How Losing Leads to Winning

Losing an election can teach candidates valuable campaign lessons that could help them win statewide office later on.
by | August 25, 2011
 

Might the best way to win a statewide race be losing one?

It's counterintuitive. But it sometimes seems that for every candidate who loses and is never heard from again, there's another who puts together a victory the next time out.

When the Congressional newspaper Roll Call looked into this question in early 2006, it found that no less than 40 of the 100 U.S. senators then serving had lost at least one contest before winning their seat.

When I queried my sources in the 50 states for examples of losers-turned-winners, they responded with a flood of examples, ranging from Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to former Arkansas Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee to Minnesota Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, all of whom lost U.S. Senate races before they eventually won the governorship of their respective states. (Dayton did win a later bid for Senate prior to winning the governorship.)

While losers have managed to turn themselves into winners in every corner of the nation, Pennsylvania provides one of the most notable examples of this phenomenon. In the Keystone State, "losing a statewide race is considered a credential, not an impediment," says longtime Democratic consultant Larry Ceisler.

Take this Democratic father and son duo from Pennsylvania. Bob Casey Sr., now deceased, ran for governor in 1966 while serving in the state Senate and lost. After later winning a race for state auditor general, Casey proceeded to run two more losing campaigns for governor before finally winning the post in 1986 and serving two terms.

Bob Casey Jr., thanks in part to his family name, won the post of auditor general in 1996, but he went on to lose a gubernatorial primary to Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell before winning office as state treasurer in 2004 and a U.S. Senate seat in 2006. Long before defeating Casey Jr., Rendell lost the Democratic gubernatorial primary to Casey Sr. in 1986.

Meanwhile, two U.S. senators who have served alongside Casey Jr. also followed the same pattern. Arlen Specter lost primary battles for the Senate and governor's office before winning his Senate seat in 1980, while current U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey lost a 2004 primary bid against Specter before eventually filling his seat in 2010.

Then there's Democrat Jack Wagner, who lost a primary bid for lieutenant governor in 2002, but turned around and won the post of auditor general in 2004 (succeeding Casey Jr.). The woman to whom Wagner lost the nomination for lieutenant governor -- the late Catherine Baker Knoll -- had herself lost primaries for state treasurer. She was elected lieutenant governor in 2002.

"I think Pennsylvanians actually value the resilience that candidates show after a defeat," says Christopher Borick, a political scientist at Muhlenberg College. The candidates cited here "all handled defeat well and avoided any embarrassments between their losses and their eventual victories. None carried the stigma of failure."

The reality that Pennsylvania is a populous and diverse state may help explain the phenomenon.

"Pennsylvania is really more like four or five states," says Kirk Holman, a onetime Republican official in western Pennsylvania. "The reality is that you need to be able to play in them all to win a statewide campaign. A guy who wins in his first try at statewide office probably didn't win -- he was the other name on the ballot when the other person lost."

Still, the phenomenon is hardly unique to Pennsylvania. There's a long list of reasons why losers can sometimes become winners. Here are a few of them.

Losing is a good way to get your name out to voters.

An obscure candidate who runs a better-than-expected race can set themselves up as someone on the rise.

A good example is former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican who emerged from almost total obscurity by nearly knocking off Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley in 1990. Within three years, she was elected governor.

Another example is Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, who parlayed a strong but ultimately unsuccessful bid to unseat then-Sen. John Warner in 1996. He turned that defeat into a winning bid for governor just a few years later. Then, after being term-limited out of the governorship, he won his seat in the Senate.

Former Florida governors Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist lost statewide before winning, as did former state CFO Tom Gallagher and former state attorney general Bill McCollum. "Here in Florida, losing is almost the key to a career," says Democratic consultant Steve Schale. "It's so expensive to build name identification that you almost have to run once before you can win."

Losing helps you learn the ropes of campaigning and establishes your network of backers.

In Louisiana, Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal started out as a bit of a wunderkind -- he was named secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals at just 25, president of the University of Louisiana system at 28, and later an assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Jindal failed in his 2003 bid for governor -- his first campaign for elective office. But a year later he won a U.S. House seat, and in 2007, Louisiana voters elected him governor. He's all but a shoo-in for a second term this year.

One key difference between Jindal's first two gubernatorial runs, of course, was widespread dissatisfaction with the post-Hurricane Katrina leadership by Democrat Kathleen Blanco, who beat Jindal in 2003. But Jindal's later victory can be attributed to his efforts to improve his politicking, says Pearson Cross, a political scientist at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

"He assiduously cultivated Christian conservatives, day after day, following his defeat," Cross says. "He spoke at a church nearly every weekend and met everybody and did everything. When 2007 came around, he exceeded his 2003 performance in every parish."

