Tabitha Isner was tired of the fact that every reference to her began with the phrase, “despite being a Democrat.” Sure, being a Democrat in Alabama is not the golden ticket to election, but it’s frustrating that the label got in the way of Isner’s message to voters. Tabitha is an ordained pastor who believes the tenets of her faith are in alignment with the core beliefs of the Democratic party. As a moderate, she was beleaguered by voters who wanted her to be more progressive. Isner stood firm. She won her primary, so that meant voters liked her for who she was. She believes that being true to oneself is key in a campaign. You’ve got to understand your beliefs and the market you are in to win.
Isner decided to run for Congress because her opponent, Martha Roby, was not particularly popular and wasn’t very present in the district. In fact, during the campaign she rarely showed up. Talk about frustrating. This was the case in other elections in the mid-terms where Republicans refused to debate and were so sure of re-election, they didn’t even order yard signs. Isner said that her local paper reported that Roby had won a 5th term when she had only won the primary.
As is typical in the south, there was not a lot of knowledgeable campaign support readily available. I met Tabitha at the Atlanta Emerge Southern Bootcamp for candidates, so she had a skeletal background in what to expect. Her campaign manager was a young friend with no experience but she was a strong individual who was not easily intimidated. They figured out what resources were available to them, used social media broadly, canvassed across the district and built awareness through texting using Relay.
Fundraising was challenging to stay the least. There is not a large donor pool of Democrats in Alabama, and this year, said Isner, “There was a tsunami of great female Democratic candidates running in the state.” In fact, 27 Emerge graduates ran for office in Alabama. Everyone needed to raise money, but no one wanted to cannibalize other candidate’s donations. “We had to figure it out as we went along,” said Isner. Sometimes fundraisers with a large price tag went unattended. It turned out that gatherings outside of Alabama raised more money than those instate.
Resources were hard to come by. Tabitha explains that in these states where Democrats have not run in big numbers before, it’s like a start-up. Donors and volunteers need to be cultivated. Another deficit, noted Isner, was the lack of detailed information on a Congressional run versus state and local races.
The biggest frustration for Isner was the lack of media coverage. Roby was mostly absent, but when she did anything she was on TV. Tabitha held extremely newsworthy events but was not covered. The conservative media bias is difficult to overcome. Isner said she did run some TV commercials, but more earned media earlier in the process would have helped tremendously. Isner said, “It’s like I was counted out from the beginning.”
As Democrats, we need to be prepared to spread the love. If Tabitha had gotten broader support, more volunteers and more people who believed in her, who knows what she could have done. Democrats are out there. We just need to commit our time and resources to those stepping up to the plate to run. She was the better candidate with a message that should have resonated with Alabamans.