At least you cannot call them dishonest politicians. There are, however, so many more appropriate and unflattering adjectives that come to mind when describing the campaign strategies of two North Eastern Republican gubernatorial candidates, Maine’s Paul LePage and New York’s Carl Paladino. If they lose, and at least one almost certainly will, they will go down as the most suicidal campaigners of 2010.
Carl Paladino’s campaign flubs are now the stuff of comedy programs, quickly replacing Christine O’Donnell as most hilarious pol of the day. Carl Paladino was perhaps playing to a base Orthodox Jewish constituency when he said outright that children "brainwashed into thinking that homosexuality is an equally valid and successful option -- it isn't."
Whether or not you believe that this is a valid socio-political position to hold, it is not a winning one in relatively pro-Democrat New York State. Paladino has since come out and apologized, but he has been nothing but clear on his opposition to gay marriage and abortion for any other purpose than medical necessity. Both issues are staples of the progressive and Democratic campaign diet. Those “wedge issues” provide the easiest and most effective way for Democratic politicians to position themselves in opposition to and simultaneously change the subject from the economy and the Democrat’s record in Washington. At the very least, it was political amateurism that Paladino’s positions on these issues are public knowledge and the subject of public debate.
But it is an anti-incumbent year and perhaps the voters of New York will reward the inconsummate, unpolished political persona that actually tells voters precisely what he believes—even if it is unpopular. That kind of iconoclasm might be forgivable in today’s climate when voters are repulsed by anything that suggests the political status quo. It turns out that there are still some social positions that will turn voters off, even today.
Paladino surged out of the box with two polls that show him within 10 points, one from Quinnipiac on September 16-21 and the other from SurveyUSA on September 20-21. Both polls shocked the establishment and portended that the governor’s race in New York would be closer than almost anyone had expected. Paladino’s opponent, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, is political royalty in New York – a downstate descendent of the popular, but ousted, former governor Mario Cuomo. Paladino could perhaps position himself in opposition to Democrats in Washington and Albany, both of which are unpopular outside New York City, and squeak out a victory. Then gaffe after gaffe after gaffe from the Paladino camp slowly chipped away at his momentum.
The two polls taken since the anti-homosexual flap show Paladino down by more than 20 percentage points; a glance at the RCP average trend line shows the momentum that Paladino had maintained at the end of last month has reversed itself. To add hypocrisy to the charge of intolerance, it turns out Mr. Paladino collects rent from two Upstate New York gay bars. This revelation invalidated the “at least he is a straight shooter” defense.
Columnist Charles Krauthammer proffered that Mr. Paladino would lose by 20 points. Pundits tend to avoid precise predictions like those. There is still room for the campaign dynamics to change, but political tea leaf readers, for the most part, are sticking a fork in that race.
In Maine, Democratic Governor John Baldacci has served in the executive’s office since 2003. In the race to replace him, Republican and Waterville Mayor Paul LePage faced Democratic Senate President Libby Mitchell, with a strong independent third party candidate in lawyer Eliot Cutler also standing in the race.
Since 1953, Maine has alternated between Republican and Democratic gubernatorial administrations, with two independents breaking that trend in the 1970s and 1990s. With Governor Baldacci’s Democratic administration coming to a close and a Republican “wave” election upon us, Paul LePage has strong tailwinds sending him towards the governor’s mansion. In September, three polls showed LePage up double digits.
Then in mid September, LePage held a press conference to clear up allegations that he and his wife had spent the majority of their time at a Florida residence and avoided paying Maine taxes. After that press conference, a widely circulated video of a churlish LePage responding to questions from a reporter by adopting a boxer’s stance seriously hurt voter’s impressions of his ability to remain cool headed as the chief executive.
That meme has proved hard to shake and LePage has done little to mollify anxieties over his temperament. He joked to a reporter that he was “ready to punch [reporter] A.J. Higgins.” The line was clearly a intended to be humorous, but it reinforced the already sticky impression of LePage as a hot head. He declared, confidently, that he would tell the President to “go to hell” – the exchange at a fisherman’s forum made state-wide headlines.
Since these gaffes have come to light, LePage’s poll numbers have collapsed. Rasmussen has LePage at 35 percent to Mitchell’s 32 percent and Cutler’s 21 percent. Pine Tree Politics puts LePage’s lead at 30 points to Mitchell and Cutler’s 29 and 11 points, respectively. A Critical Insights poll from September 27 has Mitchell leading by a single point, her first lead in the entire campaign. It cannot be discounted as statistical noise; these political mistakes have hurt LePage badly. He may not recover.
Both Paladino and LePage have retreated to the sometimes-I-am-not-politically-correct defense, but both politicians’ gaffes are reflective of more than insensitivity. If they simply shot from the hip from time to time, it may be forgivable and independently minded voters may even gravitate toward that kind of a candidate. But these statements and actions are evidence of more serious personality flaws, flaws which may disqualify them for high office.
Paladino’s and LePage’s campaigns, and the Tea Party phenomenon that nominated both of them over established GOP candidates, will be heavily scrutinized after the elections. It may turn out that voters have not abandoned “politics as usual” after all. All politicians are negotiators first and a bit of diplomacy is required to execute the job effectively.
Being impolitic on the campaign trail is one thing, but these candidates have clearly made voters nervous. Perhaps there is something to be said for the charm school approach.
Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org