Jim Whitehead was supposed to walk away with the election, right? I mean, aside from the usual snide comments from cynics, the long-ago-anointed front-runner had it in the bag, didn't he?
I wish I had a dollar for everone who has asked, in the same tone as Ben Harbin after he hit the light pole: "What happened?"
One pundit has a possible explanation for Whitehead's surprise loss in the 10th District U.S. House race to Athens physician Paul Broun: The site of Whitehead's post-election party was jinxed.
It seems the Marbury Center in downtown Augusta, where Whitehead held his post-election parties on the night of the special election and on Tuesday after the runoff, has a reputation as the party spot for election losers.
Campaign veteran Trey Allen rattled off the misery list: Randy Hall held his party there the night he lost to J.B. Powell; Max Burns partied there after both of his election losses; and last December, Bill Williams found Marbury gloom in his loss to David Roper. Now Whitehead has added his name to the list.
Seriously, the real explanation for Whitehead's runoff loss is simple: He got fewer votes than Broun.
But why? What happened? Here's my take.
When Charlie Norwood died and the election free-for-all began, Whitehead pushed state Rep. Barry Fleming out of the race. Columbia County has the largest single block of votes in the mostly-Republican 10th District. Brief races require name recognition, and Whitehead, well-known in the biggest and most Republican county in the district, had a head start.
Whitehead also signed up much of Norwood's staff. Because brief races require considerable money, and because donors like to back presumptive winners, the best-known Republican candidate from the largest county with staff members from the popular former incumbent went to the head of the donor line.
The stars aligned, and Whitehead was deemed the front-runner. He raised the most money, and he received the most votes in the June 19 special election.
But because Whitehead was pegged the leader from the start, the other nine candidates spent most of their campaigns beating up on him. He received twice as many votes in the special election as any other candidate, but not enough to win outright.
That put him in a runoff with the No. 2 vote-getter, Paul Broun.
Paul who? Well, see, Broun also had some name recognition, owing to his previous three unsuccessful runs for office. And because Whitehead had also managed to push state Sen. Ralph Hudgens out of the race, Broun was the highest-profile candidate from Athens, the district's other major population center.
The difference, though, is that the other candidates hadn't spent the previous six weeks beating up on Broun. He was untouched going into the runoff, while Whitehead was wounded from the weeks of beatings.
To win, Whitehead's young staff should have taken Broun more seriously. They rejoiced when Broun edged the top Democrat out of the runoff, because they knew a match with James Marlow would have brought national money to the race. They thought Broun would be easier to beat.
Taking Broun seriously would have included (gasp!) Going Negative. Whitehead's campaign should have spent the runoff cycle informing voters about Broun's considerable baggage, while working on grass-roots voter contact.
Instead, Whitehead forbid them from taking the tough shots and demanded a gentlemanly approach.
There's honor, I suppose, in maintaining the high road, but we know where nice guys finish. And they hold their parties at the Marbury Center.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to email@example.com.)
The Columbia County News-Times ©2013. All Rights Reserved.