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Partisan attacks on losers of past campaigns make little sense

Iowa GOP attacks Finkenauer, ignoring Miller-Meeks’ prior losses

ANALYSIS — It’s time to stop attacking candidates for losing a previous race. It’s just silly and ignores history. The partisan and glib attacks aren’t predictive of anything and ignore dozens of examples of candidates who lost before winning.

The latest example is in Iowa, where former Rep. Abby Finkenauer just announced her campaign for Senate. The Democrat lost reelection in 2020, and Republicans are more than willing to remind all of us.

“Let me be as clear as possible — Abby Finkenauer will never represent the state of Iowa in the U.S. Senate. Iowans know Finkenauer and her disastrous record, it’s why they rejected her last November,” read a news release from the state GOP chairman. “I look forward to seeing even more Iowans reject Finkenauer once again.”

Of all the politicos in the country, Iowa Republicans should be aware that losing does not prohibit future victories. They have a loser-turned-winner in their own ranks. Mariannette Miller-Meeks was rejected by 2nd District voters three times (2008, 2010 and 2014) before winning a close race last fall.

The Iowa GOP also did not think a previous loss was disqualifying when the party nominated former Rep. David Young for an unsuccessful rematch in November against Democrat Cindy Axne, who had ousted Young in 2018. 

The losers-later-win dynamic should be fresh in GOP minds everywhere after recent results in Georgia. Republicans near and far mocked Democrat Jon Ossoff after he lost a high-profile House special election in 2017 and later jumped into the Senate race. 

“The bitter and divisive Democratic primary welcomes another unaccomplished, far-left candidate,” a National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman said at the time. “Failed congressional candidate Jon Ossoff’s serial resume inflation and extreme left-wing views will fit in with the rest of the crowded Democratic primary but will stand in sharp contrast to David Perdue’s positive record of delivering results for all of Georgia.”

Sixteen months later, Ossoff was elected to the Senate, delivering control of the chamber to the Democrats. 

What partisan hacks are unwilling to admit (or willfully ignore) is that a loss can build a candidate’s profile and campaign infrastructure that is beneficial in a subsequent race. Sometimes, the circumstances of the race or the national political environment changes in a way that benefits a previous loser. And sometimes it’s also different constituencies.

The notion that what one group of voters decides in one race in one cycle is the definitive judgment on a person’s political career is silly. And if losing a race is disqualifying, then I look forward to the press releases when former President Donald J. Trump announces his candidacy for president in 2024.

But of course, it’s not disqualifying. 

Voters rejected Republicans such as David Valadao (California’s 21st District), Yvette Herrell (New Mexico’s 2nd), Claudia Tenney (New York’s 22nd) and Young Kim (California’s 39th) in 2018, and they are now members of Congress after winning two years later. 

Other previous Republican losers who won House races in 2020 include New York’s Nicole Malliotakis (lost a 2017 race for New York City mayor), South Carolina’s Nancy Mace (lost a 2014 primary challenge to Sen. Lindsey Graham), and Montana’s Matt Rosendale (lost a 2014 race for the same at-large House district he now holds and a 2018 race for Senate). Minnesota Rep. Jim Hagedorn lost bids for the House in 2010, 2014 and 2016 before finally getting elected to the 1st District in 2018 and getting reelected last year.

Republican Sens. Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, John Thune of South Dakota, Susan Collins of Maine and John Kennedy of Louisiana all had previous statewide losses on their résumés before they won, and most of those losses were for the Senate. 

Six of the last seven presidents were also previous losers. Joe Biden, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan all had electoral losses earlier in their political careers. But that didn’t prevent them from later getting elected to the country’s top office.

Do I have to go on? 

I’m jaded enough to know that these few hundred words are not going to prevent partisans from delivering the loser attack again and again. But hopefully people digesting the attacks will realize that it’s a bunch of malarkey.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.

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