THE BLOG
10/13/2014 11:07 am ET Updated Dec 13, 2014

Midterms and the Media's Double Standard for Disqualifying Candidates

NBC NewsWire via Getty Images

Last week, in the tightly contested Senate race in Kentucky, both Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell and his Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes gave newsworthy interviews in which they seemed to stumble over basic questions. But only one of the awkward missteps was treated as big news -- treated even as a campaign-ending debacle -- by some in the Beltway press: the Grimes interview.

Pundits pounced after Grimes refused, during an interview with the Louisville Courier-Journal editorial board, to say whether she voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. (McConnell has spent most of his campaign trying to tie Grimes to Obama, who is unpopular in Kentucky.)

After a Republican opposition group posted the clip of Grimes' answer, the Washington Post immediately linked to it and mocked the candidate's performance as "painful." On MSNBC, morning host Joe Scarborough bellowed, "What a rookie mistake!" CNN commentators criticized Grimes for being "too scripted" and "evasive."

Keep in mind; the issue itself is of no practical consequence to Kentucky voters -- it doesn't affect their day-to-day lives. But the story revolved around campaign "optics," which Beltway commentators now thrive on, especially when it's bad Democratic optics.

"Is she ever going to answer a tough question on anything? You want to be a U.S. senator?" demanded Meet The Press moderator, Chuck Todd. "I think she disqualified herself. I really do. I think she disqualified herself."

Recall that query ("Is she ever going to answer a tough question on anything?"), and the way Todd described it as a disqualifying trait for a Senate candidate. Because the day before the Grimes interview, McConnell called into Kentucky Sports Radio to talk with host Matt Jones. Days earlier, the popular host had interviewed Grimes with the understanding the McConnell campaign had also agreed to an interview. But after Jones grilled Grimes on the air, McConnell's campaign refused to answer Jones' emails and phone calls with regards to finalizing an appearance.

After days of on-air pleas, McConnell, without advance notice, finally called into the show last Wednesday and spoke with Jones for 14 minutes. Among the actual topics covered (in the place of optics analysis) were climate change and gay marriage. McConnell basically refused to answer questions about either:

JONES: That's a yes or no question. Do you believe in global warming?

McCONNELL: No it isn't. It is not a yes or no question. I am not a scientist.

And here's how McConnell danced around the issue of gay marriage [emphasis added]:

When asked if he supports gay marriage, McConnell answered, "I believe that marriage should be between one man and one woman." Asked why he believes that, McConnell again repeated he thinks marriage is "between one man and one woman." Again asked "why?" McConnell repeated the same line. Jones tried one more time. Again, "It is my belief that marriage is between one man and one woman."

To recap: If you're a Kentucky Democrat and you don't answer a straight-forward question, you may as well take your name off the ballot, according to Beltway journalists. But if you're a Kentucky Republican and you do the same thing, it's mostly crickets from the same pundits.

And again, Grimes' election crime was to stumble over a tactical campaign question, while McConnell refused to answer questions about public policy that inform the decisions he makes as a lawmaker. So why does the Democrat get hit harder?

There's something of a conventional wisdom among commentators that Republicans nominated much stronger candidates this election cycle. And specifically, GOP candidates aren't out on the campaign trail making up strange and unsupported claims that could jeopardize Republican chances of reclaiming the Senate. This observation is usually made in contrast to 2010 and 2012, when untested Republican candidates such as Todd Akin, Christine O'Donnell, and Sharron Angle uncorked a series of verbal shockers and badly lost their campaigns.

Republican candidates this time around are so much more professional and focused and on-message. They're so mainstream. Or so goes the narrative.

Keep in mind that the Republican candidate in North Carolina, Thom Tillis, says the government needs to "seal" the U.S.-Mexican border in order to protect America from the Ebola virus (via West Africa). The Republican candidate in Arkansas, Tom Cotton, thinks Mexican drug cartels are teaming up with Islamic State terrorists. And the Republican candidate in Iowa, Joni Ernst, suggested Obama be impeached because he's "become a dictator."

All of that is complete nonsense. But Republicans don't have to worry about candidates making crazy allegations this cycle, and Grimes is the one who flunked the competency test?

Meanwhile, Colorado Republican Senate candidate Cory Gardner repeatedly refuses to directly answer whether "humans are contributing significantly to climate change."

That type of evasion has become a hallmark of the midterm election cycle: Faced with the very simple, yes-or-no question about whether candidates believe climate change is happening, lots of Republican in tight races now throw up their hands and suggest the topic's just too complicated and confusing, and that once scientists stop arguing about it, they'll be happy to address the issue.

Of course, 97 percent of scientists are in heated agreement about the topic, which makes the dodge so comical. But have we heard D.C. pundits condemning the conveyor belt of clunky dodges? Have who heard Sunday morning talk show hosts announce that any candidate who refuses to address a "tough question" about climate change (or gay marriage) has instantly disqualified him or herself?

We have not.

Question: Are there different media standards for Republicans and Democrats this election cycle?

Crossposted at Media Matters.