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Mike Taylor for Senate, a cautionary tale

Or: Four good ways to lose a U.S. Senate race

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Wisps of hair stick to the perspiration on Mike Taylor’s forehead. He has backed up from the podium and thrust his hands into the pockets of his blue jeans as he listens to a question about negative campaigning posed by an eleventh grader.

Taylor, who reentered the race for U.S. Senate on Oct. 20, 12 days after dropping out on the heels of the now infamous “gay hairdresser ad,” has re-focused his campaign on scrubbing the slime from Montana politics. For the last three days, he’s been traveling around the state, sometimes alone, sometimes with the “Countdown to Decency” bus tour—an impulsive Republican crusade to convince Montanans that Max Baucus has raised the negative campaigning bar to unacceptable heights. Today Taylor is at Missoula’s Hellgate High School to deliver his message. But much of student body doesn’t want to hear it.

“When I looked in the paper this morning I saw a full page ad saying ‘Shame on Max,’ wouldn’t that be considered mudslinging?” asks a female student, clutching the ad, which features Taylor and family posed in front of a giant American flag.

“Probably, but I have no control over that,” Taylor responds curtly.

“Well you were in the picture…”

“I understand that,” he butts in. “But I saw that ad for the first time thirty minutes ago.”

Pockets of laughter purl through the lunchroom. A student in the back mutters a profanity, less sophisticated, but far more pointed than anything recently implied by Democrats. The girl who asked the question retreats past the line of students waiting to ask questions and sits back down.

This scene is the latest in a series of Taylor’s failures to win the support he needs to capture incumbent Max Baucus’ Senate seat. But this event is for high school students, most of whom can’t vote. Taylor’s other miscalculations have occurred on far larger stages, and been far better publicized. They’ve also hurt him, and his chances, far more. So much so that Taylor’s missteps could be used as a case study for the benefit of future candidates, who might do well to memorize the strategies of candidate Mike Taylor, and then do things precisely otherwise.

Pick an opponent with more money and prestige Before the shelling by the precocious Hellgate students, before the televised sight of Taylor rubbing lotion into a man’s temples, before the cash flow troubles, Mike Taylor’s first mistake may have been his biggest: challenging an undefeatable Max Baucus.

In May 2001, a strange political synchronicity seemed to be working in different areas of the country. As Taylor wrapped up a three-day exploratory trip to Washington, D.C., and as Republican research suggesting Baucus’ vulnerability was released, Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords was preparing to defect from the Republican party to become an independent. Like the flapping of a Hong Kong butterfly’s wings, Jeffords’ decision sparked consequences as far away as Taylor’s Lake County ranch.

Jeffords’ switch put the control of the Senate back into the hands of the Democrats. As the majority party, the Democrats replenished their war chests, recruited strong candidates for the Federal races, and usurped committee gavels. Baucus, the senior Democratic Senator on the influential and high-profile Senate Finance Committee, was handed the plum of Finance Committee Chairman, becoming the third most powerful Senator on the hill.

“Jeffords, more than anybody else, more than Taylor, more than the campaign contributors, more than Max himself, reelected Max,” says former Montana Democratic congressman Pat Williams. “I kidded a couple of Max’s people saying, ‘Max should be going down and cutting Jim Jeffords’ lawn every weekend for this.’”

On May 25, 2001, Baucus iced his own cake by helping to hammer out a bipartisan compromise on President Bush’s popular (in Montana at least) tax cut bill.

Between the last week in May and the first week in June, Baucus continued to sun himself in the glare of Bush’s high approval rating, and launched a fundraising drive that would break state records with $6.3 million and counting.

But Election Day was a long way off and Taylor must have thought he had time to meet the challenge. He had millions of dollars of his own money, he was a Republican in a Republican state, and he had Teddy Roosevelt’s mustache. But it was just these advantages—his money, his party, and his image—that would lead to his collapse. Assume party support that you don’t have
It has been whispered in private party meetings and sprinkled between the lines of Op-Ed pages that it was nothing but Taylor’s wallet that made him a contender in the first place.

“That’s part of why the good old boys went with him,” says Williams. “They said, ‘Hell this guy’s got money,’ and everybody understand the importance of money.”

