Strategist ‘Mudcat’ draws national attention (Roanoke Times)

Dave “Mudcat” Saunders believes success for Democrats involves avoiding such issues as guns and abortion, while focusing on “kitchen table” issues such as education.

By Michael Sluss
 
    Dave Saunders has the makings of a perfect pitchman. He’s witty, forcefully blunt and supremely confident in what he’s selling.

    But the Roanoke County property developer never expected to emerge as a spokesman for a political movement when he helped Democrat Mark Warner get elected governor in 2001.

    Saunders became a bit of a celebrity in that campaign – partly because of his role in crafting an innovative, highly publicized strategy to win over conservative rural voters and partly because of the colorful commentary he offered to sound-bite-weary reporters. Having a nickname like “Mudcat” didn’t hurt, either.

    Warner captured 51 percent of Virginia’s rural vote, an achievement not lost on national Democrats already looking ahead to the 2004 presidential campaign. Warner’s campaign manager, Steve Jarding, became a hot commodity. And Saunders, the “Bubba coordinator,” was ready to go along for the ride.

    “I went out for an egg sandwich one morning and ended up in the middle of a presidential campaign,” Saunders told members of the Democratic National Committee’s Southern Caucus last summer. “I still don’t know how I got here.”

    Jarding and Saunders spent most of 2002 working for the political action committee of North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, leaving shortly after Edwards officially announced his presidential bid. They later joined the short-lived presidential campaign of Florida Sen. Bob Graham, whose biggest media splash may have occurred when Saunders arranged to have the candidate sponsor a NASCAR racing truck.

    Along the way, Saunders, 55, became a sought-after source for reporters covering the battle for the hearts and minds of so-called “NASCAR dads” – the label pundits have attached to white, culturally conservative men who typically vote Republican in national elections. Saunders’ sharp-tongued remarks have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Christian Science Monitor, on CNN, MSNBC and the CBS Evening News.

    Saunders told them all that a Democratic presidential candidate can appeal to those voters if they show respect for gun rights and avoid letting social issues define their campaigns. If Democrats can “get through the culture,” they then can get rural voters to listen to their ideas about the economy, jobs and health care, Saunders argued.

    In other words, Saunders said in a recent interview at his home along Back Creek , Democrats have to overcome “the wuss factor.”

    “The lie is that the Republican Party is better for the white male than Democrats and that’s bull—-,” said Saunders in his mountain drawl.

    But Saunders admits that he and other like-minded Democrats face an uphill battle persuading rural, white males – especially Southerners – to abandon the GOP. For starters, exit polls indicate that nearly 70 percent of Southern white men who cast ballots in 2000 voted for President Bush. And national Democrats are divided over whether the party should devote resources to targeting “NASCAR dads” next year or contain its focus to voters in a handful of states that could swing the election.

    “The Democrats worry about holding their base in place,” said Saunders, who bristles at suggestions that Democrats should concede the South to Bush. “Mark Warner proved you can keep the core in place and expand your base. It’s as simple as walking and chewing gum at the same time.”

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    Saunders was looking for a new challenge in 2001 when then-state Del. Richard Cranwell of Vinton, his longtime friend and fellow Democrat, recommended him to the Warner campaign.

    Saunders gained notoriety by penning new lyrics to an old bluegrass song and turning it into Warner’s campaign anthem. He also brokered a deal to get Warner’s name on a NASCAR vehicle and worked tirelessly to rally conservative gun owners behind the millionaire businessman.

    Other factors certainly contributed to Warner’s victory. But what stood out to national Democrats was Warner’s ability to expand the base to rural areas, avoid getting mired in debates about guns and abortion, and focus on “kitchen table” issues such as education and economic opportunity. That’s the kind of strategy Jarding and Saunders would like to see Democrats employ on a larger scale.

    “Candidates campaigning in the South should be listening very carefully,” said Dick Harpootlian , the former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party.

    “The Republicans have been very effective in the cultural wars down South,” Harpootlian said. “But more blue-collar workers care about things like health care, education, job security and the environment.”

    Jarding said those voters have leaned Republican “because Democrats haven’t talked to them.”

    “There are all kinds of issues out there that are more important than social issues,” said Jarding, a career political operative who has worked for South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle and former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey. “But you can’t get to them if you don’t show the people you care about them.”

    Observers say that’s where Saunders excelled with Warner, developing tools such as bluegrass themes and NASCAR sponsorships that introduced Warner to rural voters and created a platform for the candidate to deliver his message.

    Warner said Saunders and Jarding were effective because their strategy was rooted in personal experience.

    “Part of the thing about ‘Mudcat’ and Steve is they’re both very genuine in their interest in and commitment to rural communities because they both come from rural communities,” Warner said. An avid outdoorsman, Saunders grew up in Roanoke County and attended Cave Spring High School.

    Saunders said he gained a new appreciation for the impact of his work on the Warner campaign when he and Jarding – now business partners – went to work for Edwards.

    “I had no idea what we had kicked up in the Warner campaign until I got to Washington,” Saunders said.

