11/06/2014 06:34 pm ET Updated Jan 06, 2015

The Joy of Losing: What Red-State Democrats Still Don't Get


Memo to Grimes and Nunn and the rest of the sad parade of upsets-that-never-were: Most of you knew damn well you were almost certain to lose the second you decided to run. But rather than accept it, you saw that utter likelihood as a reason to double down on moving heaven and earth to defy overwhelming odds. You right-ified yourselves, got spinned, packaged, messaged, anything in the quixotic hope your opponent would stumble hugely, or half your state would suddenly became miraculously unracist. You fell for the nonsense that winning is everything. What you completely forgot -- if you ever knew it in the first place -- was the singular freedom that comes with running for office as your true self.

I wish someone had forced Alison Grimes to sit down and watch 1972's The Candidate, in which Robert Redford is told at the outset by his campaign manager that the catch to his running is that there is no chance that he'll win. The comedic conceit of the movie is the pleasure of watching "Bill McKay" honestly answering every question, given the thumbs up by the smiling Peter Boyle, who's obviously enjoying the first time he hasn't had to "handle" a candidate to death. (A modern version of the dehumanizing process of becoming a professional politician can also be seen in this season's The Good Wife, as Alicia desperately tries to maintain some semblance of herself as she runs for State's Attorney. But she has a real chance of winning. Alison never did.)

Imagine, Ms. Grimes, if you had just said: "Of course I voted for President Obama, I was a delegate for him at the convention, for crying out loud. And why shouldn't I have? He's a great president who brought us back from the brink of depression, killed Bin Laden, saved GM, and lowered unemployment to six percent. And considering the success of KentuckyConnect, which is Obamacare, I'd really like to know what the problem of the average Kentucky voter is with the president. Please, I'm listening." They would have sputtered their answers.

What if she told her constituents that coal was a dying industry for good reason and Mitch McConnell should have brought some clean jobs to the state instead of trying to subsidize dirty ones? What if she championed earmarks as the one thing that the president can use to get legislation past reluctant Congressmen? What if she'd come out for background checks and amnesty, and told the voters that if Kentucky had better schools, students would be taught not just Spanish, but a second language, and that could help make one of the most beautiful states in the country a huge tourist destination, generating more jobs than the coal industry ever did? There are many arguments she could have made that would have gotten enough free media attention (she's pro-Pork? WHAT?) to compensate for the lack of DNC money that no doubt would have dried up for a candidate whose first speech was:

I'm going to lose this race, that's for sure. But I'm not asking for your vote, although I'd love to have it. I'm asking for your open-mindedness. I'm going to stake a lot of positions that most Kentuckians don't agree with, but I'm going to ask the good people of my state to just listen. Because I don't want to win if it means saying things I don't really believe. That's what Mitch McConnell does, and I'm sad to say most of you have been falling for it for over 20 years now. I'd love for you to prove me wrong, but I'm not holding my breath.

The press would have been on her like soot on a white dress.

Now, I don't know about Alison Grimes' personal life, or Michelle Nunn's, but I'm pretty sure some losing female candidate out there may have had an elective abortion somewhere along the line. I'm sure there are some losing candidates -- male or female -- who may be closet atheists, or in the other closet, or think that maybe Israel should not be supported so blindly. Let me ask: where did hiding all of these politically incorrect positions get you? Did you enjoy the feeling you got in your stomach every time you spouted an opinion you didn't really hold?

In The Candidate, Redford's honesty unexpectedly pays off. This is partly because it's a movie, but it is also quite a bit inspired by Jerry Brown's first successful run for office. It is a technique that can even work -- look at Jodi Ernst. She is radically right, but unapologetically so -- this in a state that went blue in the last two presidential elections. When it comes to midterms, candidates of either party must energize their base, as they are the only midterm voters out there. Republicans get this. Democrats are playing by the old rulebook, trying desperately not to alienate anybody -- in this season, shamefully turning on the president instead of calling out his detractors and asking them to back it up.

Integrity didn't use to be such a rare quality in politicians. Adlai Stevenson had it. He ran against Eisenhower in 1952, lost in a landslide, and then ran again in 1956 for the same result. He wasn't polished or glossy -- a rumpled intellectual, really. Most of his platform was about fifteen years ahead of its time for the middle-of-the-road, overwhelmingly white and largely complacent Americans of the time. But he injected many fresh and forward ideas into the American consciousness, even into the mindset of Eisenhower -- whose parting address, after all, was a fairly prescient warning that the military/industrial complex was forming an irreversible concentration of power.

So this I say to future blue candidates in red states: Never sell your soul to try and win an un-winnable election. Choose to lose, and you'll not only keep your integrity, but have way more fun. And over the long term, you will have moved the needle and created a lot more change than you would saying things you think the voters want to hear instead of what you really believe. At the very least, you'll sleep a lot better on election night.