April 9, 2003: Features
No thrill of victory
Heres 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 governors mansion for years and find it ultimately beyond your grasp?
Its not the end of the world, though its certainly a disappointment, says Doug Racine 74, a Democrat who lost the Vermont governors race last November. You wake up the next morning and realize theres no silver medal for coming in second.
Its 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 dont. Bill Van De Weghe 83 ran unsuccessfully for Congress as a Republican in Californias 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 Novembers 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 didnt 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 Ohios 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 Id 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 Vermonts lieutenant governor before his gubernatorial race, has returned to his familys 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. Its 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.
Youre in the arena, he says. You got knocked on your butt. If youre not ready for that, you shouldnt be in politics.
Mark F. Bernstein 83, a cartoonist and writer, lives in Philidelphia.