Losing in politics is sometimes a hidden blessing

by DG Martin

“But what if I lose?”

This question is on the minds of a number of good North Carolina political candidates who are facing tough elections next month.

Former Georgia Senator Wyche Fowler once gave me the best answer to that question that I have ever heard.

Fowler, as a congressman and senator, almost always faced strong challenges. He finally lost his bid for reelection to the Senate in 1992 in a very close runoff.

Long before that loss, I had asked him how he dealt with the reality that every election brought the possibility of a career-ending defeat.

His answer, as I remember it now, was, “I keep a list of all the things that I want to do, and couldn’t do if I won, but would have time and occasion to do if I lost. I’d list the books I wanted to read, the places I could visit, the things I would have time to write about, the friends I could spend time with and so on. There get to be so many good projects on that list, that by the time Election Day comes, one part of me would be very satisfied if, by losing, I would gain the opportunity to begin to work on my list.”

Every candidate ought to consider Fowler’s advice, not to diminish or compromise his or her campaign efforts, but to remember that a good life is ahead for election losers as well as winners, if they are willing to embrace it.

If they still have ambition to serve in political office, the losers on Nov. 7 should remember something else.

In politics, losing can be a launch pad to later political victory.

Reading HW Brands’ recent biography of Andrew Jackson reminded me that Jackson’s defeat in the presidential contest in 1824 provided the platform for his victory in 1828.

Abraham Lincoln’s losing campaign for the US Senate in 1858 paved the way for his election as president in 1860. More recently, Richard Nixon, after losing a presidential election in 1960 and a California governor’s election in 1962, came back to win in 1968. Ronald Reagan’s losing campaign for the presidential nomination in 1976 was the beginning of his successful effort in 1980.

But North Carolinians do not have to go so far away to find examples of candidates who built victories from earlier defeats.

Mike Easley began his statewide election experience with a run-off loss to Harvey Gantt for the Democratic US Senate nomination in 1990. The contacts and a good reputation as an appealing candidate he gained in 1990 helped him win election as NC attorney general in 1992 and 1996 – and governor in 2000 and 2004.

Elaine Marshall lost a heartbreaking reelection bid to the NC Senate in 1994. She plunged ahead in 1996 to a successful campaign for secretary of state in 1996. Also, after losing a primary contest for US Senate in 2002, she won reelection as secretary of state in 2004, and has proved herself to be one of the most popular North Carolina political figures since her predecessor, Thad Eure.

There is a long list of other current successful North Carolina political figures who not only put their losses behind them, but made those loses stepping stones to later victories.

Brad Miller lost a bid for reelection to the North Carolina House of Representatives in 1994. But he came back to win a seat in the state senate and election to the US Congress.

Richard Moore lost a bid for the US Congress in 1994, but he developed the experience and the organization to run successfully for state treasurer in 2000.

Robin Hayes, after losing the governor’s race in 1996, came back to win election to the US Congress in 1998.

Lauch Faircloth lost in the 1984 Democratic gubernatorial primary, but won election to the US Senate in 1994. Elizabeth Dole, after an unsuccessful run for the Republican nomination for president in 2000, won a US Senate seat in 2002.

Whether the losing candidates look for new ventures outside politics or use their defeat as a platform for future successful campaigns, they will find that life can be still be very, very good.