Fenty Loss A National Warning Bell for Incumbents of All Stripes

Was Vincent Gray‘s victory and the Washington Post‘s story about Adrian Fenty‘s inability to read the tea leaves a warning sign for the general election to come on November 2, or just a single case of a politician being their own worst enemy?  Was it just that Fenty was a jerk and ignored his base or is there a warning sign for the campaigns in Texas, Kansas, Ohio and elsewhere?

It’s still too early to tell but Fenty’s inability to succeed with the power of incumbency, a much bigger warchest than his opponent and a compelling argument for having “gotten the job done” is one of the final warning bells of the bizarre 2010 midterm election season.

For all the reasons not to vote for Fenty, a better politician or campaign would not have fallen in to some of the same traps he did.  Put aside for a moment that he didn’t want to do polling or research and that he didn’t listen to focus groups until it may have been too late before we come back to it.

An incumbent has the advantage of already having been elected, and one that accomplishes as many things as Fenty accomplished has the advantage to tout those accomplishments.  A challenger like Gray normally needs to give the voters a reason to “throw the bum out.”  I don’t think Gray gave ample reason to do so, but he did demonstrate that he could be a good mayor, meaning that Fenty, in my mind, beat himself by allowing a majority of primary voters to pick the other guy because he didn’t explain well enough over four years or over the election, why they should stay with him.

Fenty’s scandals are small in comparison to other politicians who got themselves reelected and yet Gray was able to maximize them.  Gray didn’t attack Fenty’s record of accomplishment, instead focusing on his no-bid contracts and other items that Fenty’s camp could have done more damage control on, No-bid contracts are something politicians elsewhere have been doling out for years and managing to win reelection.

So how does a Democratic primary in a city whose politics go largely ignored by the national press corps who work in it every day, become relevant to the nation’s 2010 elections just weeks away from now?

We’re all painfully aware that the nation’s mood has soured with a horrible economy that shows few signs of being great again any time soon.  But neither Democrats or Republicans seem to be dishing out anything new.  Jon Stewart tore up the GOP’s latest plan or “Contract with America Part 2” as more of the same.

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But Bill Clinton, strategist-in-chief, says we need a plan, and I know from personal experience that there are those among the Democratic rank and file House members who want a national plan out there to tell people what Democrats are going to do for them if voters give them the majority again.  Some of these House Dems have been begging the leadership, who are really smart folks in their own right, to issue some sort of document like the “6 for 06” they put out before they took back the House in 2006.  But governing and beating up on the President are two completely different ballgames and although Democrats got health care reform and financial reform passed in to law, you can be sure, just as in those debates, we’ll have members of our own party bashing our own agenda if we are to put one out.

A final quick note about planning, Fenty and the sprint to Election Day.  Those who have done the polling, research, planning, fundraising, and who have put forth a clear, concise, effective message are the most likely to win, despite the Tea Party’s new games with both Republicans and Democrats.

I believe I heard James Carville once say that campaigns are like amoeba trying to cross a bridge.  Pieces fall off the bridge and pieces attach themselves to grow the amoeba.  But neither of the amoeba will make it all the way across the bridge.  Democrats and Republicans are going to lose incumbent seats this November.  But regardless of how good or bad the final unemployment numbers are heading in to the election, whichever candidate and candidate’s team has built their lists and done their legwork will win, and it doesn’t seem that Fenty, hard-working as he was, did the necessary work.

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