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Winner touts campaign strategy

Negative advertising did nothing to help his opponent, says state Rep. David Russell, who says he tried to stay positive.

By DAN DeWITT
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 7, 2002


BROOKSVILLE -- To state Rep. David Russell, there is a simple lesson to be learned from his convincing victory over Democratic challenger Gregory Williams:

Negative advertising does not pay.

Three weeks before the election, polls showed he led Williams by about 12 percent, said Russell, R-Brooksville, who was elected to a third term in the state House of Representatives on Tuesday. It was just about that time that Williams then began aggressively challenging Russell's voting record both in advertising and in public appearances.

The result of this expensive effort, Russell said: Williams lost thousands of voters. Russell eventually defeated him by nearly 19 percentage points. That was nearly double the margin in the 2000 race, when Williams also challenged Russell.

"If both parties are engaging in negative campaigning, they have a tendency to cancel each other out," Russell said. "If it's one-sided, people have a particular dislike for one-sided negative claims."

It was especially damaging to Williams, because he had developed a reputation as a gentleman, Russell said.

Actually, Williams said, the situation is much more complicated.

He never slurred Russell personally, only criticized his voting record -- especially his ties with big business. He also said the negative approach was not really one-sided.

For example, Williams said, Russell accused him of "slimeball tactics" in an interview several days before the election. Russell also accused Williams several times of lying, which Williams said he did not.

"I did not do a negative campaign. Those were bills he voted for. We put emphasis on the fact that he voted on those issues," Williams said. Among the votes he highlighted: Russell voted against an amendment that would have required health insurance companies to cover mammograms and opposed increasing the amount of state aid available to elderly residents for prescription drugs.

And finally, Williams said, although Russell emphasized the resources Williams dumped into the campaign in the last week, Russell actually had more to spend.

According to the state Division of Elections Web site, Williams raised $84,000 this year compared to Russell's $157,000.

But the truth is, said both Republican and Democratic observers, the race was influenced by a trend that extended far beyond the race.

Frank Colletti, chairman of the county Republican Party, said it was a matter of the public finally realizing the strength of the Republicans' ideas. "From the national level on down, we're seeing the move toward a more conservatism -- the idea of less government, less taxes, the idea of national defense being extremely important."

Dom Cabriele, chairman of the county's Democratic Executive Committee compared Tuesday's vote with 2000, when Hernando voters favored Democrats in nearly every local election.

"The pendulum has swung back," he said.

National Democratic leaders have mostly accepted the Republican policy of cutting taxes and pursuing war with Iraq, Cabriele said. Also, the statewide party leadership failed to support good candidates.

"The national Democrats didn't take issue with anything. The Florida Democratic Party, as far as I'm concerned, didn't do anything," Cabriele said. "If Thomas Jefferson had run as a Democrat on Tuesday, he would have lost."

He said he did not think Williams was a good candidate and agreed that Williams had misrepresented Russell's record.

In fact, the state party supported Williams far more than it did in 2000, when it recruited a candidate to run against him in the Democratic primary.

That he lost despite so much help, Williams said, has him thinking about this as his last run for office.

He was taught not to be a quitter, he said, "but right now I'm trying to get back to being a husband and grandfather and a father."

Russell, for his part, said he not only looks forward to serving another two years, but also to running a positive campaign if he is challenged again. That's because it proved to be effective this year.

"I don't think there's any question about it," he said. "I had a number of people congratulate me on waging a very positive campaign."

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