In court filing, pollster reveals great detail about Lowden, vulnerabilities, last campaign

“I’m not the one with the checkbook. The consequences of inaction have been conveyed.” – Robert Uithoven, Sue Lowden’s campaign manager, 4/30/10

Almost exactly four years ago, Sue Lowden’s U.S. Senate campaign was struggling for money.

She was still well ahead of her primary opponents, Sharron Angle and Danny Tarkanian, in her own polling. But she was getting pounded on the "Chickens for Checkups" issue by Patriot Majority, a front group for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Pollster Todd Vitale was urging a TV ad response, and campaign manager Uithoven agreed. “I’m VERY much aware that we need an ad and the money to fund the ad to counter this enormous buy by Patriot Majority,” Uithoven wrote to Vitale and two other campaign consultants, Dick Wadhams and Rex Elsass.

Vitale would later offer to cut his polling rates, even as Lowden’s numbers began to go south and he began to worry about getting paid. And it turns out he was right to worry, as he has alleged in court that Lowden still owes him $77,000, part of $600,000-plus in unpaid obligations she has reported to the FEC yet again this week.

In a court filing two weeks ago to buttress his claim, Vitale submitted 150 pages of documents that seem like potential  harbingers of the current GOP primary for lieutenant governor and tear back the curtain for a rare, granular peek inside a campaign, and a disintegrating one at that. (Political junkies will have a field day poring through the documents, including one consultant referring to eventual primary winner Angle as a “doofus.”)

As state Sen. Mark Hutchison prepares to unload on Lowden on television, the central question in this contest is whether she will have the money to stay with him on TV. Some of the issues have not changed, including her past donations. Documents that Vitale submitted to a federal court indicate that she was worried in that 2010 Senate primary about her past contributions to Reid as well as those from her husband, Paul Lowden, to Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale, which have not been previously disclosed.

I have posted the entire Vitale court filing here – it contains a remarkable array of polling documents, which show Lowden going from well ahead to falling behind a streaking Angle in a short time span, as well as emails that no candidate would ever want publicly disclosed. (If you are interested, note the file is about 80 MB.)

Lesson, among many here: Don’t stiff consultants who have a lot of inside information about you.

Lowden has said she is paying her debts, although there is no evidence, and she also has asserted that “no one is complaining,” although Vitale clearly still is. And these documents bolster his case that he tried to work with Lowden’s campaign, even as Uithoven could not promise him she would write a check.

Here’s some of what is in there:

►Vitale writes in the court filing that Lowden’s campaign “had appeal for many reasons,” but especially because of her personal wealth. “Throughout her campaign, there was never a question as to whether she would be providing substantial personal resources to fund her race.” In September 2009, Vitale sent a proposal to Team Lowden for a “total research budget” of $375,172. Uithoven emailed him on Sept. 30 saying he had been hired.

►Vitale lays out in much detail, with backup documents, how he received prior approval for polling and: “Every request she made was met, and at not time, did she criticize or turn away the product of my efforts….At no time did she or any of her campaign staff ever declare, or even suggest, that she had a campaign committee that Vitale & Associates would have to look to for payment instead of her personally.” That is, he did the work, expecting to be paid.

►In his first poll, which is included in the filing, Vitale tried to gauge Lowden’s negatives, obviously provided by her. This is the kind of stuff campaigns NEVER release. Those included: Her defense of members of Congress who voted for TARP; her casino “has a record of under-paying her employees and even doing company layoffs while paying her husband hundreds of thousands of dollars in bonuses as head of that company”; her legislative tax votes; her 1990 voted for a pro -choice statute; her vote as a lawmaker against mandatory vaccines and mandatory mammograms; and her donations to Reid early in his federal career and the fact that the Lowdens “also gave money to other Democrats in the past, such as Carter and Mondale.” (Her campaign said Lowden’s friend, the late Elias Ghanem, asked them to come to an event for Mondale when he was running for president.)

►On April 15, 2010, less than two months before the primary, Vitale penned a memo to the campaign, saying, “All of the hits tested on Sue appear to have the potential to resonate with GOP voters.” Indeed, 61 percent said they were less likely to vote for her because of the Democratic contributions. But Lowden had 49 percent of the GOP vote, Tarkanian had 21 percent and Angle had 7 percent. In a follow-up memo, Vitale said Angle does not seem to have “the base of support necessary to build momentum quickly.” And so many thought at the time.

►On April 15, Uithoven wrote a memo to the campaign, emphasizing that a Review-Journal survey backed up their own results and that Lowden has “plenty more personal (money) if she needs to use it.” She would eventually infuse $2 million.

►By May 2, Vitale was asking Uithoven if Lowden would “consider paying a win bonus, as a show of good will for my lowering of fees?” He had already sounded a warning bell in an email to Uithoven about the large TV buy by the Patriot Majority. That day, campaign aide Jennifer Harrington emailed Vitale that they wanted to begin tracking polls – “and we have $40K to do it.” She mentioned that the campaign was “instituting several other cuts to make sure we have in mail and media what is needed down the final stretch.” No worries. Be happy.

►On May 14, Vitale presented the campaign with a memo of the tracking survey’s findings: Lowden had dropped 15 points, Tarkanian was only 9 points behind and Angle had more than doubled her strength and was 15 points down. He talked about “suffering a significant blow to our image following the chickens….” Five days earlier, clearly worried about whether he would get paid, Vitale emailed Uithoven and asked, “How was talk with Paul and Sue?” Four days earlier, he had emailed Uithoven about the nightly tracking: “Just to warn you….tonight’s numbers suck.” The next night: “Here are verbatims from last night’s track. Lots of chickens, and a side of Reid contributions.” On May 14, Uithoven seemed relieved that the Lowdens had agreed to pony up to respond to the double-barreled attacks from Tarkanian and Angle: “Gloves are off…. (finally, I know). We’ll have money for these.” Or will they?

►By May 17, tracking was showing 37, Lowden; 32, Angle. Three days later, it was 37, Angle; 27, Lowden. That night, Vitale referred to what “we are painfully witnessing in our own private tracking…” By now, the campaign, as evidenced by the email traffic, was totally focused on stopping Angle, not knowing it was too late.

►On May 21, Vitale presented a memo showing Lowden and Angle were in a dead heat. “It’s clear that we can no longer wait to hit Sharron.” On May 26, it was the same.

►By June 2, six days before the election, Vitale had it 36-31, Angle. He had picked up the momentum. On Election Day, it was Angle 40; Lowden, 26.

The documents present a compelling case that Vitale had done his job, and had worked tirelessly to help Lowden win, even going door-to-door for her at the end. There is no evidence that he ever thought an invoice would not be honored.

And thanks to the bitter parting, he has now released a road map for how to defeat her, showing she well knew – and knows – her own vulnerabilities. The question: Will the last two months of the 2014 primary be different?