Capitol Perspectives: Overcoming Political Catastrophes
In the aftermath of the Todd Akin controversy, one of my reporters asked me if I could remember a Missouri politician who had recovered from a similar catastrophic setback.
I could not immediately think of one Missouri candidate who has been able to reverse a catastrophic setback.
Instead, what I recall is a long history of campaigns that got derailed by an event, story, self-inflicted wound or bad behavior. And no matter how hard those candidates tried, their campaigns never got back on track.
For Missouri, the biggest example would be U.S. Sen. Tom Eagleton. He was the Democratic candidate for vice president in 1972 — briefly. When stories emerged that he had undergone electric-shock treatment for depression, he was pushed off the ticket despite initial assurances from the presidential nominee, George McGovern, that he stood behind Eagleton “1,000 percent.”
In 1992, Republican Bill Webster appeared to have the edge to become the state’s next governor. He lost that edge when stories emerged that he was under federal criminal investigation. Webster frantically kept denying the stories, but his campaign was finished and Democrat Mel Carnahan was elected. Webster later ended up in federal prison.
Another Missouri public figure who saw his political future destroyed by a criminal investigation was Warren Hearnes — despite not being charged with anything.
Hearnes had been one of the most effective and dynamic governors I’ve covered. But in the aftermath of stories about federal criminal investigations into his administration and his taxes, Hearnes never again won elective office. Instead, he lost every subsequent race after he left as governor in 1973 — races for the U.S. Senate, state auditor and even for a local judgeship to which he had been appointed to fill a vacancy.
Most recently, we’ve seen Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder drop his expected campaign for governor after stories about his visits to a bar that featured scantly clad women. Kinder did win the August GOP nomination to keep his job as lieutenant governor. This November, we’ll see if there’s a full political recovery.
The most tragic campaign reversal we’ve seen in recent Missouri history came after Carnahan’s death in the closing weeks of his campaign for the U.S. Senate in 2000.
Prior to Carnahan’s fatal plane crash, polls showed Republican John Ashcroft well ahead in his campaign for re-election. But that was dramatically reversed after Carnahan’s death.
Ashcroft tried to get his campaign back on track, but the emotions that arose from Carnahan’s death and the stand-in campaign of his widow had a lasting impact Ashcroft could not overcome. He became the first man in American history to lose a U.S. Senate race to a dead man.
Yet, Ashcroft also is a demonstration of how to recover. The recovery, I think, from his near-tearful concession speech. “Missouri is a compassionate state and, I think, in a very special way, they have demonstrated their compassion,” he said.
Before the end of the year, George Bush named Ashcroft as his choice to be U.S. attorney general. I remember wondering at the time if the gracefulness of Ashcroft’s concession played a part in his selection.
Another example of recovery arises from the 1976 campaign of Democrat Joe Teasdale against Kit Bond’s re-election campaign for governor.
Teasdale had a track record of verbal blunders and he made a major blunder during his campaign. Consumer protection was a major theme of his campaign. He promised that if he were elected, he would fire the five members of the Public Service Commission which regulates utilities.
Oops. PSC members serve terms fixed by law. They cannot be fired — even by a governor.
It was a huge campaign gaffe. Yet, Teasdale was able to overcome that gaffe and defeat the sitting governor.
He did it with some of the slickest TV commercials I’ve seen in Missouri. They flooded the airwaves in the closing weeks of the campaign. Bond was unprepared for the avalanche of TV ads. The GOP governor struck me as overly confident and taking his re-election for granted until it was too late.
But, there was another component to Teasdale’s success that might provide a lesson for today’s political candidates. The Jackson County Democrat misspoke so often that he had become adroit at sidestepping verbal missteps. At times, Teasdale displayed almost humor as he would acknowledge his verbal mistakes. It seemed to take off the edge.
Teasdale adeptly sidestepped the PSC gaffe simply by switching to a promise that he would demand the resignations of the PSC members.
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