Why Stender never had a chance

In an election year driven by a hemorrhaging economy and an electorate hungry for an end to divisive politics, 7th Congressional District candidate Linda Stender positioned herself on the wrong side of the Democratic wave.

The election marked a desire for change in both policy and politics. The Southern Strategy is dead. Barack Obama fought for votes in all corners of the country and won in places the pundits said he had no business even competing. Talk of the “Real America” and accusations of anti-Americanism looked petty in the context of our nation’s challenges, particularly while most Americans worried about their jobs and lost retirement savings. The divisive issues that characterized the Bush era were but an asterisk in the presidential race, and when they did surface, the Karl Rove strategy of divide, distract and conquer failed to deliver. Despite Californians narrowly voting for the bigoted Proposition 8, they still delivered Obama a crushing margin over McCain. The grip of fear over the electorate has weakened.

Exhausted from years of excessive political divisiveness, voters of all stripes turned to Barack Obama because he embodied a spirit of respect, cooperation, and bipartisanship (not to be confused with centrism).

If there are parallels between the presidential and 7th Congressional District races, they buck the national trends that swept Obama and other Democrats into office. In this case, it was Leonard Lance — a self-described Eisenhower Republican with a long record of reaching across the aisle, whose temperament offered voters a change of pace from the politics of the past.

While Obama was making inroads in traditionally Republican areas — and carried the 7th district — Stender lost ground almost across the board. In Lance’s base of Hunterdon County, a 16-point loss for Stender in 2006 turned into a 35 point deficit. In Somerset, her margin fell from -5 to -14 percent, and even in her home county of Union, a 1-point edge turned into a 5-point loss. Only in Middlesex did her margin creep up from 15 to 17 points, but even there her own vote total dropped from 56 percent to 55 percent.

Polling of the district showed that despite having the highest median income in the state, 50 percent of voters (and 54 percent of independents) named jobs and the economy as the top issue. Abortion and other social issues clocked in at 8 percent — and a paltry 5 percent for independents.

So it was nothing short of astonishing that Stender spent weeks trying to make an issue of “Lance’s anti-woman record” instead of talking about the economy. Here’s a sampling of the campaign’s press releases:

Oct. 3: “Lance Admits Women Have no Right to Birth Control”
Oct. 9: “Women and Pharmacist Highlight Lance’s Anti-Birth Control Record”
Oct. 14: “Lance Ad Desperate Attempt to Conceal Anti-Birth Control Record”
Oct. 22: “Bush-Lance Record a Clear Disaster for New Jersey Women”

This is a canonical example of a campaign hijacked by EMILY’s List.

Instead of sticking to what they’re good at — raising money for pro-choice Democratic women — the organization took control of messaging and hiring decisions by threatening to cut off funding.

But Stender’s messaging — or more precisely, the lack of a coherent and politically-compelling message or narrative — was not what doomed the campaign. That was merely one symptom of the poor management and decision-making that affected almost all aspects of the operation.

Ultimately, responsibility rests with the candidate, who allowed outside forces to seize control of her own campaign — again.

On March 11, 2006, at a forum of political activists, Stender was asked if she would vote to impeach President Bush. “After the vote in 2007 to elect Nancy Pelosi Speaker, the next vote should be on impeachment,” she replied.

Rahm Emmanuel, then-chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, was scheduled to appear with Stender in the district on Monday, March 27 for an event on stem cell research. It’s widely believed that Emmanuel threatened to cancel his already much-publicized appearance and leave her standing alone unless she retracted her statement on impeachment.

At 10 p.m. on the Friday before the event, the Stender campaign quietly acquiesced. “After some reflection, I realize that I was premature in calling for impeachment of the President,” read the statement.

To the unaware observer, Stender’s unprompted statement seemed out of place and even unnecessary, but it hinted at the underlying struggle that would kneecap her chances in both her races.

It would be too simplistic to blame her loss on tactical mistakes. Stender’s problems were much more fundamental — she simply never took control over her campaign.

Had Stender truly been the boss of her own campaign, she likely would have connected better with voters and spoken compellingly to them on the kitchen-table issues that ruled this election day. Had she done so, New Jersey pols might be writing Congresswoman Stender letters of congratulations, rather than condolence.

Why Stender never had a chance