early before focusing on general election voters later in the summer and into the fall. This might be like “counting your chickens before they hatch” but also shows that the Fung camp is aware that their only shot at winning depends on Democrats shredding each other in September, not toiling with Ken Block to prove who the real conservative is.

With the Republican candidates already tussling, it’s just a matter of time before the Democrats turn on each other and offer more than just competing visions for the state’s future. I make no predictions but am fairly certain that the two candidates that emerge from September clubhouse fights will have to do a better job than Manny to appeal to Rhode Island voters who are turned off by their antics.

Cara Cromwell is a public affairs consultant with more than twenty years experience managing issues campaigns for corporations, non-profits, associations, coalitions and candidates on both sides of the aisle. Visit her blog, Straight Up The Middle, and follow her on Twitter @cmcromwell.

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