Cranley is finding that big spending doesn’t guarantee victory.
For the second time in two years, Cincinnati voters sent Mayor John Cranley an unambiguous message: It’s a small town. You can’t buy our votes with slick TV spots, no matter how much you spend.
In the fall of 2015 the issue was Mr. Cranley’s proposed parks tax levy. A tax increase would fund some popular construction projects that might earn the mayor votes when he sought re-election. The pro-levy campaign burned through about $1.3 million, running glossy TV ads. However, the tax increase lost 59 percent to 41 percent. The losing effort cost generous donors $47 for each “yes” vote. With that money, the mayor might as well have treated all those yes voters to a night at a Reds’ game, with a Hudy and a brat tossed in, rather than waste it on TV ads.
But the mayor’s team didn’t learn their lesson. As his re-election campaign heated up this spring, Cranley doubled down on big spending. His staff bragged about plans to spend more than $2 million before the dust settles in November.
The initial ad campaign sought to airbrush the mayor’s prickly public image. There was the loving dad, light sabering in the backyard with his cute son. But when polls weren’t looking so good in his three-way contest with Councilmember Yvette Simpson and former UC Board Chair Rob Richardson, his campaign switched to cookie cutter attack ads. There were grumpy looking photos of Simpson, who was branded as one of those vile streetcar supporters who didn’t support our police. Better yet for the incumbent, Simpson didn’t have enough cash for any TV ads. (Columnist Confession: this writer has worked in the past with Simpson and contributed some money to her meager war chest.)
But when the votes were counted on primary night, all that Cranley cash (estimated to be about $1 million) was only good enough to buy the mayor a second place finish with 34 percent of the vote. He made the November run-off, but trailed Simpson by 11 percent.
Our profligate mayor paid about $120 each for his 8,068 primary votes. Forget that beer and brat at Great American Ballpark—$125 a head is enough to treat those Cranley voters to a veal chop, chocolate mousse and a robust bottle of Bordeaux at Jean-Robert’s Table.
And so there will be a Cranley/Simpson rematch in November. The mayor’s forlorn team began spinning the mayor’s glowing prospects the morning after the primary: many more voters will surely show up in November! And those voters who didn’t fully appreciate all the progress made under Cranley will surely have a change of heart!
When a cash rich incumbent gets beat by an underfunded opponent by 10 percent in a primary, there is trouble brewing. Simpson ran a positive and inclusive campaign. She connected with voters who have felt left behind by the progress in more prosperous neighborhoods for which the mayor takes credit.
Storm clouds are gathering over our town, including a looming $25 million budget deficit and a troubling increase in gun violence. Those clouds make the electoral climate even more challenging for the mayor.
If the mayor’s donors pony up another million dollars (or two), voters can expect another orgy of pro-Cranley advertising. But considering the results of the primary and his park levy, the mayor’s cash might be better spent sending a few thousand of us to Disney World in November. Just don’t book me on United.
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