Monday, April 30, 2012

Why Audrey Scott Lost

Last Saturday, Audrey Scott lost a political race which – if history serves as any guide – she definitely should have won.

On paper, Mrs. Scott – a forty year fixture in the party – had all the illustrious credentials you would expect in a successful National Committeewoman candidate: former party chair, state cabinet secretary, local experience as a council member and mayor, and ex-Reagan Administration aide.

This distinguished background aligns roughly with the backgrounds of previous women who have held the position during the past 20 years: Joyce Tehres (former party chair and local official), Ellen Sauerbrey (former House Minority Leader and 1994 gubernatorial nominee), and Helen Bentley (congresswoman and ex-Nixon Administration appointee).

So why did Mrs. Scott lose? For me, it boils down to these four reasons:

1) She had a terrific opponent: As I blogged earlier, Nicolee Ambrose’s accomplishments and potential as a party leader is something I noticed long before we ever became friends. When incumbent Joyce Tehres announced she was retiring, Nicolee hit the ground running. She assembled a team of advisors, including Prince George’s County Central Committee Member Heather Olsen, who served as Ambrose’s campaign manager, and began crisscrossing the state, meeting with central committees. Ambrose immediately began lining up endorsements, and had a social media presence weeks before Mrs. Scott’s own campaign Facebook page debuted. As this was happening, Mrs. Scott – comfortable in the inevitability of her succession – and her supporters chose to dismiss Ambrose’s credentials and legitimacy as a candidate. In other words, Ambrose regarded the upcoming central committee vote as a race to be won, whereas Mrs. Scott treated it like a mere formality to her anointed ascension until the final week of the campaign.

2)  She had baggage: Mrs. Scott’s brief stint as MD GOP chairman was not without its controversies. The Rule 11 controversy simmered in many activists’ minds, as did the party’s failure to recruit an Attorney General candidate even though Montgomery County activist Jim Shalleck offered to run. Later, Mrs. Scott’s decision to intervene in the Sixth District congressional primary angered supporters of the incumbent and eventual winner Roscoe Bartlett. In other words, running for National Committeewoman and working to defeat the state's senior GOP congressman by portraying his reelection prospects as “impossible” proved to be mutually contradictory goals.

3)  Her missteps and misstatements created controversies: Mrs. Scott did a lot of things you would not expect a candidate running for National Committeewoman to do. First, she kicked off her campaign by attending a pro-gas tax rally in Annapolis, and misrepresented the event’s real purpose in a message to central committee members when her actions were questioned. Next, she made false claims as to her fundraising results while chairman, and refused to budge when confronted with the actual numbers. Indeed, Mrs. Scott seemed to following the following pattern for much of the campaign: She made statements demonstrably contrary to the facts and, when confronted with the facts, chose to ignore them, instead repeating the false claim with increased volume and fervency. In the end, her own words proved to be her biggest liability.

4) Her negative attacks on Ambrose backfired: Ambrose never personally attacked Mrs. Scott during the campaign. By contrast, Mrs. Scott and her supporters engaged in a Mean Girls - style whispering campaign against Ambrose, with much of the chatter centering on whether Ambrose – a mother of two young children – could make time for the position’s duties. Ironically, when Mrs. Scott launched her political career in the 1970s, she was about the same age as Ambrose and had young children as well. This bitchiness hit its crescendo when one of the people delivering Scott’s nominating speeches, a 17 year old boy, stated that central committee members should not, “send a girl to do a woman’s job.” He was booed and hissed off the stage as a result. Though not decisive to Ambrose's win, a Scott backer I spoke to at the convention claimed that statement cost Mrs. Scott at least three wavering votes in his county's delegation.

Excluding 2012, the race for National Committeewoman has only been a competitive affair one time during the past 24 years. That was in 1988, when Helen Bentley beat conservative activist Mary McNally Rose in what was seen as an ideological struggle between the party’s conservative and moderate wings.

But since then, succession has largely been a matter of consensus. The position was typically rewarded to the next most senior GOP woman in the queue, and the central committee vote was merely a ratification of the obvious.

This year, however, frustration and a yearning for new direction and energy changed the paradigm. The post had become a prize to be earned, rather than an entitlement to be rewarded. Unfortunately, no one told Mrs. Scott the rules had changed, and she assumed that it was hers because, well, it should be hers.  Meanwhile, Ambrose sensed the sea change. Her dynamism, track record at the national level, and forward-looking campaign message proved a better match for the evolving expectations for the position held by many central committee members.

To me, the race is the Tortoise versus the Hare scenario revisited. Only this time, the Hare – Ambrose – took the race seriously. As a result, the Tortoise – Scott, lulled into a sense of overconfidence by past wins and ways – never stood a chance. Consequently, in the end, the better candidate running the better campaign won. 

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