Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Democrats Botch US Senate Elections, Too

Ghost of Dick Clark: "Next topic on 'The $25,000 Political Pyramid': the US Senate"

Cokie Roberts: "Todd Akin, Sharon Angle, Christine O'Donnell, the idiots in Montana and North Dakota"

Me: "People who lost elections... People ripped by the media solely because of their party...Wait! Bad GOP candidates who lost winnable elections!"

Ghost of Dick Clark: "Correct!!!!"

The GOP has thrown away a half dozen US senate seats in the '10 and '12 election cycles. Some losses are due to the media double standard when it comes to gaffes and some are due to odd primary races. Todd Akin won a three way race with Democrat help, and if not for a bad choice of words, would have won. Angle won another three way race with strong Tea Party support, when Tarkanian was the better choice. O'Donnell was a Tea Party darling who was a bit of a TP flavor of the month. The brilliance behind the Mark Kirk and Scott Brown elections is matched by the stupidity of the losses previously listed. Stupidity crosses political lines, and the Democrats have pissed away Senate seats. The reasons can be the same: poor primary fight, no strategy or simply poor long term vision. Few instances of this are as fresh in my mind as the US Senate election cycles in Maine of '94 and '96. With a mind towards the long term and not just in the moment, Mainers would be talking about the independent senator Angus King joining the senior US Senator, and Democrat, Tom Andrews.

Maine is a bit of a weird case in American politics. In the last 25 years, it has had two term governors that have been Democrat, Republican and Independent, US senators that are Dem, GOP and Independent, House reps from both parties, two female senators (both GOP), and statewide elections where third party candidates (not named Angus King) have garnered more than 30% of the vote. The state turned from reliably Republican to safely Democrat in presidential elections recently. A pet theory is that retired Massachusetts + New York couples have infiltrated Maine as well as the complete Shire like bubble that Mainers (whitest + greyest state in the Union) live in where they have no clue how the rest of the dangerous world works (yes, like hobbits). There are national trends at play as well, and it is with great luck on the GOP's side that the Democrats completely blew the US Senate elections of the mid '90s.

At the start of the '90s, Maine had two very popular an well regarded senators in George Mitchell (D) and Bill Cohen (R). Senator Mitchell announced his retirement in 1994. The GOP looked set to run Olympia Snowe, who was a moderate republican "Mainah" that had served in Congress for a while. She also was the GOP's bench. They had no on else besides Gov. McKernan, but his popularity had dipped after some campaign misrepresentations from 1990 came out. The Dems could use retread Joe Brennan who had lost a close election in 1990 for governor. He declined to run. Instead he ran for governor again in a three way race versus Angus King (eventual winner) and Susan Collins (who finished a distant 3rd). Mitchell pressured a two term Congressman named Tom Andrews to run against Snowe for his seat. Andrews was young, articulate and a rising figure.

Andrews was also a great guy. He was a Mainer who looked out for Mainers with an eye on the big picture. I knew him as a kid all the way up to my teenage years. He had a prosthetic leg. I didn't believe him when he explained his disability, so he told me to take a pen, a stapler, anything in the room and whack his leg. He faked pain, which scared me, but then had me knock on it with a champagne cork for the rest of the afternoon at the party. That, and the champagne, made the other adults laugh. After that, when he came to my house or a relative's house and knew I was there, he'd take his leg off, drape it around his shoulders, walk up to the door to freak me out, and then say something like, "Who wants to play some football?". Andrews was hesitant to run, but when a former Senate Majority Leader asks you to run to save his seat, you do it. Andrews did not have the brand recognition of Snowe, was a bit too liberal for Maine in '94, and had voted for closing an air force base in northern Maine (ouch). It was also the '94 Contract with America wave election. Snowe crushed Andrews. Andrews old seat even flipped to the GOP. Brennan lost a close race to King (35% to 34%) but bested Susan Collins by 11%. Dirty secret of Brennan's '94 campaign was that he was drinking (wait, that's bad), rumor was that he was drinking. He came to my middle school as a promotional bit. In Alex P. Keaton mode, and because I had met him before so I wasn't intimidated, I asked him the only question he managed to take. He rambled on, never answering me, and he left all of us confused at how dumb and tired he looked. The stupidity of the Democrats was that they pushed a not quite ready candidate (Andrews) to run for a seat versus a very good opponent. The Dems did not think long term. They should have conceded that race. The US Senate election of 1996 would explain why.

When Bill Cohen took the Secretary of Defense job from Bill Clinton, the Democrats thought they had a good set up. Clinton had coattails in '96, the GOP had nobody, and Clinton was coming to Maine for a campaign speech to boost all candidates. Who did the Democrats run? Joe Brennan. He won a primary versus a divided field. Even though he was old news, the Dems' hopes were high. After all, Collins had finished 11 percentage points behind him two years earlier in a GOP wave year. Voters questioned her Mainah roots, too. What could go wrong? Brennan lost. Collins has been the junior US Senator ever since, destroying even her toughest challenger (long time Rep. Tom Allen). The Democrats in '94 couldn't see that Snowe and the election climate were decidedly in the GOP's favor. Holding Andrews back, they could have had a three term congressman with more name recognition (and two more years after the Loring closure issue) running for the senate during a presidential election year with President Clinton's coattails.

One seat can make a difference. Imagine W's first term from a domestic policy standpoint after the Jeffords defection if Maine has Tom Andrews instead of Susan Collins. Does that one seat make a filibuster proof US senate of 2009-2011 pass a much more socialist health care overhaul? The long term effects of one screw up can still be felt today. If the GOP leadership and pundit class want to blame anyone for problems with political gridlock or dealing with an odd negotiator (President Obama), they can start with themselves. The most glaring recent examples are on the GOP side of the aisle (Florida in 2010 for Dems), but this cuts both ways. A simple reshuffling of senate candidates at different times in a small, hick state might be all that separates us from that great progressive dream of socialized medicine. That is hyperbolic, but it grants Maine importance for two elections than the state normally merits. It does reinforce that state party infrastructure matters. Change starts at the ground level, and the right needs to focus on selection, presentation and packaging. What the GOP needs to understand, which informed voters understand, is that their margin for error due to the media and low information voters is a lot lower than for Democrats. They need to choose wisely, unify and show up if they want to win.

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