A March 2002 article in the Capital Hill newspaper Roll Call reported Taylor’s pledge to sink $2 million from his own checking account into the race. The national parties love millionaire candidates because, being self-funded, they free up party money for soft money issue ads and tights priority races. In the end, Taylor chipped in $1 million—over 62 percent of his war chest—and saved the party bundles.

In the June Republican primary, Taylor crushed three opponents with 60 percent of the vote and it was clear that Montana’s Republican citizens, at least, had found the man they thought could beat Baucus.

With Taylor as their candidate, the Republican hierarchy set about introducing him to Montanans. If he was to win, or even have a respectable showing, he would need the help of big friends stumping for him at fundraisers and rallies.

“If you get folks to come out and say, ‘Look, I’ve met with this person and I’m in the Senate or I’m in the House or I’m the President and I know what it takes to be a leader and this person has it,’ it really helps people identify with you,” says Doug Mitchell, a Democratic strategist who served as Baucus’ Montana Chief of Staff in the late ’90s.

For the first few months, Taylor’s campaign effectively secured some of the Republican Party’s biggest wigs. In August, former Montana governor and current Republican National Committee Chairman Mark Racicot appeared with Taylor at fundraisers in Missoula and Great Falls. Over the next couple weeks, Vice President Dick Cheney and Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott joined the stump.

Cheney’s event grossed nearly $300,000—the biggest single fundraiser of the Taylor campaign—but it failed to seed the cash clouds. In fact none of Taylor’s heavy hitters were able to generate a sustained buzz, much less monetary momentum. It seemed that the national party was losing interest in its Montana man. Or maybe it was just planning smart, placing its money on tighter races like those being run by Sen. Wayne Allard in Colorado and challenger Norm Coleman (before Senator Paul Wellstone’s untimely death) in Minnesota.

“His pal, Mark Racicot barely lifted a finger to help him,” says former Rep. Williams.

Even with the visit and the endorsement, Racicot, who holds the NRC’s purse strings, wasn’t giving Taylor the money he needed, says Williams.

Racicot, who was approached by Republicans in 2001 to run against Baucus but refused, responds with the flat tone of a man destined for Federal office: “I believe that everything we could do to be fully supportive, we have done.”

Taylor was disappointed with Racicot’s level of support, but it was the virtual invisibility of Bush that drove the party’s point home most clearly.

“I was a little disappointed in that, but I guess that’s just the way things are,” Taylor says. “I believe that if the President could have stood on the platform with Mike Taylor it would have made our chances much greater of winning this race.”

Racicot says Bush was simply too busy to visit Montana, but Williams thinks Bush’s absence was intentional.

“It think that Bush was persuaded not to come into Montana when Baucus pushed the Bush tax cut over the top,” says Williams. “I don’t know that a deal was done, and I would like to think that a deal was not done, but I do think that Bush’s people probably said to him, ‘Look, here’s a Democrat who’s helping out.’”

Williams says his Republican sources confirm his theory, and that Taylor was “absolutely furious” about the snubbing.

Political Scientist Jim Lopach of the University of Montana agrees with Williams that there were specific reasons that the President didn’t stump in Montana, and that Taylor was not a priority when it came to Republican soft money.

“One, Baucus had played ball with the Bush administration,” says Lopach. “Secondly, Baucus is an entrenched incumbent with a lot of money and Taylor had not been successful in raising a lot of money on his own.”

Lopach heard credible rumors that the national Republicans “had written the campaign off.”

Yet even with all the troubles Taylor had getting his own party behind him, they we’re nothing compared with the troubles the Democrats had in store for him.

As Taylor struggled to line up the prestige and money of the big national Republicans behind him, Democrats were digging. Parties regularly spend as much as $30,000 on “opposition research,” investigating voting records, personal finances, campaign contributions and newspaper stories. A school board vote to continue distribution of Rolling Stone in the high school library, a bounced check to Planned Parenthood, vintage Beta tapes of you in your loudest butterfly-collar shirt—all can be uncovered.

“They [candidates] have to know that anything in the public domain is going to be fodder and a lot of it not in the public domain is going to be fodder. Even a lot of stuff that is going to be flatly not true is going to be fodder,” says strategist Mitchell.

