Democrats were already reaching for the Maalox as they saw polls showing a tight race in the Virginia governor’s race, when the once (and possibly future) governor Terry McAuliffe handed Republicans a gift of great price.
Speaking at a debate late last month, McAuliffe responded to the culture war seizing public education — a fight largely centered on racial matters — by saying, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” Whether it’s a reasonable position or not, within a day, the campaign of McAuliffe’s opponent, Glenn Youngkin, launched a six-figure digital ad buy highlighting the comment. By mid-October, it had become the centerpiece of the Republican’s campaign.
McAuliffe may still pull out the win in a state that has trended increasingly blue; the latest polls show him with a mid-single digit lead, and the antipathy of Virginia to Donald Trump may turn out to be the key factor.
Indeed, the Trumpists may have returned the “own goal” favor by staging a raucous rally this week with Steve Bannon and other election fraud conspiracy theorists, and featuring a flag flown at the Jan. 6th rally that preceded the storming of the Capitol. In case the memories weren’t raw enough, Trump himself phoned into the event, calling Youngkin “a great gentleman” before going on to rage about the election. (Youngkin distanced himself from the occasion and condemned the flying of the Jan. 6 flag as “weird and wrong,” though days earlier he had thanked the conservative radio host John Fredericks for hosting the rally.)
An election this close is ultimately determined by many things, but we may look back at either the comments or the rally as the pivotal moment when the race turned. It’s a reminder that the recurrence of political foot-in-mouth disease is one of the constants in our political life. Again and again, candidates — or their supporters — have managed to do their campaigns significant, sometimes fatal damage. Yet McAuliffe is also operating in a world none of them could have quite anticipated, where gaffes may not matter like they used to.
In at least one case, the presidency likely turned on such a slip. On Oct. 29, 1884, days before the presidential election, the Republican candidate for president of the United States, James Blaine, attended a rally of Protestant clergy at the Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York City. With 36 electoral votes, New York was likely to decide the election and Blane’s campaign was determined to win over the city’s large Irish population.
In his welcoming speech, Rev. Samuel Blanchard declared: “We are Republicans and don’t propose to leave our Party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been Rum, Romanism and Rebellion.”
The malediction encompassed the immoral, whiskey-drinking lower classes; Catholics, whose swelling ranks of immigrants had triggered backlash for decades; and those who had taken up the Confederate cause.
Blaine neither endorsed the words nor condemned them and on Election Day, the turnout of Irish voters for Grover Cleveland tipped the state to him by 1,200 votes — a margin of one-tenth of 1 percent — and those 36 electoral votes gave Cleveland the White House.
You can toggle back and forth throughout political history and find such examples wherever you look.
Take Ohio in 1974. In the post-Watergate Democratic midterm landslide, only one significant Democratic officeholder lost office: Ohio Gov. Jack Gilligan. His imposition of a state income tax was broadly unpopular, but what made that tax more potent as an issue was a comment by Gilligan at the Ohio State fair. When a reporter asked him if he planned to shear any sheep at the fair, Gilligan quipped: “I shear taxpayers, not sheep.” It was a reflection of Gilligan’s often acerbic sense of humor; it was also politically fatal.
Or take New York in 1982. Fresh off a landslide reelection as New York City mayor, Ed Koch decided to run for governor. He began with a huge lead, until comments from a Playboy interview surfaced, where Koch — a lifelong cityphile, weighed in on the joylessness of living beyond the five boroughs.
“Have you ever lived in the suburbs? It’s sterile. It’s nothing. It’s wasting your life, and people do not wish to waste their lives once they’ve seen New York! … This rural American thing — I’m telling you, it’s a joke.”
As for living in the state capital of Albany? A “fate worse than death.” Small town life? “…wasting time in a pickup truck when you have to drive 20 miles to buy a gingham dress or a Sears Roebuck suit.”
In the primary that followed, Lt. Governor Mario Cuomo carried upstate New York by 100,000 votes — a 2-1 landslide that gave him the nomination.
Or head to the heartland in 2012, where two Republican Senate candidates likely doomed their eminently winnable campaigns by taking on the role of amateur gynecologist and theologian.
Missouri Rep. Todd Akin, the favorite to win a Senate race, explained his refusal to support abortion rights in cases of rape by saying: “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” In Indiana, State Treasurer Richard Mourdock offered this consolation to women who would be forced to bear her rapist’s child: “I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize life is that gift from God. And I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”
Both candidates lost.
Others may remember in 2004 how John Kerry explained his vote against funding the Iraq War by noting: “I actually did vote for the $87 billion, before I voted against it.” He meant that he had voted for money to be paid for the war effort by reducing President George W. Bush’s tax cuts. That would likely satisfy regular subscribers to the Congressional Record. For the Bush campaign, it was Grade A material to make the “flip flop” case.
Or recall Hillary Clinton’s comments in 2016 about her opponent’s supporters. “You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right?” Clinton said. “The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it. And unfortunately, there are people like that. And he has lifted them up.”
While she described the other half as people who “feel that the government has let them down” and are “desperate for change,” the earlier words fed right into the argument that Clinton and her team were condescending elitists with no respect for regular folk. If the Trump campaign was looking for a weapon with which to beat Clinton over the head, she provided it.
Of course, not every clumsy or foolish remark proves fatal to a campaign. Indeed, there’s one example of a political figure who has committed rhetorical “own goals” throughout his public life. Each time — from his sneering comment about a Vietnam war hero to his xenophobic slurs at foreigners to his misogynistic comments about his delight in assaulting women — those remarks have been confidently declared as the last straw, the final self-inflicted wound.
Not yet. Maybe not ever.
And if Trump really has rewritten the rules of campaigns, McAuliffe and future gaffe-prone, blundering, brain-frozen politicians may even owe him a small bit of gratitude.