Even in a Wave, Some Get Just What They Deserve

by Stuart Rothenberg November 18, 2008 · 11:05 PM EST

It isn’t easy being a candidate for Congress. It takes an unnatural amount of time and effort to put together a winning campaign, and even then, circumstances can conspire against a candidate who does everything right.

But being a confident candidate, even one with a credible campaign, doesn’t justify absurd claims and press releases. Some campaigns simply are in denial when it comes to what is important or what is possible, and it is those campaigns that drive me crazy.

Wealthy Democrat Jim Harlan was convinced he could beat Republican Rep. Steve Scalise in Louisiana’s 1st district, even though the district is the state’s most educated, most affluent and most Republican. George W. Bush drew a stunning 71 percent in the district in 2004, an even stronger showing than he had in Wyoming.

Harlan put more than $1.2 million from his own pocket into the race, and his campaign directed some of the most ridiculous attacks of the cycle against his opponent. For example, the Harlan campaign criticized Scalise for misleading voters by claiming he had a 100 percent voting record, even though he did have a perfect attendance record. “Scalise actually missed 1,453 votes in the 110th Congress before taking the seat in May,” charged a bizarre Harlan press release.

In the end, while Harlan’s campaign bragged about being added to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Red to Blue” program and touted a late September Kitchens Group poll showing Scalise with an 11-point lead, the Democratic challenger drew an embarrassing 34 percent of the vote, losing by 32 points. He never had a chance, but his campaign acted as if a win was likely.

Then there was Steve Greenberg, a Chicago- area Republican who promised that he would beat moderate Democratic Rep. Melissa Bean in Illinois’ 8th district. Greenberg got plenty of ink for being a one-time professional hockey player, and his family’s wealth was supposed to assure that he’d batter Bean with enough TV spots to win in the Republican-leaning suburban district. He was one of the National Republican Congressional Committee’s early hot recruits.

But if Greenberg ran a quality campaign, it must have been in a parallel universe where everything is opposite from this one. While Bean raised $3 million for her re-election effort, Greenberg didn’t even reach $1 million, and he put only $156,000 of his own money into a race that quickly turned from potentially competitive to a yawner.

Unlike Greenberg, New Jersey Democrat Dennis Shulman didn’t give up. Shulman, a blind rabbi and psychologist, acted as if articles about him and his candidacy in Time magazine and the New Yorker, as well as an endorsement from the mayor of New York City, made him a celebrity and a serious threat to incumbent Republican Rep. Scott Garrett. They didn’t. Most people in his district don’t read those magazines or care what Michael Bloomberg thinks.

Garrett’s district strongly leans Republican, and Bush won it with 57 percent in 2004, running more than 11 points ahead of his statewide total. Credible Republican statewide candidates always carry the district even if they are getting pounded statewide.

Despite all the self-generated hype and over-the-top campaign rhetoric, Shulman drew 42 percent against Garrett — almost 2 points worse than Paul Aronsohn (D) did two years earlier and only 1,300 votes more than 2004 Democratic nominee Anne Wolfe did.

Then there is Republican John Stone, a conservative activist and former Congressional staffer, who got slightly more than one-third of the vote in Georgia’s 12th district and blamed his loss to incumbent Rep. John Barrow (D) on the NRCC.

Stone’s own fundraising stunk, and he had no chance in the current environment to win in a 45 percent African-American district that was carried by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) four years ago. But that didn’t stop him from trying to avoid responsibility for his own failure.

The case of Indiana hopeful Mike Montagano (D) is in a class all by itself. Like a few other allegedly serious hopefuls I’ve met over the years, he was short on credentials and maturity. Even worse, he either couldn’t or wouldn’t take positions on issues.

Montagano, who received considerable financial help from his father, clearly was in over his head in this race, and his ability to win 40 percent of the vote says something about incumbent Rep. Mark Souder’s limited appeal and district voters’ willingness to vote for any Democrat on the ballot.

Finally, we have the case of Nick Leibham (D), a young, appealing challenger to incumbent Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.) in a district that seems to have a ceiling for Democrats in competitive federal races that is below 50 percent, no matter the circumstances.

Leibham assured us that he was the guy to knock off Bilbray, even though Kerry drew 44 percent in the district and Francine Busby drew 45 percent and 43 percent in the ’06 special and ’06 general election, respectively.

The special election should have been a particularly good opportunity for Democrats in the district, since the seat was left open following Republican Rep. Duke Cunningham’s resignation, plea bargain and incarceration. But after a spirited campaign against a Republican who had been a lobbyist and in an environment when Republicans around the country were in terror, Bilbray beat Busby by 7,200 votes (4.6 points).

This year, Leibham drew 45 percent against Bilbray, just what Busby did in that special.