Editor’s Note: Veteran Seattle Democratic political consultant Dean Nielsen, of CN4 Partners, recently sat down with Republican campaign strategist Justin Matheson, the Northwest Director of GOP consulting firm Axiom Strategies, to ask what Republicans need to do to campaign successfully in a blue state like Washington. Matheson has worked on more than 200 campaigns including numerous legislative races and ballot measures throughout the Northwest and Alaska, and managed the campaign of Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Bryant in 2016. The following is a lightly edited transcription of their conversation.
Dean Nielsen: Your work with Republican campaigns has largely been in states that were blue early in your career and have become more liberal over time. What’s the path forward for the Republicans on the West Coast?
Justin Matheson: This is easy, and I preach it all the time — we need to stop getting involved in national divisive issues that divide us and start understanding dark blue cities. Republicans don’t have to win Seattle to be successful, but they need to have a presence there with an understanding of the local issues that our urban voters care about. We cannot win by only defending our territory. If a statewide Republican candidate doesn’t have a Seattle presence early, I’ll write them off immediately. I’ll admit, I’ve run campaigns blaming Seattle for everything… but it doesn’t work anymore. We need to embrace Seattle and help them succeed, because if our cities succeed, our state succeeds.
Nielsen: Democratic operatives generally believe that the Republican messages — lower taxes, smaller government, safety and security — are much easier to communicate than Democratic messages. Do you believe this to be true?
Matheson: I do think they are easier to communicate, but I think Democratic campaigns have blended them into their messaging very effectively. While lower taxes and safety have always been Republican staples, we saw in our polling Democrats taking control over those issues. Their success is largely because they have the funding to control the narrative. Plus, the national Republican image took a dive, and swing voters were not hearing our messages — regardless of the communications.
Nielsen: What are the biggest differences between Democratic campaigns and Republican ones? Where does each side have the edge?
Matheson: When I started doing races in Washington nearly 15 years ago, I felt like we had the edge on field operations. The majority of Republican campaigns put an emphasis on field programs, and for the most part, I thought we could compete with Democratic support of unions putting hundreds on the ground as volunteers. Since 2013, during the [26th legislative district] special election, it was hard to find Democratic field operatives. However, come 2018, everything changed in LD 26. Democratic field operatives crushed us in the Bremerton area of the district. We were seeing now heavy investments in field programs from Democrat campaigns — this edge has changed.
Resources are the biggest edge that Democrats have now; more funding and better retainment of experienced staff year after year. The business community, while they had always been a strong supporter of Republican campaigns, are now coalescing on both sides, skewing campaign money and resources heavily towards Democrats.
Nielsen: You began your political career in California before relocating to Washington state. What’s the difference between California campaigns and the ones you see in the Northwest?
Matheson: When I started running races in California many moons ago, we were much like the trends we are seeing in Washington today — our cities went from light blue to dark blue. In 1996 and 1998, I was running competitive million-plus-dollar legislative targets deep in Los Angeles County. With changing demographics and the inability of the Republicans to make advances on Latinx communities, these once-competitive regions are all locked up under Democratic control. One of the biggest challenges was closed Republican primaries in California. More and more, the Republican candidates that fit the district better couldn’t get out of the primary because they weren’t conservative enough. The top-two primary system in Washington was a breath of fresh air because we could appeal to the moderates in the primary for purple districts and elect the best candidates. Former moderate Republican senators like Andy Hill, Joe Fain, and Steve Litzow would have never survived a California primary.
Nielsen: We are about the same age. One of the big changes in campaigning during our career has been technological advances and the rise of spending on digital vs. more traditional advertising such as direct mail and television. How do voter communication and campaigns continue to evolve?
Matheson: I remember my first big campaign when everyone on the staff shared the tower computer, and we all took turns checking our AOL accounts. When we ordered data, it came on floppy disks, and you’d have to build out your database in programs like Microsoft Access. Campaign managers today don’t understand that we printed mailers in the offices, had volunteers stuffing hundreds of thousands of mailers, and the carrier sorted it and dropped it to the post office themselves.
A few years back, I told a young staffer that I was going to be replaced by a computer geek in the backroom running algorithms. While we saw this big expansion into digital trends, we also saw it start to implode. Big data and microtargeting are only good if you can find the means to deliver the message effectively. And our exit polling is showing that digital isn’t being consumed as much as we originally thought. Tried-and-tested techniques — from mail, doors, and TV — are still resonating the message. Now, we are seeing OTT [over the top internet delivery] and texting as the biggest growing trends, but my most successful campaigns are still always built around a mail program first.
Nielsen: What are going to be the new battlegrounds, both demographically and geographically, nationally and in the Northwest?
Matheson: While I hope to say King County will be a battleground in a post-Trump era, I’m feeling that here in Washington, we’ll still be waging war in the more rural environments. Whatcom, Skagit, Snohomish, and Pierce will contain all the major targets, but if we aren’t paying attention, Central Washington — Yakima and the Tri-Cities — might start growing on the target lists. I am seeing some good trends on the Olympic Peninsula; more the issue there has been the right candidate recruitment.
Nationally, Washington state is still on the congressional target list with the 8th and 3rd districts. If the Republicans can pull away from a Joe Kent option, those districts could be won back. Other states like Nevada and Montana (which you and I both do races in) will be huge targets because of the US Senate races.
Nielsen: In 2022, Democrats ran heavily on abortion after the Supreme Court ruling, and it worked. What’s a counter to this from the Republican side for 2024?
Matheson: Depends on if Trump is on the ballot or not. The economy isn’t working — inflation is killing us. Affordability and the ability to own a home is becoming a distant dream. Whoever can convey these messages most effectively will be successful. Crime hasn’t gotten better. I think what the Republicans need to do is again be a party of vision and solutions, not a “no” party. If we can articulate on how we fix these issues and have the resources to properly get these messages to the right voters without being washed out by Trump, we’ll have success.
Nielsen: There’s a famous line that says that Democratic voters fall in love, and Republican voters fall in line. That seems to have shifted lately. How has the passion of the conservative grassroots and grassroots-fed candidates shifted politics for you?
Matheson: The pendulum swings both ways. When the far-left movement started to rise, we gained a lot of far-right grassroots candidates. The passion became a cultural war. Although the enthusiasm was great to see, we must break away from conspiracy theories. We find ourselves focusing on candidate quality and trying to get the base equally excited about moderate candidates and the foreign concept of winning.
I’d also like to add — I’m also seeing this passion in people entering in our business. When I was young in the campaign business, I had just as many friends in the Democratic aisle as the Republican. Like when I played rugby in college, we’d fight it out, and go have a beer later. I don’t see that at all anymore. Most consultants and managers are very partisan and have no relationships on the other side. I miss this and appreciate having a beer with you, Dean.
Nielsen: And finally, who will be the Republican nominee in 2024? What are Republican primary voters looking for?
Matheson: It’s time to move away from Trump. While races in my coverage states like Montana, Idaho, and Alaska were strong because of a motivated base in Trump world, we lost major ground we’ve achieved in Washington. I’d like to see some new blood and some national conservative figures like a DeSantis or Youngkin with experience of solving real problems. Not someone that only has to fix the problems they create. My wish is to find nominees that get away from being polarizing figures, but instead bring both sides together to get something done.
Nielsen: Thank you, Justin for your time and insights.