After three attempts at winning the region’s House seat, and spending at least $750,000 of his own money in this year’s contest, Doheny says he’s retiring from politics.
As the dust settles, I find myself circling back to the question of what happened to this once-promising, ambitious politician — a man his national party labeled a Young Gun.
What is it that prevented Doheny — a self-described moderate-conservative — from winning back a seat that once seemed like a safe bet for Republicans?
Here are six thoughts about what might have clipped his wings.
1. Sheer bad luck. If Bill Owens drew winning hands in 2009 and 2010, in the form of a nasty, divisive Republican-Conservative cat-fight, Doheny got the shaft. His best efforts at unifying the center-right were stymied by bitterness and ideological disputes beyond his control. By the time he was able to harness his side into anything like a unified force, Owens was already established as a three-year incumbent. Doheny had also earned himself a fair amount of distrust from some conservative activists who felt like he got in the way of Doug Hoffman’s tea party destiny.
2. An untimely resume. Doheny wanted voters to see him as a straight-up businessman, but he made a ton of money on Wall Street doing the kinds of Bain Capital-style things that average citizens don’t understand and are increasingly leery of. That CV might have looked A-OK before Washington bailed out Wall Street. But now? Doheny argued that skeptical questions about his business history were a kind of class warfare. And he worked to brand Owens as a lawyer who didn’t understand entrepreneurship. But in many ways the Democrat’s resume and history sounded more Main Street than Doheny’s.
3. A cultural disconnect. Matt Doheny was hard-charging, aggressive, forward-leaning, brash. Those aren’t bad things. But it didn’t always scan well. My sense is that it sometimes came across as glib. It contrasted sharply with Owens quieter, more mature posture. Doheny at times seemed more eager to talk than listen. He sometimes answered hard, complex questions with blunt, one-word answers. I’m not sure how that played with the moderate Republicans, women, and independents who decide North Country races.
4. Personal baggage. Doheny made a big deal of his decision to marry just before the election heated up, but I suspect that voters were still a bit leery of his personal history. In 2004, Doheny was tagged twice for boating while intoxicated on the St. Lawrence River and Coast Guard officials described him as “uncooperative, very angry and combative.” This year, Doheny was spotted in public with a woman other than his fiance, prompting the Glens Falls Post Star to question his “late-night dalliance in Washington D.C. that was videotaped and played up in the New York City tabloids.”
5. That killer ad. I’ve described Bill Owens’ campaign as “quiet” and “lackluster” and I stick by that description for the most part. But there were a couple of TV spots produced by the Democrat’s team that I think landed serious blows on Doheny, in large part because they tapped into the narratives in points 2, 3 and 4 above. The most effective was a spot called “Four Islands.” I’m not saying the spot was entirely accurate or fair. But did it do Doheny damage? I’m guessing Yes. Check it out.
6. A shifting political tide. Doheny himself has pointed out that the district’s voters tilted to Obama this year, making it tough for a Republican challenger to buck the regional trend. I think it’s a fair argument. But I also think it’s reasonable to point out that Doheny didn’t do much to distance himself from elements of his party that don’t play well here. He was fiercely anti-union in a part of the world where unions are accepted even by many GOP leaders. He made a big deal out of attacking President Obama and healthcare reform, and opposing tax hikes for the wealthy, even though those issues have complicated textures in the North Country. Doheny, like a lot of Republicans around the country, bet the farm that average voters here were ready for a much more conservative line in Washington. They were wrong.
I acknowledge cheerfully that this is all Monday morning quarterbacking. There’s no prescience here. If you had forced me to bet my nickel on one of these candidates last Tuesday morning, I guess I would have bet on Doheny
Given his defeat, the field for Republicans is wide open for 2014. There are signs that Doug Hoffman, the Conservative candidate, may be interested in throwing his hat back in the ring.
Tomorrow in the In Box, we’ll look at how Owens won this race, and we’ll look at what it means that a Democrat has captured the North Country in a straight up contest with a sane, well-funded, centrist Republican.