Bipartisan Panel Discusses the 2018 Midterm Elections

The Frank J. Fahrenkopf and Charles T. Manatt Lecture featured a GSPM alumni panel that discussed the midterms outcome and the 2020 presidential election.

GSPM Post election 2018
Left to right: Dan Sena, Carly Cooperman, Lara Brown, BJ Martino and Nathan Gonzales discuss the results of the 2018 midterm elections. (Photo courtesy of GSPM)
November 19, 2018

By Tatyana Hopkins

Democrats and Republicans are going to have to find balance in their messaging to reach swing voters in the 2020 election cycle, said Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of the non-partisan newsletter Inside Elections.

Mr. Gonzales, M.A. '05, said Republicans will have to face a lack of diversity in the party. He noted that in the 2018 midterms, the GOP saw the loss of nearly half its female members and other diverse colleagues such as Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo.

Over 80 percent of the new Republican House conference will be white men, compared to 36 percent in the Democratic conference,” Mr. Gonzales said.

He said the party will have to do more to support diverse candidates, especially through primary elections. “I know there are some elected officials and Republican strategists that are concerned with that, but… I'm not sure that there's an appetite among primary voters for that,” Mr. Gonzales said.

Mr. Gonzales spoke Thursday on a panel hosted by the Graduate School of Political Management about the outcome of the 2018 midterm elections and its implications on the upcoming Congress and the next presidential election.

The panel also included other GSPM alumni: Carly Cooperman, B.A. ’07, a partner at Schoen Consulting; BJ Martino, M.A. ’00, a partner at Tarrance Group; and Dan Sena, M.A. ’99, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Lara Brown, GSPM director, moderated the discussion.

The evening also included a recognition of recipients of the GSPM 2018 Alumni Achievement Awards.

Mr. Gonzalez said to reach swing voters, Democrats will need to find balance between opposing President Donald Trump and acting as a “check and balance” on the president.

“What’s the line between accountability and going too far—I think that’s the balance Democrats are trying to find,” he said. “And independent voters will ultimately decide if they’ve done that correctly.”

Mr. Sena agreed that base voters in the two parties will be easy to keep going into the 2020 elections. “Both bases are going to be on fire,” he said. “There is nothing that either side will do that will not motivate their base going into 2020.” 

He said quality candidates, money and the right messaging will be needed for Democrats to keep flipping Republican-held districts. “In an open seat in Republican territory, you still need to have a candidate that can cross the cultural values in a relatively conservative place,” he said.

The event was part of an endowed lecture series named for donors Frank J. Fahrenkopf and Charles T. Manatt, who, respectively, led the Republican and Democratic national committees.

“Together they helped found our school, endow its board and begin its presence in Washington,” Dr. Brown said. “They understood that politics was about more than partisanship—that it was about democracy and process and professionalism.”

She said the purpose of the lecture series is to advance civil service and politics within the GW community by giving political professionals the opportunity to talk across the aisle and reflect on how their jobs impact society.

She asked panelists to discuss ways to get political groups excited about a candidate’s brand rather than messaging of “getting the other guy.”

“We don’t have this in our consumer culture,” she said. “Corporations tell us why we should love them, and we love them for the reasons they tell us we should. It’s rare to see McDonald’s going after Burger King.” 

Ms. Cooperman, whose firm managed the research and messaging on several Democratic campaigns, said the firm tested ads in all of its districts before running them.

"Nine out of 10 times, we found the ones that were attacking the Republican candidates were more effective in persuading people to vote than the ones that were positive about the Democrats,” she said.

Mr. Martino, whose firm supports Republican campaigns with research and polling, said campaigns have contributed to politics becoming more tribal. He said polling data sorts the electorate into “bite-sized groups” that can be sent “highly-targeted” messaging.

 “We don't even have a fundamental shared source of information that we can agree on,” he said. “Our campaigns are contributing to that.”

He said campaigns will likely not be the solution.

“You’re never going to stop a campaign from acting in its own vested self-interests,” he said. “Potentially, other outside groups are going to be able to harness that data and find ways to bring people together rather than to segment than and push them.”

Following the panel, three alumni were presented with the 2018 GSPM Alumni Achievement Award. GSPM faculty and staff select alumni with substantial experience in the areas of political management, legislative affairs and strategic public relations. Here are this year’s recipients:   

  • Rochelle Dornatt, M.A. ’81, has worked in legislative affairs in both the Senate and House for 35 years. Ms. Dornatt served as the chief of staff for Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.) for 24 years and was the floor assistant for former House Majority Whip Tony Coehlo (D-Calif.). In 2017, she was the recipient of the Creswell Congressional Staff Award for her exemplary work ethic.
  • Ben Fallon, M.A. ’98, is the assistant director of National Intelligence for Legislative Affairs within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. He advices the president, National Security Council and U.S. intelligence community on how to interact with Congress on national security matters. Previously, Mr. Fallon served as the deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency’s Office of Corporate Communications, worked on legislative efforts in technology while serving Rep. Jerry Weller (R-Ill.) and supported a Senate Banking Committee investigation of the disposition of Holocaust victim assets into Swiss banks while working for Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.).
  • Raul Damas, M.A. ’02, is a partner at the corporate communications and crisis management firm Brunswick Group in New York City, where he advises global clients in public affairs. Previously, Mr. Damas served as the White House’s associate director of political affairs under President George W. Bush and was the national coalitions director for the Republican National Convention.
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