It may not look that way on the surface. But as the midterms head into the home stretch, Alison Lundergan Grimes is now running against the media. So is Wendy Davis.
This is not an overt, us-versus-them situation in either the Kentucky Senate contest or the Texas governor’s race. But the press has these Democratic candidates on the defensive, and they in turn are doubling down on big blunders.
Maybe this is a warmup for 2016. Hillary Clinton said at a conference the other day that more and more reporters are looking for “the best angle,” the “quickest hit” and “the biggest embarrassment.” And she argued that journalists spend “dramatically” less time reporting “the real news” than 40 or 50 years ago, Politico reports.
And hey, in this era of shrinking newsrooms and Twitter-driven traffic, Hillary has a point. But her viewpoint is also informed by a testy relationship with the media that dates back to her time as first lady.
Candidates who stumble, as Grimes and Davis have in the last week, face a stark choice. They can admit their mistake, make some expression of regret and move on—or they can keep digging the hole deeper. The problem with refusing to move on is that the media keep hammering away at the original mistake and the pundits pile on, turning a one- or two-day flap into a weeklong embarrassment.
Grimes’ misstep, in her race against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, was hardly the result of a gotcha question. The Louisville Courier Journal editorial board wanted to know whether she voted for Barack Obama, and Grimes repeatedly refused to say. She stuck to that stance when a media panelist asked Grimes the same question during a debate with McConnell this week.
Let’s get this straight: This was a self-inflicted wound, notwithstanding her lofty rhetoric about the sanctity of the ballot box. Grimes is desperate to avoid being tied to Obama. Unless there’s another explanation—like she didn’t vote at all—she could have said that of course she supported Obama, she’s a Democrat, however she’s disappointed in him, disagrees on a bunch of issues, yadda yadda yadda. Non-story.
Liberal Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent thinks the media are going too far: “McConnell campaign operatives tried hard to stoke the impression that this was the defining moment of the evening, underscoring the manufactured quality that continues to characterize this story ever since Grimes first declined to answer this question. No question, Grimes did screw up by pulling an unsightly homina homina homina when she was first confronted with this, and it’s obviously a legitimate question. But the media pile-on that has followed is unquestionably over the top. NBC’s Chuck Todd got it all going by claiming she had ‘disqualified’ herself, which the McConnell camp promptly put in an ad, which generated more coverage of how devastating this was for Grimes, which then primed news outlets to grant outsized attention to this question when it was posed again.”
Todd should have qualified his remark, but he did get to the nub of the problem: Grimes is asking Kentuckians to give her a vote in the Senate, but won’t tell them who she voted for in the last two presidential elections. That’s not a “manufactured” issue.
Sargent also makes this telling point: “The Grimes campaign has posted videos of newscasts from the CBS affiliate, the NBC affiliate, and the ABC affiliate that don’t treat this as headline news at all, instead discussing the clash over issues such as the minimum wage, jobs, and coal.” So maybe the local media are more interested in the substance of the race than the national pundits.
It’s fair to ask, though, why the media aren’t equally obsessive about a McConnell mistake in that debate. McConnell, a diehard foe of ObamaCare, didn’t want to diss the state’s successful health care exchange, called Kynect. So he said: "The website can continue, but in my view the best interests of the country would be achieved by pulling out Obamacare root and branch.” Pressed again, he said, "Yeah, I think it's fine to have a website."
This is an absolute contradiction. As National Journal’s Ron Fournier says, “He can't have it both ways. Uprooting Obamacare upends Kynect. The Kentucky exchange was created with $252 million in federal grants provided through Obamacare. A critical aspect of the Affordable Care Act—and, by extension, the Kentucky plan—is the requirement that Kentucky residents secure health insurance. A full repeal of Obamacare would eliminate the grants, place a burden on Kentucky to finance the exchange (read: higher taxes), and scuttle the mandate.”
The national media, which lionized Wendy Davis when she mounted that abortion-rights filibuster, have really savaged her over the attack ad against Greg Abbott. Here, too, Davis is refusing to accept the media verdict and insisting she was right to use a wheelchair image in an ad against an opponent who can’t walk. She kept repeating her talking points in an interview on MSNBC.
Andrea Mitchell asked: "Could you have gone after what you see as his hypocrisy by pointing out what he did in that rape case, what he did in these other cases, without the stark image of the empty wheelchair which seemed to be trying to point people towards his own supposed disability?” (I have no idea why Andrea said “supposed,” as Abbott’s spine was crushed by a falling tree three decades ago.)
Even liberals have expressed disgust, with Mika Brzezinski saying the commercial made her “cringe.”
Here is my ad watch on the Wendy Davis spot, which makes clear that Abbott was pursuing his legal philosophy as state attorney general and a state Supreme Court justice, rather than crusading against the disabled as a private lawyer. One of my pet peeves is that television replays these controversial ads hundreds of times but doesn’t examine the substance.
For instance, the ad says “Abbott argued a woman whose leg was amputated was not disabled because she had an artificial limb.” What Abbott said as AG is that people who interviewed the woman for a managerial job didn’t know she was an amputee—and a jury later rejected her claim that discrimination was to blame.
Still, Abbott’s stringent approach can make him appear insensitive to disabled victims.
But by failing to acknowledge that the wheelchair image was a mistake, Davis has bought herself a week’s worth of negative coverage. Maybe that’s what she wants, because it gets so much play for her attack ad, but I don’t see how this brings her one step closer to closing the gap and becoming governor.
It’s not that the media are pushing their own agenda in these races. It’s that journalists and pundits are offended when candidates strike low blows or duck legitimate questions. And then it becomes very difficult for the candidate in question to change the story line.
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.