Eric Massa: Square Peg

It's fitting that Eric Massa's campaign ends in the same way that it began over two years ago: in an act of stubborn determination.  I doubt that anyone who's watched the Massa campaign closely is surprised that Massa is waiting until after every vote is counted to concede -- the history of this race shows that he's a man quite comfortable with long odds.

Massa began campaigning for this seat the day after the 2004 election.  As an "outsider", he had to travel the district, introducing himself to every Democratic mayor, councilman, and dogcatcher. His campaign began with an out-of-pocket loan, campaign headquarters for the first year was the Massa family garage, and he was on a schedule where he had dinner with his family once a week. 

A longshot that requires sacrifices like these is not undertaken by an ass-kissing milquetoast.  Massa is an interesting mix of no-bullshit Navy Commander and policy wonk.  If politics is a round hole, he's a square peg accompanied by a big hammer.

Being a square peg meant that Massa had to do things the hard way.  In the 29th, this meant that he had to introduce himself to the district used to a completely different style of politician, raise funds without help from the national party, and stumble when he used negative ads. 

In many ways, Randy Kuhl is the archetypal Southern Tier politician.  He's an understated hometown boy.  Physically and temperamentally, there aren't many men more different than Eric Massa and Randy Kuhl.  Massa's built like a fireplug, while Kuhl is tall and slender.  Compared to Kuhl, who isn't much of a public speaker, Massa's public speech is carefully constructed and thoroughly researched.  When Kuhl sketched out ideas, Massa articulated positions.  When Kuhl suggested approaches, Massa presented solutions.  Kuhl often offered too little:  Massa sometimes provided too much.

Some might see Massa's innate confidence as arrogance, and his determination as a lack of humor.  Arrogant, humorless individuals do not run campaigns as good as Massa's (compare his campaign to  Katharine Harris' in Florida if you need to proof of that statement). Nevertheless, I think the 29th is not yet fully adapted to Massa, and though he used his two years in the district to good effect, he was still viewed by many as an outsider.

As a square peg, Massa was not the kind of candidate preferred by the national Democratic party.  His success at running a tight race puts the lie to both Howard Dean's 50-state plan, and Rahm Emmanuel's targeted campaign.  Massa received little concrete help from either of those warring factions of the party.  Instead, Massa had to find his own way to raise funds, beginning with personal appeals in the district combined with help from the netroots and fighting Dems movements.

Money makes a campaign, and Massa's over $1.1 million total is impressive by any measure, especially considering two-thirds came from individual donations.  Though Massa was close to fundraising parity with Kuhl, his money was spent over a two-year period.  Since Kuhl, like any incumbent, was able to use  his Congressional office to keep his name in the newspaper without spending campaign funds, Kuhl's effective money advantage was much larger than Massa's.  Nevertheless, Massa raised enough to mount an effective ad campaign.  Unfortunately, he received little help from his national party, while Kuhl received a boost with party funded robo-calls, ads and mailers.

Massa also struggled with negative ads.  The goal of a negative ad is to establish a simple narrative in the minds of the voters that defines your opponent.  Kuhl's narrative for Massa was "Liberal Eric Massa will raise taxes and gut Social Security."  Massa was unable to define Kuhl as cleanly.  His negative campaign began with the diffuse "hiding" ad, which was replaced by an over-the-top response to Kuhl's Social Security ad.  When Massa finally hit his stride with his positive/negative "FDR" ad, it was too late in the election to effectively re-define his image or respond to Kuhl. 

Massa is similar to a number of inexperienced politicians in this regard:  he didn't plan for a negative campaign and was therefore caught somewhat flat-footed.  Democrats often take their inability to run "good" negative campaigns as a sign they should attack more fiercely earlier in the campaign.  I think this is a mistake, one which is borne out by Massa's final Social Security response.  Instead of hitting hard, this ad strikes a balance between the positive aspects of Massa's program and an attack on Kuhl.  The more heavy-handed attacks, like Massa's initial Social Security response, or the MoveOn ads, aren't nearly as effective.

Since this race was so close, it's tempting to blame other factors, such as robo-calls, nasty mailers and the Dickert matter, for Massa's loss.  Lacking any real polling data, I don't want to speculate about those factors.  I've picked out the "big three" reasons that Massa didn't quite make it:  outsider in an insider's district, no help from the national party, and imperfect negative spots.  In identifying those weaknesses, I don't want to give a wrong impression, because Massa ran a superb campaign.

The quality of Massa's campaign can be seen in comparison two to other close calls:  Dan Maffei in NY-25, and Tammy Duckworth in Il-6.  Both Duckworth and Maffei were good candidates, but both failed by roughly the same margin as Massa in less challenging districts. 

As Rahm Emmanuel's darling, the total spent by and for Duckworth in the campaign probably topped $5 million.  Yet she fell short in an open-seat district that's less Republican than the 29th (R+3 vs R+5 in the Cook ratings). 

