There will be many campaign strategies and tactics to review over the coming weeks. Tuesday night’s elections resulted in the validation or repudiation of many interesting campaign tactics. One GOP candidate’s win was far from a foregone conclusion. Ben Quayle’s victorious candidacy for Arizona’s 3rd congressional seat deserves immediate scrutiny.
The son of famous former Vice President, Dan Quayle, Ben Quayle never encountered the problem that most challenger’s face when running for House seat, low name recognition. That, of course, has the potential to work against you – high name recognition means surrendering self-definition, at least initially, to forces beyond a candidate’s control.
Running for the seat vacated by retiring Republican Rep. John Shadegg, Quayle sought to pick up a seat held by one of two Republicans since 1983. This ad was aimed at Arizona 3rds primary electorate. This primary field being packed and with the federal government’s prosecution of a law suit against Arizona over its tough anti-illegal immigration law, there was no shortage of attacks on the White House among Arizona’s Republican candidates.
Going after the unpopular President was not a difficult call to make, but he had to do it with finesse. Arizona’s 3rd is a nuanced district and outright bomb throwing in the primary against Democrats is likely to backfire in a general election. Appearing to be the consummate conservative firebrand is not necessarily a path to victory in Arizona. It is a recent development that The Grand Canyon State has become unfriendly to the Democratic party and it has more to do with recent developments on the immigration front. A politically expedient tactic today, it may not be as relevant in the next election cycle. Then the process of personal redefinition would begin again.
Quayle needed to do two things: 1) set himself apart from his famous father and set his own reputation and 2) define himself apart from his primary contenders. The way he set out to fulfill the second condition led some observers to determine that Quayle was pursuing a strategy in the primary that may succeed but doom him in the general election. He aired a now famous commercial in which a tough-talking Quayle calls Barack Obama “the worst president in history,” and that someone needs to go to Washington to “knock the hell out of the place.” Quayle won, but now he had to face a Democrat more than prepared to run against Quayle’s rhetorical overreach.
The Democrat in that race, John Hulburd, attacked Quayle as being more suited to life in a frat house than the U.S. House. A revelation that Quayle’s early-career affiliation with a racy gossip website forced him to apologize for the content in a number of posts, but that issue came and went and did not appear to have a lasting impact on his candidacy. Quale handled it well. Hulburd then challenged Quayle’s contention that Washington is bloated and he was just the kind of outsider that could fix it – his father after all was as inside as it gets. This, too, did not have sticking power. It turned out that 2010 was on Quayle’s side, and his characterization of President Obama as “the worst president in history” was not so far outside the realm of acceptable thought that Hulburd wanted to run against it.
The infamous “Worst President” ad aired over the summer and a Public Policy Polling survey of that district from October 18 showed Quayle slipping with 44 to Hulburd’s 46 percent. He was named one of the liberal Salon.com’s “terrifying ten.” Having made himself a target of the left, he took the risk of alienating himself with moderate voters. Quayle was sure that he could get the voters he lost back in new and reenergized conservative voters. In Arizona in 2010, that worked. In any other year it might not have; Anna Little employed a similar strategy in New Jersey’s 6th district and came up short on Election Day.
Again, there will be many post-mortems and this is just one. Quayle is an interesting upcoming figure and it will be fascinating to watch his career develop in the next Congress.
Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org