They were seemingly the best of times, but they ended up looking like the worst of times.
That is, things have turned out pretty badly for one particular congressional candidate and the party that endorsed him.
Much has been said and written about the current and ever-growing backlash against Washington. Is it an “anti-incumbent thing?” Or is it an “anti-Democrat, anti-Obama thing?” Is the momentum moving against the Democrats and in favor of the Republicans, or is it more about ideals and principals and less about political parties?
The short answer to these questions is “yes.” It’s all of these things, and more. And to better understand what I mean, consider what just happened in the state of Idaho.
Vaughn Ward was the perfect Republican congressional candidate. A native of Idaho who was raised in humble beginnings by his mother, Ward grew up to serve in the Iraq War, to work as a CIA Operations Officer, and continues to serve today as a Major in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve.
Involving himself in Republican politics, he worked his way up to an assignment in the last presidential election. And despite the failure of the McCain-Palin ticket, Ward emerged from the rubble with some prime assets: big-time endorsements, and big-time cash, for his own congressional run back home in Idaho.
The value of these “assets” can’t be underestimated. Endorsements from both John McCain, AND Sarah Palin. The official “seal of approval” from the Republican National Congressional Committee. And perhaps most importantly, all the fund-raising mechanisms a congressional candidate could hope for.
By July of 2009 Vaughn Ward was the “heir apparent” with a clear lead in fundraising and name recognition, as he sought the opportunity to run against incumbent Democrat Congressman Walt Minnick. And along with the endorsements of nationally prominent figures like Palin, powerful Republicans in Idaho had coalesced around Ward, including current Governor Butch Otter, Idaho Superintendent of Education Tom Luna, and former Governor (and former U.S. Secretary of the Interior) Dirk Kempthorne. Indeed, these were “the best of times” for the Ward campaign.
But then – to quote an old “classic” Phil Collins song – “something happened on the way to heaven,” and as the calendar moved into the year 2010 the cracks in the veneer began to show.
For one, it was discovered that Ward’s wife was the family bread winner, working as a salaried employee of Fannie Mae. Of course there’s nothing inherently wrong with being an employee of the federal government. But being reliant on a federal salary raised questions about Ward’s authenticity as he railed against the ever-expansive Obama government.
The “Fannie Mae matter” was one thing. But it was quite a different thing when, in late April of this year, Major Ward received a rebuke from the Pentagon, and the U.S. Marine Corps itself. Images of Ward in military gear had been used in campaign web advertisements, and this, the Pentagon noted, violated the policy of the U.S. Military that it remain a-political, and that military imagery not be used to endorse political agendas.
From there the remaining few weeks of the “Ward For Congress” campaign were tragic. A journalist in Spokane, Washington discovered that Ward had lifted huge sections of “policy positions” content from other Republican congressional campaign websites (in some cases duplicating entire paragraphs, line-for-line), and placed them on his own campaign website.
Rather than trying to argue that Ward was in agreement with the various other congressional candidates that he was “emulating,” the campaign instead responded to the news in a very guilty, embarrassed fashion, firing a campaign spokesperson, shutting off the policy pages on the website, and insisting that it was all a mistake committed by the web designer.
Then Ward embarrassed himself in a debate against his severely underfunded grass roots Republican challenger Raul Labrador, by claiming that he opposed congressional representation for the “country” of Puerto Rico (Labrador, who grew up in Puerto Rico, was quick to pounce on Ward’s factual error about the U.S. Territory). And hours before primary election day, an embarrassing (albeit severely edited and “doctored”) video of Ward using words and phrases from an Obama speech popped-up on Youtube, a video that was so stunning that Jay Leno used it for comedic content on his show.
On primary election day in Idaho, grass roots Republican Raul Labrador defeated the “establishment” Republican Vaughn Ward by nearly ten percentage points. Ward had the entire national Republican machine on his side, and a campaign visit from Sarah Palin to boot. Labrador had few endorsements, and very little cash, but he had achieved something incredibly important - he had earned the trust of the people of Idaho, including those of the local tea party movement.
Ward is an honorable man who has served our country valiantly. Yet he showed himself to be “not ready for primetime” in his congressional campaign, and the Republican Party establishment showed itself to have not done its homework.
The current backlash against Washington is anti-Obama, yes. But it’s also about a return to principals, and about Americans scrutinizing those who want to represent us in Washington.
Is the Republican Party listening?