April 9, 2003: Features

No thrill of victory

Here’s to those who run – and lose

By Mark F. Bernstein ’83

Ours is a society that values winners, and that is no less true in politics than it is in sports or business. Any number of Princetonians have run successfully for public office in recent years. But what about those who have run and lost?

In the coming weeks, a fictional Princetonian, White House staffer Sam Seaborn, is set to lose a congressional race on the hit TV series The West Wing. Real alums Bill Bradley ’65, Ralph Nader ’55, and Steve Forbes ’70 all have lost presidential races in the last decade. What is it like to chase the dream of a congressional seat or the governor’s mansion for years and find it ultimately beyond your grasp?

“It’s not the end of the world, though it’s certainly a disappointment,” says Doug Racine ’74, a Democrat who lost the Vermont governor’s race last November. “You wake up the next morning and realize there’s no silver medal for coming in second.”

“It’s always better to win than to lose,” says Chris Ratliff ’86, whose bid for a seat in the Kentucky state senate fell short in 2000.

Some see it coming. Others don’t. Bill Van De Weghe ’83 ran unsuccessfully for Congress as a Republican in California’s 53rd district last year. Though he ran hard until the end, Van De Weghe concedes that polls never showed him closer than 15 points behind his opponent. Ratliff and Racine, on the other hand, say they were considered favorites in their races, perhaps because both already held public office – Ratliff as a state representative, Racine as lieutenant governor. It was only as returns began to come in on election night, when Racine saw he was not running as strongly as he needed to run in key precincts, that he began to realize he was not going to win.

There may have been a time when political parties decided who would run for office, but today most candidates toss their own hats into the ring. They run because they are committed to public service but also, in most cases, because they believe they can win, no matter what the polls say.

“I was totally focused – which is another word for ‘obsessed’ – on campaigning” for more than a year leading up to last November’s election, Racine says. That obsession impels even candidates who know in their hearts that they will lose, but it also forces them to neglect their businesses and loved ones. Running for public office, Racine admits, “was not a positive experience for my family.”

The heaviest toll of defeat is often financial. In an age of largely self-funded campaigns, those seeking public office must raise enormous sums of money, much of which comes out of their own pockets.

“I spent a lot of money I didn’t have,” Ratliff says. His campaign spent about $425,000, about $28,000 of which was his own. Van De Weghe says he spent $148,000 of his own money, borrowing heavily against his house and his 401k plan. Just days after a bruising March primary, consultants told him he needed $100,000 in the bank by the end of June to be perceived as a credible challenger.

“Man, I just choked on that,” Van De Weghe recalls. By late June, he had raised $70,000. Having just refinanced his house, he swallowed hard and, as he puts it, “doubled down” by throwing in the balance himself. E. Lawrence Davis ’60, a former chairman of the North Carolina Democratic Party, spent almost $100,000 of his own money in losing the primary for an open congressional seat last year.

Not all losing candidates, however, emerge financially strapped. Sidney Stone ’51 drew 4 percent of the vote as the Libertarian Party candidate in Ohio’s 19th congressional district in 2000, spending only $85 of his own money.

“That was the filing fee,” he explains. “My wife said I could spend 85 bucks. The rest I’d have to raise.” Stone eventually collected about $2,200 in small donations.

Having something productive to do with their time has eased the sting of defeat. Van de Weghe and Davis had law practices to fall back on. Ratliff has found success as a businessman, taking a small mining company out of bankruptcy. Stone, a retired physician, audits courses at Cleveland State University. Racine, who served as Vermont’s lieutenant governor before his gubernatorial race, has returned to his family’s Jeep dealership outside Burlington.

They have found that the transition to private life was not as hard as they had anticipated. Friends and family still love them, and fears that they will be viewed as losers are exaggerated. “It’s kind of in your own head,” Ratliff says.

The defeated candidates are proud of the campaigns they conducted. They do not view their races as failures – not even Stone, who got few votes but says he presented voters with a choice and argued for his beliefs. All say they probably will not run again although, being politicians, they do not want to close the door completely. Van De Weghe sounds a defiant note that seems to characterize them all.

“You’re in the arena,” he says. “You got knocked on your butt. If you’re not ready for that, you shouldn’t be in politics.”

Mark F. Bernstein ’83, a cartoonist and writer, lives in Philidelphia.


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