January 21, 2014 | by Peter Rosenstein
The difficulties of beating an incumbent
Vincent Gray, Muriel Bowser, Tommy Wells, Jack Evans, Vincent Orange, mayor, District of Columbia, gay news, Washington Blade

Over the next less than 70 days, the struggle will be for the challengers in D.C. to make the case for how they can make a difference. (Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

The D.C. primary is less than 70 days away. There are numerous candidates running for office and nearly all incumbents have more than one challenger. Looking at a recent Washington Post poll it is clear that no challenger in the mayor’s race has yet created enough excitement around their candidacy to stand out from the crowd.

But creating that excitement is a very hard thing to do even for good candidates in races with numerous challengers. From the political perspective the problem of running against an incumbent is very difficult. From president to local school board, incumbents have an advantage and the only way to beat them is if you can first get voters to focus on things they have done wrong and then move them to buy into what you as the challenger can do right.

We recently witnessed a mayoral primary and election in New York where there was no incumbent on the ballot but the winning candidate, rather than focus on his opponents. ran against the mayor in office. Bill de Blasio was able to tap into an electorate tired of Michael Bloomberg after 12 years in office. He was able to run pitting the haves against the have-nots. That is often a way national races are run. One of the major issues in New York was universal pre-kindergarten. Instead of focusing on the issue he focused on “taxing the rich” to pay for it. It was very effective as a campaign issue even if he may not be able to do it now that he is in office.

De Blasio was able to tie incumbent Council President Christine Quinn, a lesbian, to Bloomberg and then benefitted when many in the LGBT community attacked her. That election showed that voters in New York have moved beyond guaranteeing votes to a candidate based on their being the same race, ethnicity or sexual orientation. De Blasio also did something hard to do and which could have backfired when he highlighted his family in the election. De Blasio is white. His wife is African American — beautiful, intelligent and she was once an activist lesbian. His son seems to have a great personality and great natural hairstyle to go with it; he captured the interest of the press and the imagination of the community. Clearly not all candidates have such an interesting family.

Now there are some candidates running across the nation who look at Bill de Blasio’s campaign as a blueprint for their own. Some see it as the rise of progressivism and the public finally fighting back against the economic inequality that we are seeing in the nation. But I would caution candidates to think twice about using New York as an example of how to run a campaign. Some think that it was former Mayor Adrian Fenty trying to model himself after Michael Bloomberg that caused many of his problems. There are few cities with eight million people and the diversity of New York. More are like the District, which is comparable to a collection of just a few neighborhoods in New York.

D.C. today has only 400,000 registered voters. Everyone in politics tends to know everyone else and their business. When a new mayor is installed in New York, he or she has a choice of millions of people to place in government positions. That isn’t the case in D.C. and it is the reason many people remain in their positions from one administration to another.

Challengers who generally have the same positions on the issues as the incumbent have a difficult time making themselves stand out. Challengers who are themselves incumbents in another office have the additional problem of having already staked out positions many the same as the person they are now challenging. In a small city like D.C. the issues always tend to be the same. They include education, public safety, fiscal stability, economic development and balancing the needs of the haves and have-nots, which includes dealing with gentrification.

Over the next less than 70 days, the struggle will be for the challengers for all offices in D.C. to make the case for how they can make a difference. First they will try to convince voters that the city isn’t moving in the right direction and present a believable plan to change things. If that doesn’t work they must make the case for why the incumbent can’t continue to lead.

Not easy in a one-on-one challenge but made even more difficult when there are multiple candidates having to run not only against the incumbent but against each other.

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