In House Races, Instincts vs. Incumbency
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 9, 1998; Page A01
INDIANAPOLISFor all the emphasis placed on focus groups, polling and grand strategies, the harsh fact is that elections often hinge on the quick, hurried and sometimes panicked decisions of newcomers to national politics suddenly thrust into the public spotlight with nothing to fall back on but their instinct and judgment.
Nowhere is that more apparent this year than for two challengers running for the House in the crucial Ohio River Valley, where eight competitive congressional races may determine which party controls the House next year.
Here in the capital of Indiana, Republican Gary Hofmeister, a conservative, 56-year-old businessman who had never sought office, was confronted with a classic strategic issue: how to deal with nasty rumors about his sex life. Hofmeister defied the conventional wisdom of refusing to dignify such allegations and instead agreed to an on-the-record interview to deny every one of them.
To the southeast of here, in Cincinnati, Democratic challenger Roxanne Qualls was caught by surprise by an unrelenting assault on her liberal stands on social issues and repeated demands for debates by Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), a hard-charging conservative first elected in 1994.
Usually, it is challengers who insist on debates. The events place them on the same footing as the incumbent and provide an opportunity to establish credibility. Qualls, who was still hurriedly piecing together a campaign strategy and organization, chose to reject the offer, postponing debates to the last month of the campaign.
Nearly half the candidates running for the House in November are doing so for the first time. In each of these contests, issues have to be learned, rumors dealt with, staff hired, egos massaged, reporters' inquiries answered, money raised. These demands turn campaigns into tests not only of managerial and rhetorical skills but also of the ability to deal with the unexpected and, for those without experience in the congressional arena, the unknown.
The unpredictable factor of individual decision-making will be a major element in determining whether Democrats or Republicans will control the House; whether the leadership will remain under the conservative guidance of Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) or return to the liberal control of Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.).
Both Hofmeister and Qualls surprised a number of political pros and dismayed some of their respective partisans with the choices they made.
Polarize the Contest
All through his uphill struggle to win the GOP nomination, Hofmeister heard ugly rumors about himself. They were floated, he believes, by supporters of his primary opponent, Virginia Blankenbaker, a state senator and 1996 GOP nominee. Hofmeister defeated Blankenbaker by 7 percentage points and emerged from the May 5 primary with his public stature greatly enhanced.
Hofmeister and his campaign manager, Mike Young, were ready to test the basic premise of the campaign: The way to defeat Rep. Julia Carson, a liberal black Democrat in the 69 percent white district, was to polarize the contest on issues from abortion to school vouchers. They believed that this would give white, heavily Catholic, working-class voters a reason to abandon their Democratic roots and vote for a Republican.
But then the Hofmeister campaign, whose slogan was "Faith, family and freedom," was contacted by Brian Howey, publisher of a political newsletter. Howey said there were "a lot of stories going around town" and warned Hofmeister that "Democrats were talking about them. . . . It had reached the point where they could play a major role in the general election."
Howey asked: Did Hofmeister want to confront the rumors in an on-the-record interview?
The instinctive reaction to this kind of question in most campaigns is to remain silent. Don't kick a sleeping dog, the thinking goes. If the rumors are false, talking only raises questions in the minds of people who had never heard them. If they are true, denying them is likely to provoke an onslaught of tips and calls to reporters and to the opposition camp.
Hofmeister is a small businessman, a jeweler, and knows that gossip can kill a company. He also is a divorced Catholic running on an antiabortion platform, just the kind of candidate most vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy. He decided that responding to the questions was not kicking a sleeping dog; it was a way to put the dog to sleep.
Howey published the interview in NUVO, an alternative news weekly. No, Hofmeister said, he is not gay. No, he did not force his daughter to have an abortion. No, he did not beat and abuse his former wife. "My life hasn't been perfect, but there is nothing I'm ashamed of," Hofmeister told Howey.
When word of the Hofmeister-Howey interview reached Washington, GOP operatives shuddered. They saw in Hofmeister a shot at a Democratic House seat in a year when every seat picked up is insurance for Gingrich and the GOP. "He turned a nonstory into a story," complained one Republican operative. At the same time, staff at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee were incredulous. "What goes with this guy Hofmeister?" a Democratic aide asked.
During a recent interview, Hofmeister not only went over all the allegations against him but also discussed in some detail such matters as the breakup of his marriage and his past drinking problems. Then he showed off his business, run by his son and son-in-law, and stopped by his daughter's home, where he kidded around with five of his grandchildren.
Gary Hofmeister is the kind of guy who would and did give a solo performance of "God Bless America" when Alabama Judge Roy S. Moore, who has been battling for the right to display the Ten Commandments in his courtroom, spoke here.
In the four weeks since the NUVO story was published, the evidence suggests that more harm was done by the story to Hofmeister in the nation's capital than in Indianapolis, where no one has yet substantiated any of the rumors. And his campaign recently released poll results showing Carson with a 42 percent to 38 percent lead, a relatively small margin for an incumbent at this stage in a contest.
In Washington, however, Hofmeister must demonstrate to the fund-raising community that he deserves elevation to "first tier" status if he wants to tap the political action committees of business and trade associations.
"We'd love to put this one on the front burner, but a red flag goes up when you read something like this," one PAC director said of Hofmeister's interview.
Hofmeister acknowledged the danger in denying the rumors, saying that some people would believe "where there's smoke, there's fire. . . . Maybe I shouldn't have [granted the interview]. . . . I just thought that if the rumors had been out there enough, it would be better just to hit them on the head rather than keep them going."
From 'Nine-X' to War Zone
Roxanne Qualls in Cincinnati was caught off guard by Chabot's aggressive tactics. It was her first week as a congressional candidate, and she had decided late to get into the race. Her skills as a candidate had not been honed in tough, one-on-one campaigns.
Qualls had risen to prominence in the byzantine Cincinnati City Council election system, known as "nine-X." In those contests, smart politicians don't polarize the electorate the way they often do in congressional races. The idea is to be acceptable enough to every possible voter to get one of their nine ballot picks. Qualls had flourished in the "nine-X" system, topping the ticket to win the largely ceremonial post of Cincinnati mayor.
Now Qualls had moved from friendly competition into a war zone. "This campaign will present a clash of truly held principles," Chabot warned, relishing the prospect of publicly challenging Qualls "to explain why she supports the horrific practice of late-term partial-birth abortion."
The conventional wisdom is that a challenger should welcome the chance to debate an incumbent. Qualls rejected immediate debates, putting the confrontations off until October, when "you are probably going to have a lot more attention paid to these debates than you are now."
Chabot has tried to capitalize on Qualls's refusal to debate before October, charging in radio ads that Qualls "doesn't want to tell her real position on anything" and in news releases that "her views on federal issues are so far to the left that she wants to put off any discussion as long as possible and then try to slide by in the commotion of the fall."
Qualls dismissed the attacks, benefiting as mayor from favorable coverage of the economically strong city and county. The tactic worked well, by most accounts, until recently, when she and other council members proposed to raise sports and entertainment admissions taxes to pay for school improvements. The tax issue has given Chabot a vehicle to portray Qualls as a tax-raising liberal, and she put off the tax vote until August.
On Monday, Qualls formally proposed four October debates on education; economic development and the environment; wages and income; and health and retirement. Chabot quickly countered that the format does not allow for abortion, taxes or crime. "Dodging an honest discussion of the full range of congressional issues won't sit well with the voters," he said. "Ms. Qualls should reconsider and debate all the issues despite . . . her high-tax philosophy and very liberal social agenda."
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