Friday, September 10, 2010

Why Incumbents Lose, Part Five

Most incumbents lose because of themselves, but a few have the bad luck to face great challengers. Let’s look at the upstarts more closely.

Every challenger thinks he or she is top-notch, but very few of them are. We define a great challenger as having the following four qualities.

1. Well-financed
A challenger may not have more money than an incumbent, but a successful one needs enough to compete.

2. Pre-existing base of support in the district
Fly-by-night challengers to incumbents almost always lose. The best ones start off with a base of supporters and volunteers that can match, or even surpass, the incumbent.

3. Knows how to exploit incumbent’s problems
Most incumbents have vulnerabilities. Great challengers know how to expose them and use them to their advantage.

4. Works HARD
Incumbents almost always have money, institutional support and some base inside the district. Great challengers counter their advantages with sheer hard work, often over long periods of time.

Here are the best challengers from Montgomery County over the last four election cycles, along with why they were so special. Note the occasional input from our fabled spy network.

4. Rob Garagiola, defeated Republican Senator Jean Roesser (D-15) in 2002

Twenty-nine-year-old Rob Garagiola seemed cast by Hollywood as an ambitious, energetic young politician. The 2001 Montgomery County Democrat of the Year and former paratrooper started campaigning against the 72-year-old incumbent over a year before the general election. But the race almost did not happen as District 17 Delegate Cheryl Kagan was nearly redistricted into District 15 for a challenge to Roesser. When that fell through, Garagiola was off to the races for a clean shot at the incumbent.

In 2002, District 15 was a swing district. Roesser, a Republican, had knocked off incumbent Democrat Larry Levitan in 1994. Partisan dynamics did not guarantee Garagiola victory in a good year nationally for the GOP. So he knocked on tons of doors, poured in nearly $200,000 in self- and family-financing and beat the incumbent by just 755 votes, or two percentage points. Garagiola’s work ethic still shows in his excellent fundraising and ascension up the leadership ladder in Annapolis.

3. Phil Andrews, defeated County Council Member William Hanna (D-3) in 1998

Andrews, once a high-level amateur tennis player and then the director of Common Cause, is Montgomery County’s undisputed champion of door knocking. He put that skill to good work in defeating a four-term incumbent in a district race. Andrews, who is a former MCGEO member(!), also enjoyed substantial labor support in his first win. That is ironic considering that he is now one of labor’s greatest enemies in the county. Then and now, Andrews refuses PAC and developer contributions.

Spy: Long out of step politically with his district, Bill Hanna had almost been defeated more than once. In a three-way race, though, the anti-Bill votes were divided. In 1998, the field was just two candidates. Phil hustled the progressive votes and ran circles around Hanna.

Spy: Phil had already run an energetic, but unsuccessful campaign for Council at-large in 1994, so he knew a lot about campaigning. The district race was better suited to his strengths as a likable, retail, door-to-door campaigner. His youthful energy and good looks worked to his advantage against the then 77-year-old Bill Hanna, who had developed a reputation as a curmudgeon and a bit of an eccentric. Hanna had alienated labor unions (which Andrews would also eventually do) and had particularly alienated the gay community by opposing domestic partner benefits, which also hurt him among liberals.

2. Jamie Raskin, defeated Senator Ida Ruben (D-20) in 2006

It is certainly true that Senator Ruben, who had spent over thirty years in Annapolis, self-destructed in 2006. But Jamie Raskin was ideally suited to capitalize on her problems. Smart, liberal and devoid of pretense, Raskin was able to bring together Ruben’s enemies (including supporters of banished former Delegate Dana Dembrow) with District 20’s diehard leftists to engineer a stunning coup of Ruben. Raskin had an all-star campaign team boasting David Moon, Ryan O’Donnell, Miti Figueredo, Rebecca Lord and Jonathan Shurberg and a seemingly limitless army of volunteers. He even nearly equaled the incumbent’s fundraising, collecting $227,542 vs. Ruben’s $253,202. Despite making the Apple Ballot, Ruben was blown out by 33 points - the worst performance of any MCEA-endorsed incumbent in that cycle.

1. Chris Van Hollen, defeated Senator Patricia Sher (D-18) in 1994 and Congresswoman Connie Morella in 2002

How many Maryland politicians have knocked off a State Senator, a Member of Congress and a Kennedy? Just one: Chris Van Hollen.

Van Hollen’s 2002 campaign for Congress, during which he defeated District 15 Delegate Mark Shriver in the primary and incumbent Republican Congresswoman Connie Morella in the general, is well-known throughout the county and is even the subject of a book. But he would probably have never made it to Congress if he had not already knocked off another incumbent eight years before. Van Hollen was first elected to the House of Delegates from District 18 in 1990. Four years later, he ran against Senator Patricia Sher, a freshman in the upper chamber who had spent three terms in the House.

Spy: This is one of the most interesting races. Van Hollen was a Sher protegé - she picked him from a crowded field of aspirants to run on her “pro-choice” slate when she challenged longtime incumbent Margaret “Peg” Schweinhaut for the District 18 Senate seat in 1990. But then the young, ambitious Van Hollen bit the hand that fed him and took advantage of District 18’s history of volatility to take out his patron.

Spy: This was a combination of the self-destructing incumbent (see Ruben vs. Raskin, 2006) running into the ambitious, smart, hard-working young challenger.

Spy: Chris out-organized Patty and was already coasting to a big victory. She then shot herself in the foot in a Wash Post interview. Chris won huge and brought in newcomer Sharon Grosfeld on his coattails.

Spy: My most distinct memory of the campaign was this: Chris was already leading in the perception of those following the race (I don’t know if there were any polls), when Patti shot herself in the foot, head, and all parts of her body. During an interview with a TV station, she said in effect that “all the blacks in Annapolis are corrupt and on the take.” Whoa! Patti was not racist, but that stupid statement clinched it for Chris. She doubled her error by claiming she thought the conversation was off the record. Oy!

Spy: Sher did her best to vote pro-business and annoy EVERY municipal official in her district. Also, there was her racist comment at the end of the campaign. Chris just pointed all this out. Also, Chris smartly (does he ever make mistakes?) chose NOT to build a slate against the incumbent delegates (thereby assuring that they would not campaign).

The end result of all of the above was an incredible 50-point blowout for the then-35-year-old Delegate over the Annapolis veteran. Van Hollen’s ability to combine ground game, message, discipline and organization makes him both an outstanding candidate and a great adviser to other candidates, as national Democrats were pleased to find out in 2008. Maryland’s incumbent U.S. Senators better hope that he never runs against them.

So what are the lessons for incumbents from this series? First, if you are not lazy, perform your job decently and lack lots of enemies, you will very likely be re-elected. As one of our informants says, “Basically, if you are an incumbent, and you knock on doors, don’t offend anyone, vote the wrong way or pick your nose (in public) you win.” But as we have seen above, every election cycle generates at least one great challenger. Say a prayer every night that he or she is not living in your district!