Exclusive Interview: RNC Deputy Chairman Frank Donatelli
I had the opportunity to interview Frank Donatelli, Deputy Chairman of the Republican National Committee, on Friday afternoon. Mr. Donatelli had just returned to Washington, D.C. after a multi-state trip which included a visit to Colorado to get a closer look at both the Presidential and Senate races in which Coloradoans will be voting in three months as well as coordinating with the leaders of the Colorado GOP on the implementation of the party’s Victory Program. Mr. Donatelli and I spoke primarily about the presidential race, what the GOP is doing to win nationally and here in Colorado, and why he believes that McCain has an excellent chance to be our next president. My questions follow the "Q:" and Mr. Donatelli's responses are the subsequent paragraphs. Q: Democrats have made a lot of gains in Colorado in recent years. How do you think McCain heading the ticket can help reverse that?
McCain has unique appeal across the electorate. First, we’re already approaching 90% of Republicans nationwide, and I have no reason to think that number is substantially different in Colorado. Republicans have put away their primary differences and are strongly supporting McCain. Second, he has strong appeal among independents, in large part because he’s a maverick and says what he believes. And third, there’s a segment of the Democratic electorate, many of whom voted for Hillary Clinton, who can’t reconcile themselves to Obama.Q: How are the most important issues playing with voters right now?
I believe the major issues in the campaign – taxes, energy, and foreign policy, favor McCain. There’s not a tax Obama won’t raise. There’s a clear difference on energy. Obama favors scarcity and high prices to manage demand. And then foreign policy: We live in a dangerous world. One day it’s threats in the Middle East from Hamas, then it’s North Korea, and then it’s the Russians in Georgia. You never know what the next trouble spot will be. What we do know is there’s one candidate the voters trust to be Commander-in-Chief. For example, Senator McCain has been skeptical of Putin and his motives. He came out with a comprehensive response to Georgia, while Obama is playing golf and issued a mushy statement about the situation. It’s clear that McCain knows what he’s talking about and Obama’s just faking it. There will be a percentage of people, from the left and the right, who will say (about McCain) “I Believe he’ll keep the country safe and exercise good judgment so I’m going to vote for him."Q: What specific efforts is the RNC/Victory undertaking in Colorado?
Our Victory Program is a voter identification and turnout program here in Colorado and nationwide. We know what we’re doing in this area, using a combination of technology and micro-targeting to identify subsets of the Colorado electorate most likely to support Senator McCain. The idea is based on historical models. We identify likely McCain supporters and try to turn them out, whether they vote absentee or in person on Election Day. It’s a sophisticated program which can look at several different characteristics and breaks up electorate into detailed subgroups, for example it could be as specific as “married women with two children who are members of women’s groups.” Based on polling and use of census data, we can determine which groups are most likely to be supportive of Senator McCain and which issues might be most appealing. We also have our 72 hour program during which we have a sophisticated process to turn the voters out. That’s the ground game. We also have the air war, i.e. campaign commercials.Q: How is the Victory Program approaching important demographic groups, such as women, Hispanics, and young voters?
Women, Hispanics, and youth are all very important groups. Senator McCain is a border-state Senator and has done well historically with Hispanics. He’s been involved with and visited with many Hispanic groups. The campaign is even running ads targeting Hispanic voters. Preliminary indications are that McCain is doing well among Hispanics. It’s a pretty tall order to do better than President Bush’s 44%, but we can still win this election without doing quite that well. We’re working hard with young people. We have an active group of College Republicans on campuses. It will be interesting to see if Obama can hold on to the big margins among young people that he had in the primaries, largely because he changes his mind on so many things that they might come to see him as just another politician…which he is. We’re also working hard among former Hillary Clinton supporters as part of a larger women’s’ outreach program with more general outreach. Veterans are another important group, as are Catholics and social conservatives. The conventional wisdom is wrong here: They’re having much more difficulty uniting their party than we are.Q: Where do you see Obama as being most out of step with Coloradans?
Energy and taxes. It’s interesting that the Democrats claim they’re running a “pocketbook campaign”, but I think we have the pocketbook issues on our side. Obama is promising to raise both energy costs and taxes, or at least not do anything about the former.Q: Obama is trying to reframe his tax hike proposals into “soak the rich” proposals. Do you think that will “play in Peoria”…or in Colorado?
It’s a tough argument to make (by Obama) that “I’m going to raise taxes but I’m going to cut taxes.” The cutting gets lost in translation. Also, if something sounds too good to be true it probably is. If you’re talking about huge multi-billion spending programs for health care, alternative energy, housing, and infrastructure, do you think you can really fund those by taxing 5% of the population? There still is a Laffer Curve out there. You start raising taxes on income, social security, capital gains, and dividends, not to mention the windfall profits tax he dusted off recently, I still don’t see how you get to pay for his spending programs.Q: And of course, Obama’s proposals (like Congress’s inane continuing to use static budget modeling) assume that people don’t change their economic behavior based on changes in tax policy.
True. How much money would you actually realize from higher tax rates? History tells us that a lot of that theoretical additional revenue is illusory. But it’s more than just that. The Democrats aren’t satisfied with the marketplace making people happy because they can’t take credit for it. It’s better politically for them to be the arbiter, to pick winners and losers and demand the votes of those winners.Q: How do you see the interaction between the presidential race and our extremely close and important Senate race?
The Victory Program is designed to help all Republicans. While McCain is at the top of the ticket, you turn out those voters and they’re likely to vote for Bob Schaffer as well. The overwhelming number of McCain voters will vote for Schaffer too.Q: Could that dynamic work the other way, that is people coming out primarily to support Bob Schaffer but also voting for McCain?
It’s certainly possible on the Republican base side that voters who may be skeptical of McCain would turn out for Schaffer and then vote for McCain. Schaffer’s being on the ticket can only help with social conservatives.Q: What can John McCain do to make this race about him, rather than (as so many pundits say) primarily a referendum about Obama?
He needs to continue to advocate his views and solutions to problems that affect Americans and Coloradoans. Voters are also very uneasy about America’s position abroad. The more we can talk about our plans to keep us safe and solve the problems that affect Americans, that’s what will make people turn this into a race about Senator McCain.Q: Thanks very much for your time this afternoon. Any final thoughts you’d like to leave us with?
Senator McCain has demonstrated strong appeal among independents, and among a segment of the Democratic party…a segment that’s opposed to someone as liberal as Barack Obama, even though he was able to hide that during the primary. Particularly with those facts, I like the way our pitching is set up for the fall. As long as our issues remain taxes, energy, and foreign policy, I feel good about our chances.
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