AGAINST THE GRAIN

The Biggest Political Turkeys of 2017

Put aside for a moment the dysfunctional Trump White House. Many of the biggest blunders this year happened on the campaign trail.

Sen. Al Franken
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
Nov. 21, 2017, 8 p.m.

In honor of the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, this week’s column will provide a retrospective of 2017’s biggest political turkeys on the campaign trail. The year has been filled with epic race-changing blunders, seismic scandals, candidate body-slams, and multimillion-dollar flops—and we’re supposedly in a quiet off-year of the election cycle.

Here’s a look at the five politicians whose self-inflicted blunders dismayed their parties, while providing nonstop fodder for the political press:

1. Roy Moore’s alleged sexual misconduct jeopardizing GOP’s hold on a ruby-red Alabama Senate seat. Give Steve Bannon credit: He’s having an impact in the makeup of Congress’ upper chamber, just not in the way he intended. Roy Moore, his preferred candidate in the Alabama Senate race, is facing an avalanche of allegations that he targeted underage girls nearly 40 years ago. One woman accused him of molesting her when she was 14. Another accused him of attempted rape when she was 16.

These credible, explosive allegations have turned what should be a safely Republican seat into one where Democrat Doug Jones holds a small advantage. The Moore campaign’s clumsy attempts at defense—questioning the authenticity of a yearbook signature, promoting surrogates who sound like they’re excusing the underlying allegations—are only digging their candidate a deeper hole. For his part, Moore has given interviews only to the friendliest news outlets since the scandal hit.

Bannon’s goal after leaving the White House was to elect Republican critics of his bête noire, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. His tactics may end up helping anti-Trump Democrats instead.

2. Jon Ossoff’s multimillion-dollar bust in Georgia. All of the Democratic hopes and dreams in the early months of the Trump administration hinged on the political fortunes of Jon Ossoff, a 30-year-old documentary filmmaker with few accomplishments on his résumé. Despite a flood of outside money, Ossoff’s bland campaign failed to win enough crossover voters in a suburban Atlanta district filled with Trump skeptics. He lost by a slightly larger margin than Hillary Clinton did there months earlier.

In the same month of Ossoff’s belly flop, Democrats in Virginia picked as their gubernatorial nominee a pediatric neurosurgeon who served as the state’s lieutenant governor. Ralph Northam, now the governor-elect, won in a landslide and outperformed Clinton in the state. Lesson: The quality of candidates matter as much as ideology.

3. Greg Gianforte body-slamming a reporter for asking questions. The Montana Republican’s election to Congress was accompanied by a court summons for assaulting Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs, who had the audacity to ask him if he supported the GOP’s health care bill. Adding insult to injury, Gianforte lied to police when he claimed that Jacobs grabbed him first—testimony that was contradicted by eyewitness accounts and audio evidence. He later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, avoiding jail time while paying a fine.

Gianforte managed to defeat Rob Quist, a left-wing musician with his own personal baggage, but by a narrower margin than most Montana Republican candidates. He’s facing the prospect of a more serious challenge in November. One Democratic candidate, attorney John Heenan, outraised Gianforte in the last fundraising quarter and has already banked more campaign cash than the incumbent.

4. Ed Gillespie’s reliance on the Trumpian playbook. In hindsight, there was no way for Gillespie to win the Virginia governor race in such a punishing environment for Republicans. But Gillespie probably hurt his chances by running a campaign that aggressively fought cultural battles in a state where the vote-rich regions wanted to hear about pocketbook issues. Consider: Gillespie lost by a whopping 20 points in exurban Loudoun County, and narrowly lost reliably Republican Chesterfield County in the Richmond suburbs.

Gillespie, the consummate Washington insider, looked uncomfortable playing the part of a culture warrior. He avoided mentioning President Trump even when pressed, and adopted more inclusive campaign rhetoric than was present in many of his advertisements. Gillespie may not have been able to stem the anti-Trump tide in Virginia, but a closer outcome would have given Republicans a healthier majority in the House of Delegates.

5. Et tu, Al Franken? Funnyman Franken began the year looking like the face of the anti-Trump resistance, but is ending 2017 mired in his own scandal. After a television host accused him of groping her and making an unwanted pass, Franken apologized for his behavior. A second woman has now emerged to accuse him of inappropriately touching her tush at the 2010 Minnesota state fair.

The Minnesota senator, who reveled in tormenting Trump administration officials in committee hearings, is now holed up in his daughter’s Tenleytown apartment as he tries to avoid answering uncomfortable questions.

He’s facing demands for his resignation from one prominent Minnesota Democratic pol, while his Democratic colleagues in Washington are unequivocally condemning his behavior. Any possibility of a dark-horse presidential campaign in 2020 is extinguished.

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