Gwen's Take: A Tale of Two Missed Connections

Posted: Thu, 11/07/2013 - 4:50pm

When Vice President Joe Biden called the wrong Marty Walsh the other night to congratulate him on winning the Boston mayor’s race, he was not the only politician struggling with mixed signals that night.

Biden could be forgiven for the misdial. There was clearly bad staff work at play here. (Plus, if I had a dime for every “Marty Walsh” living in Boston, I could probably afford to invest in Twitter.)

And Biden was not the only one to dial the incorrect number. The wrong Marty Walsh turned out to be a Democratic operative whose phone kept ringing as he watched election returns on the couch with his wife.

In the end, that mistake was not even the most serious miscalculation of the night.

No, that honor went to a Democrat – New Jersey’s Barbara Buono-- and a Republican – Virginia’s Ken Cuccinelli. Both ran for governor. One was trounced. The other lost a narrow contest. Both got outmaneuvered by people in their own party.

Buono had a thankless task – taking on a popular governor and national political personality whose tough-talking charisma had turned him into a media magnet even before Superstorm Sandy plowed into the Jersey shore.

Democratic State Sen. Barbara Buono was trounced by Republican Chris Christie who easily won a second term as governor of New Jersey [Photo: CNN].

It’s possible to see how Buono could have seen a chance to win in blue New Jersey, where Democrats have held sway for decades. But a lot of other Democrats (some of whom backed incumbent Republican Chris Christie) didn’t quite see it that way. National Democrats sat the challenge out, keeping their purse strings tightly laced. Local Democrats looked the other way. Buono’s misreading of sentiment within her own party turned out to be her Marty Walsh moment.

In her election night speech, after it became clear she was being beaten by 22 points, she accused her fellow Democrats of engaging in “greed,” “old boy politics” and “backroom deals.”

Maybe so. But the numbers tell the tale. Buono was able to raise less than $3 million. Christie won with more than $13 million. New Jersey is home to two of the most expensive television markets in the nation (New York City and Philadelphia). This was not even a race.

“I took one for the team,” she said. “The only problem — I realized too late. There was no team.”

Ken Cuccinelli’s defeat stung a lot more, in part because he lost to former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, himself a flawed candidate, by scarcely more than 2 percentage points. Last I checked, Cuccinelli still hadn’t called McAuliffe to congratulate him.

Although Cuccinelli ran a more competitive campaign – blanketing the airwaves and battling McAuliffe almost to a draw -- he may have suffered the same fate that befell Barbara Buono, for many of the same reasons.

With little mainstream GOP support, Tea Party backed Republican Ken Cuccinelli lost by a narrow margin in the Virginia gubernatorial race [Photo: CNN].

Because of his tea party ties, the mainstream GOP was not fully behind him.

“We were on our own,” Cuccinelli strategist Chris La Civita told the Washington Post

This division – between a national party that worries about being defined by social conservatism, and hyper-engaged tea party activists who believe compromise is betrayal -- goes to the heart of the exhaustively debated national discussion about the state of the Republican Party.

One key difference between Buono and Cuccinelli? Buono never broke through. Many Democrats could not identify her by name or face, even now. But Cuccinelli’s rise was the fruit of a moment that still has legs.

It’s just that in 2013, both candidates – like Joe Biden – dialed the wrong number.