Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Iowa's Ten Worst Campaigns

In the wake of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s landslide loss to incumbent Rick “the Platypus” Perry in this week’s Texas governor primary, the Houston Chronicle has gotten a lot of blogger attention for its top ten list of Worst. Texas. Campaigns. Ever.

I’m one of those record store list geeks like John Cusack and Jack Black in “High Fidelity,” so I see a top ten list as a challenge. Here’s my Iowa version. We aren’t nearly as colorful as Texas, but we have caucus season to make up for it.

I’ve steered away from sacrificial lambs, with one exception. And despite the horror stories I’ve heard of John Glenn’s 1984 campaign, I’ve limited myself to my own 20 years as an Iowan. And by coincidence, I produce an exactly bipartisan list, which leans a bit to my eastern side of the state. Please, add your own.

10. Eric Tabor (D), 1990, old 2nd Congressional District. This one was in the bag. Two earlier runs has gotten him the name recognition, and with incumbent Tom Tauke challenging Tom Harkin in the Senate race, the seat was open.

Then a staffer got caught ordering absentee ballots for his out of district parents, and the story broke the Sunday before the election. Just enough time for the charge, not enough time for the rebuttal. Thanks, staffer, for 16 years of Jim Nussle.

9. Peter Teahen (R), 2008, 2nd Congressional District. The early favorite of the DC crowd fizzled with the party base, as he narrowly lost the primary to Mariannette Miller-Meeks. Questions about the veracity of his disaster relief tales dogged the race. But the killer, for Republican activists, was a 2002 donation to…

8. Julie Thomas (D), 2002, 2nd Congressional District. Speaking of the DC crowd, Democratic beltway folks thought they needed nothing but the newly redistricted turf’s party ID and a self-funding candidate to beat Jim Leach. The national folks simply didn’t understand Leach’s still-viable above the partisan fray appeal. They just focused on getting out the Democratic vote; post-election polling showed Leach winning a quarter of that. Thomas fumbled the Iraq war vote, spending a day hedging while Leach was one of the only Republicans who voted no (even as Democrat Leonard Boswell voted yes).

So much for DC consultants; Leach eventually fell to a college professor with no money, no national help, and a beard.

7. Neal Smith (D), 1994, old 4th Congressional District. Smith had waited literally decades for his chance to chair the powerful House Appropriations Committee, until the guy ahead of him in seniority died in 1994. He had the job for a few weeks. Then, after the Iowa re-election filing deadline, Smith was voted out by the House Democrats in favor of Wisconsin’s David Obey.

Legislators who lose leadership fights often retire soon after. My guess is Smith would have done so in 1996, and his heart wasn’t in the re-election race anymore. Leach fell in 2006 in part because he refused to change his campaign approach, but Smith simply couldn’t change. He had never modernized his campaign skills. He never saw Greg Ganske coming in that 1958 Studebaker, representing the year Smith was first elected, and he got run over.

Speaking of:

6. Greg Ganske (R), 2002, U.S. Senate. Another DC-anointed one, Ganske almost blew his primary to upstart right-winger Bill Salier, and after that fiasco was dropped from the national Republican target lists while never unifying the party. Harkin’s easiest win until…

5. Christopher Reed (R), 2008, U.S. Senate. This one’s my comic relief. Where do I start? No campaign resource is more valuable than the candidate’s time, and he drives to Kansas City to personally pick up the yard signs? And brags about the money he saved going out of state? Then he spends the few bucks he saved on haircuts and clothes? Reed’s crowning achievement was calling Harkin “the Tokyo Rose of al-Qaida” in their one debate.

By late October Reed was reduced to complaining on talk radio that the state party had abandoned him, and at least one GOP county chair was urging write-in votes. Perennially vulnerable Harkin got his first walkover.

4. John Kerry (D), 2004 general election. All presidential years have some element of the folks from Boston or Little Rock or Chicago coming into Iowa and taking over the campaign. Chicago did it great, but Boston `04 did it lousy. Thousands of absentee ballots challenged for bad addresses–because they door-knocked the student apartments in June. Kerry was the only Democrat to lose Iowa in a presidential year since Walter Mondale, and Iowa was one of only two states to flip from blue to red in 2004.

3. Bonnie Campbell (D), governor, 1994. 19 points ahead after the primary. But instead of playing to her considerable strengths, she tried to compete on Terry Branstad’s turf. Campbell deliberately alienated the party activists by renouncing the platform (instead of just ignoring it like most candidates).

