It was five weeks until D.C. Democrats would be choosing their candidate for mayor, and just hours before Washington's NBC and NPR affiliates released a new poll showing a volatile race. But Chuck Thies, campaign manager for Mayor Vincent Gray, wanted to talk about The Washington Post.
"This is just absurd," Thies said Tuesday, citing multiple stories from The Post that he feels downplay the city's progress under Gray and amplify the scandal surrounding Gray's 2010 campaign—not to mention the seemingly weekly editorials casting doubt on Gray's denials of wrongdoing.
That scandal threatens to make Gray a one-term mayor: The WRC-TV/WAMU-FM/Washington Defender/Marist poll released late Tuesday night showed Gray leading council member Muriel Bowser, 28 percent to 20 percent, with two other council members in the race also earning double-digit support.
The poll presents some evidence that Bowser is emerging as Gray's most significant obstacle to renomination. While comparing surveys from different pollsters isn't always the most sound practice, a Washington Post poll last month showed Bowser (12 percent) grouped with those two other council members, Jack Evans (13 percent) and Tommy Wells (12 percent), while Gray (27 percent) lapped the field.
Bowser has "emerged as the only person who can beat Vincent Gray on April 1," said her campaign manager, Bo Shuff.
Both the Marist and Post polls underscore that District Democrats think the city is going in the right direction, but they have lost some measure of faith in Gray after a first term clouded by an investigation into an alleged "shadow" campaign from four years ago. Fifty-six percent of likely primary voters in the new Marist poll approve of the job Gray is doing as mayor, and 75 percent think the city is headed in the right direction. But a whopping 64 percent think it's time to elect someone else the lead the District.
The leading candidate for "someone else" increasingly appears to be Bowser, who won Adrian Fenty's council seat after he became mayor and has reassembled much of Fenty's campaign infrastructure, including her campaign chairman, former council member Bill Lightfoot. Signs of Bowser's momentum are beginning to pop up: She was endorsed by The Washington Post last week, and this week Wells launched a cable-TV advertisement that criticizes both Gray and Bowser by name for accepting donations from businessman Jeffrey Thompson, who is at the center of the Gray shadow-campaign scandal.
That The Post didn't endorse Gray wasn't a surprise to his campaign, which described a tense question-and-answer session with The Post's editorial board, despite the fact that it was off-the-record. "I sat in a Washington Post editorial board meeting with the mayor and listened to absurd questions from [Post Editorial Page Editor] Fred Hiatt," Thies said Tuesday. "I don't even mind breaking the embargo."
Asked about how this perceived unfairness toward Gray might affect the mayor's campaign, Thies said, "Anytime the hometown newspaper has an obvious bias and is departing from the facts, it has an impact on a public official."
"As I say, 'If Vince Gray cured cancer, The Washington Post would come out in favor of cancer,' " he added.
The Gray camp never expected The Post's endorsement, but its hostility toward his campaign—real or imagined—is emblematic of the divided D.C. electorate. The Marist poll showed Gray with an 18-point lead among black voters, who made up slightly more than half the poll's sample, but the mayor is in fourth place among whites, roughly 40 percent of the electorate.
That dynamic isn't new: Gray won less than 30 percent of the vote in majority-white Wards 2 and 3 in the city's northwest quadrant in 2010, and more than 80 percent of the vote in overwhelmingly black Wards 7 and 8, east of the Anacostia River.
The Bowser playbook: Compete for votes among a more diverse group of Washingtonians. "Her ward, Ward 4, is the most representative of the entire city," said Shuff, touting Bowser's ability to appeal to voters across racial and gender lines. "It is a microcosm of the city."
But Bowser can't count on favorite-daughter status to boost her in Ward 4: It was Fenty's geographic base, too, but Gray won it easily in 2010.
With a divided primary field this time around, the Gray camp doesn't need to win over voters who didn't support him in 2010—an election he won by 9 points. Of the 45 percent of Democrats who didn't vote for Gray, Thies said, "They were never with Vince, and there's no reason they would come back," especially after reading the negative coverage in The Post.
The primary campaign is moving on to its final month, and both Gray and Bowser camps seem prepared to run a conventional, ground-game campaign. In conversations with both campaign managers this week, the emphasis was on direct-mail and door-to-door appeals, not the kinds of paid media campaigns in other races. New York City's Bill de Blasio may have used a series of effective TV ads to vault his name to the top of the polls last year, but the Gray and Bowser camps are engaged in more-personal appeals.
And both sides are touting their campaigns' abilities to conduct that effort. Shuff cited the Bowser's direct-mail, telephone and door-to-door campaigning already underway, while the Gray camp is confident they can replicate their 2010 victory.
"We have now compiled the most sophisticated voter database ever created in the history of Washington, D.C.," Thies asserted. "Our strategy is to close out this election over the last five weeks with a consistent and perhaps overwhelming direct-mail campaign. We will contact every single one of the voters we are targeting by telephone at least three times."
If Gray does emerge as the winner of the primary, he likely won't be out of the woods. Council member David Catania, an independent, is considering challenging the mayor—setting up a rare competitive general election in the nation's capital and another test of whether voters who are happy with the city's direction will overlook the scandal that has clouded Gray's mayorality.