Dan Maffei raised roughly half of what Massa raised in the 29th, in a district that's much more Democratic (D+3) and richer (median income $2K more than the 29th).  Since Maffei was essentially broke at the end of the campaign, he even got outside help in the form of ad spending by the national party.  Nevertheless, he lost in a race with a margin only slightly tighter than Massa's. 

Perhaps James Walsh is a stronger candidate than Kuhl, and maybe Duckworth was hit harder by Republicans, but I think the reason that Massa did about as well as these two was simple:  he ran harder and smarter.

Eric Massa had a tough job and he did it well.  He has some rough edges, like most risk-takers, but he's proven that he has the ability to inspire loyalty and generate excitement with a large group of supporters.  If he stays in politics, I think he has the potential for taking the 29th in 2008.  If not, he will be remembered for running one of the best congressional campaigns in recent memory.


This is truly an outstanding post.

Thank you for this and your many other insightful and balanced postings of this race.

And thank you for all the time you have taken to get the story right. I hold up this blog as the gold standard for poltical anaylsis in the 06 election cycle.

Well done and insightful but I am still concerned that he has eroded confidence in his judgement and sense of "honor"--which was such a big deal what with his Naval Academy background, etc. A good analyst now has two races worth of data which show--particularly when overlaid by the remarkable run by Mrs. Clinton down here (just lost Steuben by 45 votes)--where sophisticated people live who are willing and able to split their tickets. I would target those precincts, combined with Monroe, and come back another day.

Thanks to all for the kind words.

Olean Gal in your Jasper Guise: I think that Massa goes out of this campaign with his sense of honor intact.

Well done and insightful but I am still concerned

You know, if you're going to be a concern troll, you should avoid explicitly using the word "concern." Otherwise, you won't fool anyone.

Right on target. In Steuben the label "newcomer" is as potent as "liberal" is in dismissing and discrediting a candidate. Use of the word in local headlines certainly hurt. If Massa had been born in the Southern Tier he'd have won in a landslide. His personal qualities are exactly what locals respond to most -- far more than a party label.

I'd love to see him run again, but unless he gets appointed or elected to some significant local office he won't overcome the newcomer tag. I'd hate to see Massa leave the area, as he was a near perfect candidate for '06. If the war and Bush are less of an issue in '08, Eric will need some local creds if he does plan to stay and run again.

Of course we can still hope for a Randy mistep -- the potential is certainly there. I don't know that he's ever served in the minority -- at least since the Assembly, but it seems unlikely that he'll make a splash in the Democratic House. And he'll probably have less pork to deliver at election time.

I don't think the newcomer angle will linger. If he can host a radio program, remain involved in local veterans affairs, maybe capture something with the Spitzer administration he will be accepted more in another two years.

In fact, if Massa wraps up things as unclumsily as can be hoped for at this point, he even could get on the circuit of speaking at service clubs and veterans groups along the lines of "What I Learned by Running for Congress." If he made it funny, anecdotal and not lambasting he would be well-sought by clubs all around this district. Certainly on the campuses!

Eric will still have his dignity, honesty, and concern for people that he did when he started this campaign. Kuhl wil never know what any of these mean!

I think the Social Security thing really hurt. But I think "flatfooted" is a little unfair. Who would have ever thought that the NRCC would have pumped money into the 29th and the DCCC wouldn't? Of course the campaign was stunned. Who wouldn't be?

I think that you're right on. Eric did 95% of everything right. Without help from the national dems, he had to do everything 100% right. I think that's impossible for a first time candidate. That will be different in 08. I think there will be national support then. And Eric will know what that 5% was and fix it.

I think there's also another factor. I think that since this district when so Republican before, there were just many people who were looking for any excuse not to vote for Eric. So, although Kuhl's or the NRCC's negative ads may not have been believable, people were just looking for any excuse, because they weren't quite "used" to the idea that they could vote against someone they'd previously voted for. They thought about it, though. And I think they considered it. And then the attack ads and the false robo calls gave them the opportunity to stick inside their comfort zone. Two more years though, and they'll feel like they "know" Eric and they'll have grown comfortable with the idea.

Who would have ever thought that the NRCC would have pumped money into the 29th and the DCCC wouldn't?

Me, for one. I think the NRCC would have spent more if Tom Reynolds hadn't melted down next door. Massa wasn't expecting money from the DCCC and didn't get it.

I agree 100% with your "any excuse" analysis. Partisan voting is a hard habit to break, and Kuhl's negative campaign, along with the other little tricks, probably kept a lot of voters in that rut.

On the Times/Discovery channel tonight I saw a promo for an upcoming show -- Taking the Hill, I think. And there was Eric massa saying, "Give me a hundred veterans and we can take the hill!"

Let's hope that this is only the beginning.