In an Election, Second Place is the Same as Last

Nobody is required to pay attention to you just because you’re running for office. Not the news media, not the money people and not the voters. But where is the line on who’s in and who’s out?

It’s not an entitlement. That old FCC rule that required radio and TV stations to give time to all comers is long dead, and it never existed in other media. There are no rules. Reporters and voters and financiers are drawn to things that are interesting, as in worth talking about. Someone files for office? So?

Look, it’s theoretically possible that you could set up a lemonade stand and take on the likes of Snapple and Minute Maid. But that’s how business works: You can succeed without knocking off the incumbents, by putting something attractive together and nurturing it and building a small and then a medium and then a large business. It’s only when you get big enough to hurt the established companies that you find yourself fighting for market share.

That’s not how politics works. It’s a binary business: In most elections, second place is the same as losing. Every once in a while, somebody slips into office in a way that surprises the political establishment and encourages another generation of dreamers to run.

But that’s the exception — movie stuff. It usually means that something bigger than the challenger’s sparkling personality or charming will to serve was at work. Like when Rick Perry, a newly minted Republican, upset Jim Hightower, a popular Democrat who wasn’t supposed to be in trouble as the state’s agriculture commissioner in 1990. Perry turned out to have a lot of money behind him, and to be riding a Republican wave that also got Kay Bailey Hutchison elected as state treasurer that year.

 

It was bigger than them.

Victor Morales nearly got to be the Smith of Texas politics with his 1996 challenge to Sen. Phil Gramm. Gramm had been weakened by a losing presidential campaign that year, and Morales, to be fair, captured the interest of the news media and the public.

And then he lost.

Some candidates win because nobody was paying them any attention at all. Stephen Mansfield became a judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in 1995 because he was a Republican in a Republican year. After the next election ended his tenure on the court, he got a job as a parking lot security guard at the Texas Medical Center in Houston. Chalk it up to experience.

The election rolls are loaded with people who don’t have a chance. Chuck Baldwin, Thaddaus Hill, Jonathan Allen, Cynthia McKinney and Brian Moore all got votes for president on the general election ballot in Texas in 2008. Some of the candidates on the Flotsam Ticket were better known, if not quite popular: Bob Barr, Alan Keyes and Ralph Nader. Barr, the Libertarian Party’s candidate, got 0.69 percent of the vote.

Should he have received more coverage? More attention from voters? Should campaign contributors have sent him more money to get the word out, or is the system built to sort viable candidates from mere wannabes, come what may?

It’s a competitive thing. People have to have a reason to pay attention. It’s also a business, and candidates have to have something to say to the voters whose support they seek, and have to have a reasonable strategy for getting the word out. The walking dead in the political ranks wait for political reporters to call them, for contributors to see their genius and send money, and for voters to gather like college football tailgaters on Saturday afternoon.

It helps to be in office; Perry still says that the 1990 agriculture commissioner race was his hardest. But incumbency is not required: Debra Medina came out of nowhere in 2010 and shook up the Republican governor’s primary during a period when voters were trying to decide whether to elect one of two people — Perry and Hutchison — who had been in statewide office for 20 years. It didn’t work out, but she got a lot of attention and made the race a lot more interesting than the professionals had expected.

Why? Ideas. Sweat. Something to say and an ability to say it. And she didn’t just sit there by the phone. She picked it up and started dialing.

 

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