Mike Huckabee’s campaign grabbed headlines in the days approaching the “Potomac primary” by lacing into the leadership of the Washington State Republican Party after John McCain eked out a modest “victory” in that state’s February 9 precinct caucuses. The “loss” contrasted with Huckabee’s strong showing earlier that day in Kansas, thus his campaign promptly called the Washington results into question. The caucus results have now been examined and updated without ultimate change to the leader board, but the episode has revealed more about Huckabee and his Ed Rollins-led campaign than anything else.
At the crux of the original contretemps was the decision by Washington State GOP Chair Luke Esser to project McCain the victor with results from 87 percent of the state’s precincts tallied. The resulting late-night, imprecisely worded press release, however, gave Huckabee’s campaign the wrong impression. They immediately leaped to the conclusion that Esser had ceased counting “votes,” wouldn’t be tabulating further results, and arbitrarily declared the contest over on an apparent whim. None of that was actually true, but it didn’t stop Huckabee or his campaign staff from publicly repeating those myths in the next few days.
Such behavior displayed a remarkable lack of understanding of the caucus process — or more nakedly political motives. Ten states had conducted GOP caucuses prior to Washington’s during this nominating season. Of those, only Kansas, Montana, and North Dakota directly allocated actual national convention delegates based on those initial caucuses.
Caucuses in the other seven states, including much watched Iowa, were actually the first step in a multi-stage process ending with state GOP conventions electing the national delegates that are the subject of so much current discussion. Thus, many caucus “victories” for candidates like Huckabee and Mitt Romney have been in the form of a straw poll of caucus attendees or a tally of the Presidential preference of locally elected delegates that will influence the eventual state-level decision. Thus, the media-covered caucus “results” have not been binding in many cases.
THE WASHINGTON GOP chose to report results in terms of the Presidential preferences of delegates elected at the precinct level to attend county conventions later this spring. It can be fairly argued whether John McCain “winning” the most precinct delegates constitutes a “victory” for his campaign since no candidate is ensured national delegates based on the first step of a caucus process. Yet, that is what the media has been reporting and that is what Esser consequently announced as an indicator of McCain’s comparative strength.
Huckabee’s quixotic campaign — publicly predicated on a near miracle to catch John McCain in the remaining primaries — quickly claimed aggrieved status. More importantly, it rapidly began scoring headlines and TV interviews portraying Huckabee as the trodden upon underdog. Given that Huckabee’s “miracle” strategy needed a Virginia win to keep hope truly alive, it was not a bad ploy in terms of attracting earned media — if one disregards the actual facts.
Ed Rollins and his team made clear their intent through the use of slash and burn rhetoric. Rollins went nuclear the day after the caucuses with a fiery public statement personally attacking Esser, proclaiming the outcome to be “all about the failings of the Washington State Republican Party,” and making reference to the infamous recounts in Washington’s own 2004 Governor’s race, which local Republicans remember all too well.
One would think a comparatively young Presidential candidate with potential national ambitions in his future would find a way to raise questions about the caucus outcome without actively trashing a state Republican Party in the process. Regardless, the Huckabee campaign saw base-inspiring potential in news cycles with Huckabee portrayed as the victim of a devious Republican establishment.
Huckabee himself led the charge in national media interviews, comparing the actions of Esser and the Washington State GOP with those of Soviet apparatchiks. He further pronounced events in Washington as “the most outrageous thing I think I’ve heard of.” Notably, this continued even as the facts of the caucuses and their results were made clear to the Huckabee camp.
AFTER BEING BRIEFED by senior state party officials on Monday the 11th, Huckabee’s campaign stayed on the offensive. In a startling move, it embraced lines of attack from local and national liberal blogs castigating Esser. Spokesman Jim Pinkerton labeled the state party chair “Boss Esser” and “King Luke,” inferred Esser had acted nefariously out of allegiance to Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna (a key local McCain supporter), and accused Esser of blatantly tipping the scales to McCain.
Needless to say, many Evergreen State Republicans familiar with the caucuses — regardless of Presidential favorite — are not amused. Objections and concerns are one thing. Hyperbolic personal attacks in an intra-party environment are another. And attempting to pin the painful gubernatorial ballot counting controversy of 2004 back on the state GOP was a bridge too far, even for Ed Rollins’s established brand of bombast.
Mitt Romney notably exited the GOP race with graceful good timing and resulting warm feelings from many Republican leaders and members of the conservative movement. Mike Huckabee’s post-Washington state tantrum indicates he might not accomplish the same feat.
The earned media from the uproar no doubt helped Huckabee narrow the gap in Virginia — with an assist from McCain’s weekend-long absence from the campaign trail. But, the Old Dominion’s primary still turned out to be a decisive defeat for Huckabee that symbolically slammed the door on his chances at the nomination.
Should he stay in the race much longer, many people will begin to wonder, “What is Mike Huckabee doing?” A not insignificant number of Republicans in Washington state have already been asking the same question.
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