The Importance of Running Scared: The midterms confirmed that incumbents should always take an aggressive approach

Charlie Cook explains…

There’s an old saying that there are only two ways for an incumbent to run: scared or unopposed. Many incumbents raise money almost continuously—call it paranoid or just cautious—as if a multimillionaire self-funder were poised to announce a challenge at any moment. This year, an unusually large number of seemingly out-of-the-blue challengers came within a whisker of pulling off upsets against sitting members—and a few actually did. This suggests that some incumbents forgot to run scared.

In the House, virtually no one expected 14-term Democrat Louise Slaughter of New York to have a tough race. Yet, as of press time, she is squeaking by with a 651-vote margin, 50.1 percent to 49.8 percent. In California’s Central Valley, five-term Democratic Rep. Jim Costa’s race was not taken seriously by either the Fresno press corps or Beltway operatives. But at the time of this writing, Costa is trailing by 741 votes, with some votes in Fresno left to count. Then there were incumbents with credible challengers whose races wound up much closer than expected: Democratic Reps. Lois Capps (CA-24) and John Delaney (MD-06) come to mind. Finally, there were still other House contests where we all knew the races were competitive, but Republicans pulled off upsets. Reps. Steven Horsford (NV-04) and Pete Gallego (TX-23) were in our Lean Democratic column, but the lack of a competitive statewide race in either state caused many Democrats to stay home, and both Horsford and Gallego lost. There are surprises in every election year, but this year had more than usual, and all went in one direction: against Democrats.

The more prudent approach was taken by Senate Minority (and presumptive Majority) Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. While McConnell is a Republican in a GOP-leaning state in a clearly GOP-trending year, he is also a high-profile leader in a much-reviled institution at a time when many voters say, “I hate Washington; I detest Congress; they say you are one of the most powerful people there; I must hate you most of all.” Most polls gave McConnell a narrow lead in the mid-to-high single digits, but it was a stable lead. McConnell still lent his campaign $1.8 million 10 days before Election Day, just as an insurance policy. He had seen many incumbents sitting on leads going into Election Day who lost anyway. That wasn’t going to happen to him. He didn’t go to all the trouble of running a pitch-perfect campaign just to blow it at the end. No one ever accused Mitch McConnell of being slow.

Everyone in politics is still talking about Democratic Sen. Mark Warner’s photo-finish win over Ed Gillespie in Virginia. Although there were late polls showing Warner’s lead narrowing, GOP strategists were looking at their own numbers, which suggested the race wasn’t quite close enough to merit a late infusion of money. In Georgia, both parties had resigned themselves to runoffs in the senatorial and gubernatorial contests, because polls showed that none of the candidates was close to the 50 percent needed to win outright. Instead, Republican Senate candidate David Perdue and GOP Gov. Nathan Deal won their respective races with big margins that no one had predicted.

In the Maryland governor’s race, there was a sense that the contest between Republican Larry Hogan and Democratic Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown was closing.The Cook Political Report shifted its rating to Toss Up on Oct. 31, but Hogan’s upset over Brown was still a surprise. It’s easy to come up with a rationale for the outcome after the fact. As lieutenant governor, Brown was given one major responsibility: to oversee the design and implementation of Maryland’s health care exchange and website. The site turned out to be one of the worst in the country. Of secondary importance to the outcome was some voters’ view that electing Brown was tantamount to backing a third gubernatorial term for Martin O’Malley. Marylanders seem to understand that they are in a high-tax state with something less than a business-friendly, job-creation-friendly environment, and that came through as well. We will soon learn whether Gov.-elect Hogan charts an aggressively conservative agenda in a not-so-conservative state, as did Bob Ehrlich, the state’s most recent Republican governor. Not surprisingly, Ehrlich was defeated after one term.

Caution on the part of incumbents has gained importance as polling has become more problematic. As interview response rates have plunged in recent years, pollsters have had to weight their data more, introducing subjectivity as they try to determine which portions of turnout groups will vote. In 2012, minority and younger voters turned out at higher-than-normal, near-2008 levels, to the surprise of most GOP pollsters and to the satisfaction of their Democratic counterparts. In 2014, the shoe may have been on the other foot. Some Democratic pollsters were overly optimistic about key groups, and GOP pollsters proved to be more correct. Turnout is just getting harder to figure.

While there are obviously some exceptions, few of the top campaign pollsters were surprised by the outcomes. Keep in mind: Only a fraction of their surveys ever become public, and even then it’s often against the pollsters’ wishes. When the surveys are released, it is usually to make some PR point. One major pollster conducted about 800,000 individual interviews this year, but fewer than 10 percent of those interviews involved polls that saw the light of day. The pros may have been surprised by the results in a race here or there, but they had seen the Republican wave coming for months.

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