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On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

When Losing An Election Isn't The End Of The Story

Missouri Republican Party Chairman Ed Martin, left, lost elections for Congress and for attorney general. While those experiences can be instructive, he says losing sometimes "just plain stinks."
Courtesy of Ed Martin's Facebook page
Missouri Republican Party Chairman Ed Martin, left, lost elections for Congress and for attorney general. While those experiences can be instructive, he says losing sometimes "just plain stinks."

When Ed Martin sent out an e-mail last week with the phrase “You’re A Loser” in the subject line, this writer thought the chairman of the Missouri Republican Party was being unneighborly.

In actuality, Martin – who, for full disclosure, lives in the same St. Louis neighborhood as I do – penned a  letter on how it feels to lose an election. Even though his party experienced a very successful mid-term election cycle, Martin wrote that not every Republican candidate is basking in the glow of victory -- and they probably aren't feeling that great right now.

“When a campaign ends and you lose, everyone disappears,” Martin wrote. “Gone in an instant.  Staff, volunteers, supporters, all seem to fade away.  It's like the clock runs down to 0:00 and the next second everyone is gone. Very disorienting.”

Martin used his own experience as evidence. He lost a very close race for Congress in 2010 to Democrat Russ Carnahan and a not-so-close contest for attorney general in 2012 to Attorney General Chris Koster. He pulled few punches on how it felt like: “It just plain stinks.”

In a telephone interview, Martin added that defeat can be instructive -- even if it feels terrible.

“When you lose, you learn a lot,” Martin said. “What could I have done better? How could I have made better decisions, done things to hire better people – whatever it is. But what you really learn is a sense of compassion for how much you can’t control it. You do the best you can. You put all the pieces together. And when you don’t win, the biggest thing is everybody fades away very abruptly.”

“You spend months – sometimes years – building a small business, which is a campaign,” he added. “And then the business folds up shop at 10 o’clock at night on a Tuesday.”

While he emphasized that even a close loss doesn’t feel good, it could set the stage for something bigger down the road. 

“It is a very interesting experience,” Martin said. “And one of the reasons it’s so important... is so many really great leaders come to us after having lost. So you don’t want the loss to be an end. You want it to be just a stopping point for folks that want to be involved.”

Winning by losing?

As Martin noted, some of Missouri’s most prominent political figures came back to win some of the state’s highest offices after losing an election. 

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., says she learned a lot from her unsuccessful run for governor in 2004.
Credit Sen. McCaskill's Flickr page
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., says she learned a lot from her unsuccessful run for governor in 2004.

For instance, Gov. Jay Nixon lost two races for the U.S. Senate in his nearly three decade political career. U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., fell short in statewide bids for lieutenant governor and governor before winning election to the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate.

And Blunt’s counterpart in the Senate – U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. – lost a bid for governor in 2004. She said last year that the race was difficult, but provided some lessons for her future campaigns.

In fact, she says she's told some potential candidates for the state legislature: "It’s OK! You don’t have to win every election.’You can win by losing sometimes."

“I made huge mistakes in that campaign,” said McCaskill during an edition of the Politically Speaking podcast. “I completely underestimated (Republican opponent) Matt Blunt. I completely underestimated how badly people in Missouri wanted to change teams, not just quarterbacks. And I overestimated how well I could do in the urban areas and didn’t spend enough time really getting to the granular level in terms of campaigning in outstate of Missouri.”

“I learned a lot in the campaign. I learned more in that campaign than any other campaign I’ve run,” she added. “But it certainly was the toughest because there was incredible pressure.”

Several state legislative candidates who won last Tuesday had lost earlier elections. That group includes Republicans Kevin Corlew, Shamed Dogan, Becky Ruth, Bob Onder, Cloria Brown and Democrats Deb Lavender and Tracy McCreery.  

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
Bob Onder lost his bid for Congress in 2008, an experience he says helped him greatly in his successful run for the state Senate.

Onder ran for the 9th congressional district in 2008 and lost to Republican Blaine Luetkemeyer, a St. Elizabeth Republican who had lost a bid for state treasurer in 2004. He said earlier this year that “you’ve got to be really realistic about what your grassroots support on the ground is.”

“The 9th congressional district was something like 22 counties. The victor – Blaine Luetkemeyer – had run in all 22 of those counties before because he had run for treasurer unsuccessfully,” said Onder during a Politically Speaking podcast earlier this year. “You have to be realistic about the manpower and the amount of money it’s going to take to win that race. And I think really the candidate has to remain engaged and make the big decisions. That’s not something that can be delegated.”

When he ran this year for the 2nd District state Senate seat, Onder said he made a concerted effort to reach out to Republican-minded groups. Doing that, he said, allowed his campaign “to get those folks on my side.”

“But not only just on my side like ‘Bob, I’ll vote for you.’ But working for me. Knocking doors for me. Spreading the word for me almost from the very beginning,” Onder said. 

McCreery won a special election in 2011, but lost to Sue Meredith in a 2012 Democratic primary. After working for the LGBT rights group PROMO, McCreery jumped back into the electoral saddle this year and won over Republican Raymond Chandler for a central St. Louis County seat.

McCreery said she learned in 2012 that "you can try something and throw your heart and soul into it, and lose and still come out of it feeling like a winner."

"Which I know makes me sound very Pollyannaish," McCreery said. "Although I was disappointed that I lost two years ago, I never felt like I needed to hold my head low or be ashamed. I was proud of the campaign I ran and I just happened to lose.

"I found out that losing is not the worst thing that’s ever happened to me," she added. "So that was a very liberating feeling – a very liberating mid-life lesson I would say."

'No pyrrhic victory'

Some have pointed to Martin’s near-victory against Carnahan for helping Republicans gain a foothold in the previously Democratic stronghold of Jefferson County. And it’s possible that state Rep. Rick Stream’s close loss in the St. Louis County executive’s race could provide a pathway for the GOP to be competitive in that county in the future.

Still, Martin said the silver linings of an electoral defeat might not be apparent soon after it occurs. 

Rick Stream
Credit Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio
State Rep. Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood, narrowly lost last Tuesday's election for St. Louis County executive. But even though he lost, many see Stream's candidacy as a positive step forward for St. Louis County Republicans.

He noted that even though Stream did better than many of his contemporaries who ran for St. Louis County executive, it was probably not a fun experience to lose to Councilman Steve Stenger, D-Affton.

"There’s no telling (a candidate) it’s a good run or that it was close," said Martin. "Here’s a good tidbit: Rick Stream – I think his family, not just him but maybe his brother Scott who’s a school board member – they’ve run 15 times. They’ve never lost. So this is the first time Rick Stream is on the short end of the stick. And I think that’s a very different psychology.”

Not every Missouri political figure who loses an election comes back to win one. Some fade into the electoral ether or decide that making lots and lots of money in the private sector is more fulfilling.

But as Martin noted, people who run and lose can still “take great consolation in progress.”

“We’re very encouraged by what we saw in St. Louis County and other parts of the state where we saw people taking a look at the Republican Party and our brand and say ‘I’m interested,’” Martin aid. “But you know, you’ve got to go back and earn it over and over again."

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.