Election campaigns sometimes are compared to a football game. Before a primary, candidates tend to run to the opposite goal posts in an effort to distinguish themselves from their opponents and appeal to their core supporters. After the primary, the game is played on and around the 50-yard line as candidates try to position themselves in the philosophical middle so they attract a broader spectrum of voters.
The analogy seems to have some application to this year's local elections, particularly the Lawrence City Commission campaign.
The three City Commission candidates who aligned themselves with the Progressive Lawrence Campaign were dancing in the end zone after Tuesday's primary vote. The group's "smart-growth" agenda and "neighborhood" organization drew many like-minded voters to the polls and resulted in a 1-2-3 finish for Mike Rundle, Dennis "Boog" Highberger and David Schauner.
Slightly more battered, but still in the game were three other candidates who have voiced support for the city's use of tax abatements and other measures to support the Lawrence economy. Whether they intended it or not, Lynn Goodell, Lee Gerhard and Greg DeVilbiss, in the minds of many voters, were placed at the opposite end of the playing field from the Progressive Lawrence candidates.
So what happens now? Will the candidates continue to concentrate their campaigns on the core constituencies that won the primary, or will they turn toward the 50-yard line in search of additional support? Will they reach out to the voters in the vast middle ground who may have felt somewhat left out of the polarized primary campaign?
It seems safe to say that if the three Progressive Lawrence candidates maintain their standing and are elected to the commission on April 1, the community can expect a drastic shift in city policy concerning economic development and business attraction. It seems unlikely that such a 180-degree turn is what Lawrence voters in the middle ground are looking for. However, Tuesday's election results indicate that the message being delivered by other candidates is failing to resonate with voters.
Turnout, obviously, is a huge issue. The 23 percent turnout in Tuesday's primary was significantly larger than the turnout in recent city primaries, which is good news. How many people turn out to vote and what philosophies they bring to the polls also will be a key to victory or defeat in April. How many fans will be in the stadium on Election Day, and what degree of involvement and interest will they bring to the occasion?
It would be unfortunate if the April election were decided by a narrow spectrum of voters camped out in each of the philosophical end zones defined by Tuesday's election results. The candidates who deserve to be successful are those who can move to the middle of the field and maybe even act as referees for the many divergent interests represented in Lawrence.
Too many issues and elections in Lawrence are characterized as contests between "us" and "them." The people elected on April 1 will represent all of Lawrence. The middle of the field seems like the best place from which to see and hear the many opinions and viewpoints that city commissioners must consider as they make decisions that affect us all.