Why a ‘hiding’ candidate isn’t such a bad thing

One of the most common refrains you hear when covering politics is this one: "Candidate X isn't doing any public events! He/She is nowhere to be found!"

This is (probably) not a politician.
This is (probably) not a politician.

The implication is, of course, that this is bad, that the job of the candidate is to, at all times, be in public -- meeting people, engaging on issues and talking to reporters until they can't meet, engage or talk anymore.  And, of late, it's a charge leveled at two candidates seeking the Senate: Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky and Monica Wehby in Oregon.

Republicans have been insistent that Grimes is avoiding doing much of anything but raising money, limiting her public events in hopes of not saying or doing the wrong thing. McConnell, in an unusual move for such a long-serving incumbent,  challenged Grimes to three general election debates the day after he officially became the Republican party's nominee -- a clear attempt to draw her out.

"She did a 50-county bus tour in the days leading up to the primary, but for the most part, her public events have been few and far between," said Sam Youngman, a political reporter at the Lexington Herald Leader.

The situation in Oregon is slightly different. As WaPo's Phil Rucker noted in his terrific piece on the race, Wehby has spoken sparingly to the local (or national) media since May 16, the day the story broke that she had been accused of stalking an ex-boyfriend. In a writeup of a GOP primary debate that happened that same day, the Oregonian described a very strange scene: "Wehby rushed from the ballroom of a Portland hotel as reporters tried without success to interview her. Wehby's aides and workers at the Sentinel hotel blocked journalists from following her into a service area as Conger stayed behind."

Here's the thing: Even if Grimes and Wehby are staying out of the public eye -- and in Grimes's case I'm not even sure that's the case -- it's almost certainly a) their smartest strategy at the moment and b) entirely unnoticed by voters. (For the record, before I go any further: As a reporter, I would l-o-v-e it if all candidates made themselves far more available to the public and to the media.  What I outline below is simply an argument for why it's not a dead end, strategically speaking.)

I'll use Grimes to make my case in favor of hiding. (And, again, "hiding" is in the eye of the beholder.  Grimes and her side will insist that she has done plenty of public events). The two most important things for Grimes to do to beat Mitch McConnell this fall are, in order: 1) raise millions of dollars 2) make the race a referendum on McConnell.

Neither of those goals are served by her spending oodles of time meeting and greeting voters who may, at best, be kind-of, sort-of paying attention to the race at the moment.  Raising money -- particularly at the rate Grimes needs to collect it -- is best done in private, taking advantage of the fact that she is running against liberals' most-hated Republican. (Grimes will be in D.C. later this week to raise money with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.) To date, she's done quite well for herself with more than $8 million raised since last July.

When it comes to making the race a referendum on McConnell, Grimes would be well advised to do everything she could to keep the conversation in the race about him and not her. McConnell has proved devastatingly effective at turning the focus on voters away from him and onto his opponents; he did so in 2008 against Democrat Bruce Lunsford and earlier this year against Matt Bevin in the GOP primary. (Cockfighting!)  McConnell will, without doubt, attempt to do the same against Grimes; the less she gives him to work with, the better.

The other important thing to remember when it comes to the relative merits of political hiding is that it matters when you choose to do it.  At the moment, just post-primary in Kentucky and with the summer about to be here, the last thing that most people are thinking about is whether Lundergan Grimes is doing too few public events. Ditto Oregon where the most important thing for Wehby at the moment is to raise money after a bruising primary and find a good answer to the series of negative personal stories about her that came out just before the primary.

Yes, our long-held image of politics is a candidate out on the trail, slapping backs, shaking hands and kissing babies. But with a few exceptions -- presidential primaries/caucuses in places like Iowa and New Hampshire, for example -- the idea that winning candidates are the ones who wear the soles of their shoes thin by walking all over the state (Lawton Chiles for the win! ) is somewhat outdated. Knowing when to stay quiet and out of site (ish) is -- when done properly -- a strategic move than can pay major dividends once voters start, you know, actually paying attention.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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