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    Jarding and Saunders spent 2002 traveling to early primary and caucus states to raise money for Edwards’ political action committee and to further test their rural strategy. A New York Times Magazine story described them as “apostles in a rental car,” delivering their testimony to Democrats in Iowa, New Hampshire and the South.

    “The national media just flooded us,” Saunders said. “It was unbelievable. It was just because we were doing something that was so different.”

    Saunders routinely referred to the senator as “Johnny” and told anyone who would listen that the millworker’s son-turned-millionaire lawyer understood rural voters and values. The Edwards committee sponsored a dirt-track race car in Iowa and made other obvious overtures to rural and Southern voters.

    It was no accident that Saunders became a magnet for reporters, said Chuck Todd, the editor of the Hotline, an online political tip sheet that compiles coverage from hundreds of newspapers, magazines, broadcast outlets and other sources.

    “Obviously, he’s someone who offers a good quote,” Todd said.

    But Todd said he overcame an initial reluctance to take Saunders seriously when he saw that Saunders’ work was based on research as well as instinct.

    “Anyone armed with the kind of data that he has should be taken very seriously,” Todd said.

    Saunders remains fond of Edwards, but he and Jarding parted ways with the candidate in January because of philosophical differences with the campaign staff. Graham brought them on board in May, and Saunders wasted little time putting his stamp on the campaign.

    On the night before Graham formally declared his candidacy in May, Saunders strolled the Miami Lakes, Fla., street where the announcement ceremony would take place. He noticed that a lingerie store would be in plain view of the stage, providing an unfortunate backdrop for photographers and television cameras. Saunders hastily arranged to have a handmade banner attached to the storefront, which resulted in a memorable visual: “Victoria’s Secret … Bob’s Gonna Win.”

    Saunders’ biggest contribution may have been the deal he arranged to have Graham’s campaign logo splashed on the Craftsman Truck Series vehicle of Stuart-based driver Jon Wood, who drove a Warner-sponsored truck in 2001. Wood helped generate national media coverage for the campaign – and the larger “NASCAR dad” strategy – by winning his first race under Graham’s sponsorship in July.

    Eleven days later, Wood, Graham and NASCAR driver Ward Burton appeared together at a Roanoke rally that Saunders organized. The rally and a concert the same evening by bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley were staged to underscore Graham’s desire to reach out to rural voters. Camera crews from CNN and the BBC recorded the scenes.

    “One of the groups of Americans that has felt like they haven’t been included is small-town agricultural people,” said Graham, explaining why he wanted to connect with rural voters.

    But Graham’s late start stunted his fund-raising ability, and he dropped out of the race in October. Saunders, who said he never got to know Graham well, no longer has a candidate. But he still has a message to sell.

    If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, imagine how Saunders felt earlier this month when Bush welcomed top NASCAR Winston Cup drivers to the White House.

    “That tells me we drew some blood,” said Saunders, who appeared on CNN the same day to talk about Democratic efforts to woo racing fans.

    Recent history suggests Bush has little reason to worry about holding onto his Southern base. He carried every Southern state in 2000, including Al Gore’s home state of Tennessee. Republicans last month picked up governorships in Kentucky and Mississippi that had been held by Democrats. And GOP candidates have been given better-than-even chances of replacing retiring Democratic senators in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina next year.

    Republican Party of Virginia spokesman Shawn Smith questioned the capacity of the current crop of Democratic candidates to appeal to rural voters. He noted that front-running candidate Howard Dean gained momentum largely by tapping into antiwar sentiment and hostility toward Bush.

    “They’re becoming more angry and more liberal,” Smith said. “That doesn’t sound like NASCAR values to me.”

    Political scientist Thomas Schaller questions whether overtures to “NASCAR dads” can pry loose enough votes to swing any Southern state to a Democratic presidential candidate.

    “Were it a national popular election, it wouldn’t matter where you got those votes,” said Schaller, a professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

    But that doesn’t mean Democrats can’t succeed with the strategy in key swing states north of Dixie, he said.

    “There are NASCAR voters in northern New Hampshire, western Pennsylvania, central Missouri and southern Illinois,” Schaller said.

    Saunders agrees that his rural strategy ideas have application far beyond the South. But he rejects suggestions that Democrats should concede the South to Bush, especially since population growth has given the region more electoral votes.

    “To just turn our back on a whole group of people just doesn’t make sense to me,” Saunders said.

    Saunders said the party also jeopardizes its chances of regaining majorities in Congress if it fails to fight for the support of rural and Southern voters.

    “Unfortunately for ‘Mudcat,’ it looks like he’s going to be proven right by failure,” Todd said.

    Whether Saunders will have a role in going after those voters next year remains to be seen. Since Graham’s campaign folded, Saunders has resumed his real estate business, hunted deer and spent time with his two daughters. He also has continued taking calls from reporters who want his take on everything from Bush’s visit with NASCAR drivers to Howard Dean’s comments about courting voters with Confederate flags in their trucks.

    Saunders said he and Jarding may return to the campaign trail, but probably not before the successful Democratic candidate nails down the nomination. And if Saunders stays on the sidelines, he’ll do so with a perfect record in one respect.

    “I’ve never had a candidate tell me to shut up,” Saunders said.

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