The summer headlines were dominated by an ugly child rape-murder, and Campbell’s message was, almost verbatim: “I’m tougher on crime than Branstad, that’s why I’m against the death penalty.” Why go there? All she needed to do was say “12 years is enough Terry Branstad” (take notes, Chet).

Campbell’s money went to bad ads like that, instead of to the field work that wins elections for Iowa Democrats. Maybe nothing could have won it for her in the best Republican year in decades… but it shouldn’t have been a landslide like it was.

2. Hillary Clinton (D), 2008 caucuses. Some of this was bigger than Iowa, and I’m still convinced she’d be president today if she’d voted no on the Iraq War.

But some of it was a bad Iowa campaign. We now know, on the record, that Clinton hated the Iowa caucuses, and it showed. The day before the erstwhile front-runner finished third, I elaborated:
Clinton ran a cautious general election campaign in the ultimate retail environment. But like a singer with perfect pitch who misses the meaning of the song, Clinton kept errors to a minimum but failed to capture the spontaneous spirit of the caucuses. She started out doing one on one meetings with undecided local activists, but as her national lead held, Clinton moved toward a “general election strategy,” as she said at a debate. By the time Obama was catching up in the fall, it was too late to go back and adapt.
Best single moment: Chelsea no-commenting the nine year old child reporter.
Bad as that was, my first thought reading the Chronicle piece and applying my Iowa lens was:
Three words: “Totally nude dancing?!?”
1. Jim Ross Lightfoot (R), governor, 1998. That bizarre last-minute “Totally nude dancing?!?” ad, targeting a minor procedural vote in the Legislature, was the last gasp of a campaign that had blown a double-digit lead to a guy whose name sounded like a pickle. Over-the top rhetoric, micromanagement, and a persona that wore thin (gruff and folksy degenerated to grouchy and mean). But “Totally nude dancing?!?” clinches Number One for ole Jim Ross.


John said...

Revisiting this 2 1/2 years later: I'd add Supreme Court 2010. The three justices didn't act on the fact that an active No campaign had changed the game. Since there was no campaign, let's call that one number zero.

Todd Versteegh said...


Some extremely glaring omissions here.

Here's some that I'd add.

Art Small--2004 US Senate.

A Democrat who couldn't WIN in Johnson County? That alone warrants inclusion on this list!

Chuck Grassley spent more time campaigning for other candidates across the state and country than he did on his OWN campaign against Small in 2004.

Lee Harder--2008 US Congress primary--IA 2

Tried playing for the ultra conservative vote, but ended up making a fool of himself by trying to accuse Mariannette Miller-Meeks of performing abortions. (Miller-Meeks is an eye surgeon, not a OB/GYN)

Harder not shockingly, was forced to apologize.

David Hartsuch--2008 US Congress

Hartsuch was known as a strong conservative while serving in the Iowa Senate, however, that reputation didn't help in in running against Bruce Braley.

Hartsuch couldn't fundraise and managed somehow to show up late to a debate that had been scheduled with Braley.

Not surprisingly, Braley pummeled Hartsuch on Election Day. Hartsuch then went on to lose a primary election in 2010 for his Senate seat to Roby Smith.

Connie McBurney--1996 US Congress

Democrats thought the ticket to defeating Greg Ganske in 1996 was to put up the well known TV weather personality from KCCI channel 8 in Des Moines.

Instead, Republicans used her TV background against her, saying that McBurney would be as wrong as often as her forecasts were.

McBurney got crushed by Ganske by over 13,000 votes.

John said...

For the most part I chose to avoid sacrificial lambs or no-chance candidates like Harder (especially when Teahen was blowing it in the same race). I suppose Hartsuch would have been just as good an example as Reed.

Art Small would have been a great Grassley opponent - in 1986 (when he ran for lt. gov, lost primary and left legislature). He was weaker than other Grassley opponents, sure, but he was a last second recruit to avoid a blank line on the ballot. After he did the party that favor, he was systematically undercut (I heard reports that state party was actively telling people NOT to give him $. which I think happened to Reed too). So I don't blame his campaign. And the loss in Johnson was no big deal: Roxanne Conlin was the first to beat Grassley in Johnson, or in ANY county, since... John Culver.

Not as familiar with the McBurney race.