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Imperfect Candidates Get Elected

Carroll is challenging Rep. Mike Coffman for Colorado's 6th Congressional District seat. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Updated: 12:50 p.m. |  Every day there’s a new story exposing a candidate or a politician, and each misstep is portrayed as a disqualifier — a mistake that will lead to the candidate’s demise. It can be easy to forget that imperfect people get elected to office.  

A few weeks ago, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee hosted a few dozen contenders from across the country for a candidate school, and I had a chance to sit down with a handful of them.  

One by one, New Jersey’s Josh Gottheimer, Michigan’s Lon Johnson, Florida’s Annette Taddeo, Utah’s Doug Owens, and Colorado’s Morgan Carroll, sat next me at the end of long conference table, upstairs at a townhouse on Ivy Street near the Democratic National Committee.  

One thing stood out to me at the end: They weren’t perfect, but they were credible enough.  

One of them might be too liberal and one lost her past three races. One will be portrayed as a party hack and a couple others might simply be a member of the wrong party in districts that lean toward the Republicans. And yet another has no name identification in the most expensive media market in the country.  

In a stable political environment, or one that trends toward Republicans, most of the challengers will probably lose. But if an incumbent makes a significant misstep or the country shifts away from the Republican Party as a result of a polarizing presidential nominee, these challengers will likely be in place to take advantage of the situation and absorb turned-off independents and disaffected Republicans.  

I wrote about some of my specific reactions in recent issues of The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report , and my friend David Wasserman wrote about his assessment of the candidates for The Cook Political Report after interviewing them separately.  

Elections are about lots of things other than just the candidates, including the quality of the campaigns, fundraising, the political environment and mood of the electorate, and who voters are most comfortable with.  

Ultimately, elections tend to come down to a choice between two people. You don’t have to be beloved to win; you merely have to be more palatable than your opponent. New York Republican Michael G. Grimm won re-election while under a 19-count indictment. Louisiana Democrat William J. Jefferson won re-election after the FBI found $90,000 cash in his freezer.  

The same thing can be said for the presidential race.  

“The Holy Grail in polit­ics is find­ing a can­did­ate who has the com­plete pack­age, the op­tim­al char­ac­ter­ist­ics to win a giv­en race,” wrote veteran political analyst Charlie Cook in his Nov. 2 column, “You Can’t Have it All,” for National Journal, on the Republican field of presidential candidates.  

“Polit­ic­al life isn’t tidy,” Cook added, “Nobody has the com­plete pack­age — ever.”  

The same point can be made about the general election.  

There’s been plenty of hand-wringing over whether a candidate who is part of a polarizing political family can get elected president again, or someone who has been in the senate for 25 minutes and potentially misused an official credit card.  

Surely someone who has never held elective office before and allegedly doesn’t have a grasp on foreign policy can’t win. Someone who led the march to a government shutdown is unelectable, we’re told. The country would never vote for a thrice-married businessman who talks about himself more anything else, right?  

What about a candidate who set-up a personal email server at home and potentially sent unsecured classified information? That person is going to be commander in chief?  

The only reasonable answer is, maybe.  

It comes back to choices and alternatives and mood.  

There is a spectrum of acceptability when electing a president that is dependent on the situation. Some Republicans think so poorly of President Barack Obama that they think virtually anyone can do a better job.  

What we know from the past is that imperfect people have been elected president.  

A candidate with connections to a polarizing pastor, a crooked developer and a questionable left-wing activist won races. An alleged intellectual lightweight of a privileged political family who may not have properly served in the Alabama Air National Guard won a couple elections.  

A young governor who lost re-election, and a previous House race, and faced allegations of an extramarital affair found his way to the White House for eight years. A charisma-challenged vice president who was supposedly riding on the coattails of his former boss won a race.  

And a divorced former actor who lost a previous presidential race and was viewed as a radical led his party back to relevance in a revolution.  

So as the cycle continues and both parties ratchet up their opposition research machines, it’s important to remember that imperfect people getting elected is the rule, not the exception.  

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Doug Owens.

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