On Monday, Peter Cooke, Democratic candidate for governor, announced that the he does not support abortion, gay marriage, or civil unions – these ideas, Cooke stated, stem from his Mormon upbringing and that the controversial issues of abortion and equality run counter to “Utah Values.” This response was most likely prompted by the recent change to the Democratic Party’s recent change to its national platform, which now officially supports same sex marriage and reaffirms the right for women to have safe and legal abortions.
The Cooke campaign presumably wished to distance itself from this national push by Democrats, knowing that it would not play well in conservative Utah.
At this point, I am not particularly interested in having a debate about “Democrats In Name Only” candidates, or a debate about the issue of abortion or gay marriage – what I am interested in is asking the question “why now?”
I firmly disagree with Cooke and his feelings toward these two issues, but I understand why he has to moderate his tone – after all, we are in Utah and a candidate who wholly supports abortion and gay marriage probably won’t see much success at the polls (certainly not for a statewide campaign). So, with this understanding in mind, the Cooke campaign clearly decided that a statement must be made.
Or did it?
The primary reason I suspect the Cooke campaign felt that they needed to respond now was because they felt they were in a “dammed if you do, dammed if you don’t” situation: If the campaign doesn’t say something, potential undecided voters will assume that Cooke falls in line with the national Democratic Party and may not vote for him; on the flip side, if Cooke does say something (like he did on Monday) he risks upsetting moderates and liberals and potentially looses those votes. I want to acknowledge this to remind everyone that the Cooke campaign took a risk and made a calculated move in the game of election year politics. What I wonder is why they even decided to show up to the field to play in the first place.
I have heard little, if any, discussion about how the national Democratic platform would affect local elections. Political beasts and laymen alike know that national politics are not Utah politics; and (as of the time of publication) no political figure, right or left, has said much of anything about the platform change – let alone how it reflects on a particular candidate or set of candidates. In one fail swoop, Cooke made a de facto statement to voters that, unless otherwise stated, Democrats support gay marriage and abortion and are, therefore, out of line with Utah’s values. Now, in the entire time I have been involved with the party, I can tell you that opinions on these two topics vary wildly between candidates; I can also tell you that each representative generally does just that – represent the feelings of their particular district.
This is my real problem with Cooke’s statement (aside from the obvious) – there was no reason to even bring up these two topics in the first place. Why discuss such things when we all know that abortion and gay rights are the two biggest sticking points for any Democrat in Utah? I mean, I am not exactly selling state secretes when I say that these are are two biggest ideological hold ups with at least a quarter to a half of the voting population. The only conclusion I can come to is that the Cooke campaign felt that they would gain more votes by making such a statement…but I feel that that is flawed logic at best.
Yes, your average independent or conservative voter would assume that the Democratic candidate supports gay rights and abortion unless otherwise stated. But they also assume that the Republican candidate does NOT support these issues. By making a statement such as Cooke’s, the campaign has basically said they are the same as the guy you have already voted for in the past – the problem is, they have not given a reason why voters should support Cooke.
Think about it. If Pepsi suddenly ran an ad campaign that said “Tastes Exactly like Coke” odds are low that people will leave the brand that they have loved their entire life. It is only when they add something like “with fewer calories” or “at half the price” do you suddenly give people a reason to change. But, the difference between Coke/Pepsi and Cooke/He Who Shall Not be Named is that if Pepsi launches a new ad campaign touting its similarity to Coke it does not really affect sales of Pepsi’s other products…Not so with Cooke’s statement; suddenly down-ticket campaigns have voters who are now thinking about gay rights and abortion when they would not have been otherwise. Why? Because Cooke answered a question that no one asked.
Let me repeat that: Cooke did not need to address this issue as no one was talking about it…until Cooke brought up the very issue he wished to avoid and responded to a problem that did not exist. To make maters worse he has now created a very real problem that every other Democrat now has to deal with. Down ticket candidates are now more likely to have to discuss two very divisive issues rather than focus on the campaign points that they want to focus on – for most it is transportation, education, and job creation - issues Democrats are strong on; now, as the likelihood of going off message increases, so too does the likelihood that valuable resources are being diverted to discuss these issues, and it is quite possible that votes will be lost in the process.
Did the Cooke campaign discuss Cooke’s statement with the party? With other campaigns? With advisers? Do they understand that being at the top of the ticket is both an honor and a duty? If they did understand or do all of these things, I feel that they have made a very real tactical error, both for their own campaign and against the party; if they did not understand this and have been working on their own, than this whole debacle should serve as a case study for the importance of a coordinated campaign and message control/response.
No campaign exists in a vacuum, every race affects every other race. In today’s day and age, there is no excuse for campaigns not to communicate at the most basic of levels. As Democrats in Utah, we must work together if we are going to advance. Each candidate should feel free to think, feel, and say what they like, but they must also realize that their words have a huge affect, especially the further up on the ticket you go.
In the end, I suspect that most voters will forget Cooke’s words, but the idea Cooke planted will linger for a long time to come.