In North Dakota, Republican Kevin Cramer ran several times for the state's at-large U.S. House seat -- never winning. Eventually, however, he won a race for public service commissioner (PSC).

"I know he attributed the name recognition and campaign contacts he developed in those races with his PSC win," says Rick Collin, a veteran state politico who now serves as communications and education director at the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

In Massachusetts, Republican Richard Tisei, a former state senate minority leader, ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 2010. He hasn't run for office again since his statewide loss, but he feels the experience will help his career eventually.

"It takes a lot of time to meet and establish relationships with financial contributors, and at this point, I have a pretty good network," Tisei says. "With Facebook and other social media becoming predominant, I have a pretty good base of supporters should I decide to run again."

Losing can give you time to improve your policy chops.

In Oregon, Democrat Ted Kulongoski lost the 1982 gubernatorial race to Republican Victor Atiyeh (who himself had lost a race for governor before winning the job in 1978). Kulongoski went on to win the governorship in 2002 and 2006. Between his first and second gubernatorial runs, Kulongoski directed a state agency, was attorney general and served on the state Supreme Court.

The experience in the interim helped him later, says Randy Stapilus, a political writer and publisher in the Pacific Northwest. "The first run for governor probably gave him some strong background and broad perspective in approaching those other jobs."

In an interview with the Salem Statesman-Journal in 2010, Kulongoski agreed with that analysis. The newspaper asked him, "Do you think you became a better governor when you finally did win 20 years later, not only because of the losses but what you went through afterward?"

Kulongoski answered, "Unequivocally, yes. ... You are better when you feel the hot breath of the voters -- and it singes your eyebrows when they tell you no."

Stapilus also points to Idaho Democrat Cecil Andrus, who in 1966 lost the primary race for governor, was appointed the nominee after the primary winner died in a plane crash, and lost the general election. Four years later, he defeated the incumbent he'd lost to. "Andrus has said that the loss and the four more years of growth meant that the governor he became was considerably better than the one he would have been had he won in 1966," Stapilus says.

Losing can inspire guilt among voters who backed a politician who turned out to be problematic.

In North Carolina, Republican Steve Troxler lost to Democrat Meg Scott Phipps in the 2000 race for state agriculture commissioner. But before her first term was completed, Phipps became mired in a corruption-related scandal that forced her out of office and eventually earned her a sentence of four years in federal prison.

In 2004, Troxler ran against the appointed successor and won, albeit narrowly. Mark Binker, a state political reporter with the Greensboro, N.C., News & Record, says he believes Troxler's experience in 2000 helped him four years later, giving him "a statewide organization good enough to fight a pitched battle and built for the long haul." Troxler was reelected easily in 2008 and is the favorite to keep his seat in 2012.

Another beneficiary of voter guilt was Illinois Republican Judy Baar Topinka. She served as state treasurer when she lost the 2006 gubernatorial race to Rod Blagojevich, who famously was impeached and removed from office in 2009 for corruption-related charges. By 2010, Topinka had made a comeback, winning the office of state comptroller.

Losing in a poor environment pays dividends when the environment is more favorable.

In Missouri, Democrat Claire McCaskill lost the gubernatorial race to Republican Matt Blunt in 2004, a year when George W. Bush won the state in the presidential contest. But two years later, in a wave election for Democrats, she was well positioned to win her U.S. Senate seat.

"She became a better candidate as a result of her 2004 loss and decided to run a smart 'rural' campaign in 2006," says Kenneth F. Warren, a political scientist at Saint Louis University.

In Connecticut, Dan Malloy lost the 2006 Democratic gubernatorial primary to New Haven Mayor John DeStefano, but it was a good career move, says former Republican state legislator and political commentator Kevin Rennie. "If Malloy had won the primary, he would have gone on to a blistering defeat by Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who was riding a mighty wave of popularity," Rennie says.

Four years later, after Rell decided against seeking another term, Malloy won the governorship. "I think losing that 2006 race made Malloy a better candidate, largely because he was better known and in no way embarrassed himself that year," Rennie says.

Of course, not every losing candidate is assured of turning things around -- and it could become tougher to do so as time goes on, says Bernadette Budde, a veteran political analyst with the Business Industry Political Action Committee.

"Looking back over 40 years, it strikes me that we've changed election exposure so much that it will be harder to recycle the retreads," she says. "Losing is much more 'public' now -- all that footage of appearances, tweets, Facebook entries and e-mails."

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