“Do not let anyone convince you that it was the political environment that doomed Rick Baker,” I said to a senior Rick Kriseman supporter last week during some post-election shop talk. “This diverts from the over-arching truth that Baker ran a truly horrible, and at the end, grotesque campaign.”
There have been some insightful analyses of St. Petersburg’s mayoral race.
Zack Sampson and Nathaniel Lash offer the straightforward conclusion that “Rick Kriseman bet on partisanship in the era of Donald Trump, … and won.”
Adam Smith‘s top takeaway is that the contest “effectively ended in August, when President Trump spoke of the ‘fine people’ who participated in a neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, where clashes led to a woman’s death.”
However, Creative Loafing’s Kate Bradshaw argues that “to say anti-Trumpism is the sole reason Kriseman won oversimplifies the calculations thousands of voters make in their heads before casting a ballot — even if Democrats in Virginia and other places also had good reasons to celebrate Tuesday night.”
So … is Trump to blame for Baker’s loss or not?
Yes, but not because of what happened November 7th. I’d argue that had Baker employed five simple words upon being asked whether he voted for Trump, he could have won the race outright in August, making the argument about why he lost in November a moot point.
Because that’s still the top takeaway from Baker vs. Kriseman: that the former mayor had a chance to end the entire affair in August but blew the opportunity.
As Smith reports — and I can confirm — in June, a credible Democratic poll had Kriseman trailing Baker by a virtually insurmountable 20 percentage points. Yet, two weeks after Charlottesville, “Kriseman squeaked out a win in the primary and then spent the remainder of the race bludgeoning Baker with Trump.”
It’s not just that Baker was running against the national political headwinds, it’s how he and his campaign failed to adjust to them that led to his stunning defeat.
That senior Kriseman supporter I Monday morning quarterbacked with last week told me that the most surprising aspect of the campaign to Kriseman-world were Baker’s hamfisted responses when the issue of Trump was raised.
But what could Baker do? He had no control over what President Trump was going to say or do or Tweet.
Because of Trump’s unpopularity, it would have, as Smith argues, been “political malpractice” for Kriseman not to wrap Trump around Baker, despite the protestations of Baker (and the Tampa Bay Times editorial board) that Kriseman was injecting partisan politics into the mayoral race.
(Baker’s complaining about Kriseman’s partisanship was Rick Baker at his whiniest — and most hypocritical. First of all, complaining about your political opponent using a successful tactic is as useless as a boxer lamenting that his opponent his stronger, faster, and hits harder. Second, if Baker wanted to keep partisan politics out of St. Pete’s mayoral race, he should not have accepted tens of thousands of dollars in contributions from political committees controlled by Republican lawmakers.
Yet imagine if Baker had answered, early on in the campaign, whether he voted for Trump with this simple answer:
“I wrote in Jeb Bush.”
Those five words would not have been enough to keep Kriseman from thumping Baker with Trump, but they would have mitigated so much of the damage Trump caused Baker.
First of all, the answer makes sense; the entire political world knows Baker is a Bush acolyte. Second, it would have ended the conversation about whom Baker voted for president. Columns, like John Romano’s “C’mon Rick Baker, tell us how you really feel about Trump” would not have been written. Third, it would have given Baker the breathing room to more forcefully criticize Trump.
Some will argue that if Baker had been more outspoken about Trump it would have ended up being an electoral wash because for every moderate’s vote he’d have gained, he would have lost a vote on the right. That’s just silly. Smith perfectly dismisses such talk: “As if country club Republicans on Venetian Isles would have punished him for rebuking Trump once or twice.”
Again, it’s unclear, but probably unlikely, that Baker could have beaten Kriseman in the general election had he forcefully criticized the president. But in those heady days of Summer, when he was ahead by more than two touchdowns, Baker could have employed five simple words to put the race away.