When asked why they believe Lee Anderson on Tuesday lost his first election, ever, in his bid to take the next step up the political ladder, most people seem to blame it on Anderson’s refusal to debate John Barrow.
I still think it all started with the tractor.
See, everyone who knew, or knew of, Anderson was well aware that he’s a country boy. Not a thing wrong with that; I’m a country boy, too. In the primary Anderson was going up against three Republicans, two of whom looked like Hollywood images of congressmen.
To play up the contrast, Anderson’s team chose to emphasize his rural roots, using a silhouette of a tractor as his campaign emblem and consistently referring to him as a “commonsense farmer.”
That seemed like a decent strategy for locking up the rural vote in the 19 counties of the 12th District, and Anderson was able to ride that tractor to victory in the Republican primary runoff.
When the race turned to Republican vs. Democrat, however, things changed. Though Anderson had appeared in debates against his fellow Republicans, he refused to debate Barrow unless the incumbent would jump a couple of arbitrary hurdles. The conditions were supposed to make Anderson look willing to debate if only Barrow would do his assigned part; instead, the ploy made it obvious that Anderson (or, more likely, his hired campaign handlers) feared a debate.
At that point, instead of the tractor being seen as a symbol of an honest hay farmer, it started to brand Anderson as a hayseed. Gwen Fulcher-Young, putative Republican, famously fanned that flame by comparing Anderson to redneck child star Honey Boo Boo (who got two write-in votes in Columbia County in the race, by the way).
Having heavily invested in the citizen-farmer image, Anderson’s camp never addressed this perception head-on. Instead they focused on linking Anderson with the presidential race while relentlessly attacking Barrow and tying him to President Obama, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic bogeymen.
Consider Anderson’s second-generation campaign signs: The Anderson tractor sign was printed on the same sheet as a sign for Mitt Romney, while another sign featured a cowboy boot and the slogan, “Boot Barrow and Obama, too.”
How’d that work out? Not well. While Romney won 17 of the 19 counties in the 12th District, Anderson won just nine of them. And though Anderson handily beat Barrow in his home county with nearly 64 percent of the vote, Romney won Columbia County with 71 percent.
That difference of seven percentage points represents Columbia County Republicans who voted for Democrat Barrow. What could have made them cross over like that?
It was the tractor. Remember: Even though Anderson won the Republican runoff in the district, Rick Allen won Columbia County. It’s not unreasonable to conclude that, image-wise, the voters saw Allen as more congressional. For them, the tractor shtick was a campy turnoff.
Because Anderson’s camp didn’t confront the negative perception about his image, that task fell to his supporters who sounded defensive as they fought the growing parody of Anderson-as-hick: “Sure, he’s a common man; what’s wrong with that? The founding fathers were farmers, too!”
But here’s the thing: People instinctively expect leaders to be smarter or stronger than they are. Who wants to be led by someone dumber or weaker? Anderson’s defenders just weren’t persuasive, and Anderson wasn’t making the case himself. His ubiquitous tractor signs were more visible than he was, as became glaringly obvious when he skipped the Atlanta Press Club debate and allowed Barrow to chat with an empty chair – which Barrow then exploited with ads spoofing the event. A local gadfly jabbed Anderson by producing a picture of the iconic tractor driven by a chicken.
Anderson’s campaign, meanwhile, kept up the attacks on Barrow, coupled with appearances designed to prevent unrestricted media interaction – which they labeled a “tractor tour.” That inadvertently reinforced the view that the ever-affable Anderson was being overly stage-managed, like Honey Boo Boo prepping for a pageant.
In conceding the election Tuesday night, Anderson acknowledged as much. He said his only regret was that he hadn’t met more of the people in the district, instead spending too much time on the phone raising money to pay for those attack ads.
By not debating Barrow, Anderson missed an opportunity to reassure voters that he was more than just a tractor-driver – that he was smart enough to be their congressman, too. Sure, he might have bombed – but he could have recovered. And he wouldn’t have been called “chicken.”
What now? I suspect Obama’s victory all but guarantees a successful Republican challenge to Barrow in two years. Mid-term elections typically favor the opposition party, and Republicans will be hungry for revenge (Obama’s word) in 2014.
It’s too early to know who’ll run. If Anderson decides to try again, I strongly suggest he ignore the high-paid handlers, debate Barrow and spend time playing to his strength by meeting those voters.
And leave the tractor on the farm.