Supervisor Scott Wiener’s victory over Supervisor Jane Kim in the state Senate race boiled down to “undecided voters” in the final weeks of the campaign. (Photo, left: Joel Angel Juarez; right: Aleah Fajardo)

How Scott Wiener narrowly defeated Jane Kim for state Senate

After narrowly pulling off a win in the June primary against Scott Wiener, how did Jane Kim lose the November election — by about 14 votes per precinct — for state Senate?

Wiener had a six-month lead in money and endorsements, but Kim caused an upset in the primary by pulling out a first place finish in a district that represents all of San Francisco and the northernmost portion of San Mateo County, including Daly City, Colma, Broadmoor and part of South San Francisco.

Out of the gate, Kim’s campaign masterfully defined her to an audience largely unfamiliar with both candidates, outside of their respective supervisorial districts, of which there are 11 citywide. San Mateo county voters were even less familiar.

But Kim had some problems fending off attacks in the General Election — attacks that may have been effectuated by her opposition to Proposition V (the soda tax that passed with 62 percent support) and via her association with its detractors, brought to light in mailers and through the media. Wiener, by contrast, was a vocal supporter of Prop. V.

In political consulting, we often talk about messaging around a “test.” Some call it “framing” the campaign, as in, defining this particular race around: What is the one test that only our candidate can pass?

Cases in point: When Willie Brown and Jerry Brown came back to run for mayors of San Francisco and Oakland, respectively, after holding higher office, they framed their races as: “Who is Willie Brown?” and “Who is Jerry Brown?” because no other candidate could come close to passing those tests. (Most of their opponents were reduced to ants in those frames. You probably can’t even remember who they were.)

Kim’s campaign was smart and disciplined. She effectively framed her campaign around the question: “Who will fight the hardest for the little guy?” at a time when landlords, developers and tech millionaires were being constantly called out as the problem.

Soon after the construction cranes suddenly showed up a few years ago, concerns around housing affordability hit the radar on local polls almost out of nowhere, and then took off at fever pitch. It makes sense when you consider job growth and the kinds of jobs that have been created in the Bay Area — especially San Francisco — and the displacement and loss of communities that has resulted.

Before people care about who is responsible for street trees or how transit authority appointments are made, they need to know they will have a roof over their heads next month. Especially in a city where about half of people likely to vote are renters: “Will I have a home?” “Will I lose my support network?” It’s that basic.

Kim was going to take on the “1 percent,” especially the landlords and developers. Her campaign even made a catchy commercial of her in a taekwondo studio, kicking a bag to show you how fiercely she was going to fight for the little guy.

She also had Sen. Bernie Sanders at her side in the last weeks of the primary campaign, which created a buzz and signaled whose side she was on to many who previously didn’t know much about her.

Meanwhile, Wiener’s campaign (Disclosure: He was a client of mine from 2010 to 2015. I also assisted in the efforts to place the 2016 San Francisco soda tax on the ballot and served as field director for Jerry Brown’s 1998 mayoral campaign.) was framing the race around this question: “Who is the hardest-working, nerdiest policy wonk that is going to represent our values and get things done in Sacramento?” It doesn’t grab you the way that symbolically kicking the 1 percent does, but it was fundamentally authentic. Even his loudest critics — who mostly complain that he is not compassionate enough on homelessness, sides with business interests too much or has weird hang-ups, like cracking down on public nudity — will often say, “This guy is pretty much who he says he is. Even though I hate his guts.”

Enter the soda tax.

When voters become unsure about who you really are and whose side
you are really on — and you start getting hit on all kinds of issues — these new lines of attack are made more effective.

As a single issue, Kim’s and Wiener’s positions on the soda tax wasn’t a deal-breaker for most voters. But I can’t think of a better way to undermine your progressive credentials than by siding with multinational corporations over advocates for children and public health in a high-profile campaign that is running at the same time and place as yours.

It makes some voters wonder what you really stand for, and San Francisco’s progressive voters definitely knew which side they were on: Prop. V passed by the highest margins — nearing 80 percent support in some precincts — in The City’s most progressive neighborhoods, including the Haight, Mission and Bernal Heights. In other words, Kim’s base, where she should have been stronger, and could have won, had she performed better.

In the last weeks of the campaign, especially in a close race, the “undecided voters” become an obsession with campaigns because the campaign that reaches them most effectively, wins. Who are these voters? What do they want to know that we haven’t told them already? They’ve already been introduced to both sides, but they need something more.

And so very often, polls find that women under 50 years old make up the biggest demographic within these late deciders. This race was no different. Women under 50 may care about the same issues as the overall electorate, but they tend to care about some things a little more, like issues around health care and children. And like all voters, they want to know where you really stand and to believe that you really care.

They broke in Scott Wiener’s favor.

Maureen Erwin is a Bay Area political consultant. Most recently she led Sonoma County’s Measure M, which will create the largest GMO-free growing zone in the U.S.

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