Political newcomer and now Senator-Elect Melanie Sojourner pulled off what may have been the marquee race for Mississippi Republicans in the 2011 cycle and it is a race worth closer examination.
Mississippi’s Senate District 37 is centered around Adams County but also includes Franklin, Amite and Pike Counties. Without the smaller more conservative Counties, Dearing would have certainly held on to the seat he has held for 32 years but with the right mix of Media, Message, Grassroots and Political Environment Sojourner surprised the pundits by pulling off a slim 451 vote win.
The region’s largest newspaper “The Natchez Democrat” opined after the win as follows.
“Maybe it is time to retire the expression, “All politics is local.”
The former House Speaker Tip O’Neil coined this phrase way back in the 1930s when he was just a political newcomer.
More than 80 years later it seems that the opposite is true. Take the District 37 Senate race between incumbent Bob Dearing and his challenger Melanie Sojourner.
At times, Dearing must have felt like he was running against the entire state GOP rather than a candidate with little or no political experience.
As Dearing’s campaign received help from local celebrities like NFL great Joe Fortunato and former Natchez mayor Tony Byrne, Sojourner’s supporters inundated mailboxes with attack ads associating Dearing with President Obama, state attorney general Jim Hood and former governor Ronnie Musgrove.
Whatever local message that Dearing tried to promote was smothered by a well-oiled machine intent on unseating the 32-year incumbent at all costs.
In the end, Sojourner, the political rookie, edged out Bob Dearing, the seasoned veteran, by 451 votes.
Sojourner shined in Franklin, Amite and Pike counties. In those three counties, she outperformed Dearing by 1,300 votes, yet was soundly defeated in Adams County, where only 39 percent of county voters cast ballots in her direction.”
After 32 years of being elected by overwhelming margins Senator Bob Dearing was mostly caught flat-footed by a scrappy upstart campaign that was able to nationalize even a State Senate race on the banks of the Mississippi River. President Obama’s negatives had grown and larger and incumbents (even popular ones) became vulnerable.
The first shot fired in the race came from the Republican State Leadership Committee http://www.RSLC.com who rolled out this ad on local cable and radio:
The “Attack Lite” tone of the ad fit well with the overall narrative of the Sojourner campaign who was running on a Senator Dearing is a nice guy but it’s time for him to go narrative.
Officially the Sojourner campaign shortly followed the RSLC on air with a purely positive introductory ad called “A Special Place” Produced by RedPrint Strategy and focusing who Melanie is and why change was needed.
On the ground the organizing by both sides hit a fever pitch around 2 weeks out with the Democrats finally convinced that Dearing was vulnerable and the Republicans beginning to smell victory. Voter’s mailboxes were packed full of flyers from both sides and from the MSGOP. The New-Media battle was unbelievably one-sided as Sojourner capitalized on her youthful appeal and built a very effective activist network online where as Dearing staked his entire campaign on his accomplishments of a 32 year record and pushed it out using only the most of traditional methods, Radio and Direct Mail.
With the entire GOP engaged and running on change theme with Dearing running solely on past accomplishments, Sojourner was victorious by a slim margin of 451 and the results were not finalized for nearly a week.
So what did we learn, in the end defeating an incumbent comes down to:
1. Dynamic Challenger
2. Campaign and Outside Resources
3. A Compelling Narrative
4. Message Discipline
5. Political Environment
6. New and Traditional Media
Senator-Elect Melanie Sojourner built a strong team, put together the resources, kept great message discipline and took advantage of outside resources and a favorable political environment to pull off and unlikely upset. Although beating a popular and entrenched incumbent is never an easy feat the Sojourner vs. Dearing contest in SD-37 2011 provides an interesting study for political newcomers who are thinking about challenging incumbent legislators.