Taylor knew what the fodder could be: audits in the late ’90s by the Department of Education over student loans (Taylor paid a fine, but no guilt was ever assigned), his outdated “Beauty Corner” television image from two decades ago, and any other public and private misstep he’d experienced in his life. What Taylor says he didn’t know is how creative his opponents would be. Drop out
By late September it seemed Baucus had the election in the bag and the Taylor camp was unraveling. Funds were drying up, it looked like Bush was never going to ride in on the white horse, and a poll showed Baucus topping Taylor by a 54 percent to 35 percent margin. A week later, the ad hit the airwaves.

The spot, which Taylor says drove him out of the race, suggested that his Colorado beauty school had abused federal student loan funds. But it wasn’t the allegation of mishandled public money that created the stir, it was Taylor’s anti-Rooseveltian look on the old video.

“I didn’t know that the footage was out there,” says Taylor. “We spent $20,000 or more on independent research on Mike Taylor.”

The ad featured a pimped-out Taylor looking ready to hit the town with Steve Martin’s wild and crazy guy. This hipper, slimmer Taylor was applying moisturizer to the lines around a client’s eyes.

“The allegations against the school I have no problems with because I can defend against that, that wasn’t the problem,” says Taylor. “But why did they use that clip? You know they had to go through hundreds of hours of tape to find that clip.”

Democratic Party Chairman Bob Ream says it’s bull to think the Democrats selected the footage to insinuate that Taylor was gay. Ream thinks Taylor concocted the innuendo, and his outrage, to deflect the student loan issue.

“Ninety-five percent of the people I talked to, including one of the supreme court justices, said that never entered into their minds,” he says. “He’s the one that made that what it is.”

Media outlets reported that the footage from Taylor’s “Beauty Corner” show had not been edited or “doctored” but they forget to mention the boom-chick-a-boom soundtrack and the selection of the footage.

“There were a lot more women than men,” says Taylor. “I was a barber and cosmetologist, so there were both, we did segments with children, we did a lot of things.”

The original footage, which the Democrats released to the media along with dozens of pages documenting the loan scandal, lacks the funky background music. Instead, it features a benign, gentle-voiced Taylor explaining to an audience how men can reduce crow’s feet around the eyes.

The ad rippled across the country, popping up on talk shows and reaching the eyes and ears of campaign managers. One opposition researcher describes the Taylor video as a “once in a lifetime find,” one that’s already putting more pressure on researchers, as campaign managers send them scurrying for “silver bullets” of their own.

Knowing how damaging the ad could be, Taylor demanded it be pulled. The Democrats said no. Taylor said the ad was libelous and threatened to sue. The Democrats said bring it on. Taylor’s poll numbers plummeted. In September, a Lee poll put Baucus’ lead at 19 points. The weekend after the ad ran, a GOP poll put the lead at 30.

Taylor had to respond to remain a viable candidate.

“I flew to Washington, D.C. after being in the campaign for 14, 15 months to pick up some money at a fundraiser that was going to help me continue the campaign,” says Taylor. “That money was going to have to be used to go negative in order for me to get the numbers back and I decided I was not going to do this.”

Somewhere between the tarmac and his Washington hotel, Taylor turned around and headed back to Montana.

“I didn’t take the money, I didn’t go to the fundraiser,” he says. “I called my office and told them to cancel it. I made a decision.”

The next day, Taylor made the first of his big announcements regarding his on-again off-again campaign. The small-town Montana boy turned hairdressing guru turned rustic Montana politician called the ad “character assassination” and quit the race. What he didn’t mention was that he had run out of money and national support. All that Montanans were left with was an outraged Taylor whose only plan for dealing with the heat was to quit and go pheasant hunting. Fail to impress a room full of high school students
After retreating to Proctor, Taylor did go hunting, but he also re-thought his decision.

“I was able to do a little hunting, do a little bit of relaxing and clear my head,” he says. “I had a nice little vacation.”

Taylor read cards and answered phone calls. He talked with his wife and children, seeking their counsel. Taylor says it was his son that finally convinced him to re-enter in the race, to champion the cause of decency in politics.

“He told me, ‘Look dad it’s worth fighting for.’ So I made this decision, not because it was a campaign ploy as some people might suggest. I’m back because it’s time to talk about mudslinging.”

Twelve days after withdrawing from the campaign, Taylor was back. But this time he wasn’t talking tort reform or social security, he was jumping aboard the newly formed “Countdown to Decency” bus tour, the brainchild of state Republicans traveling Montana in a combined get-out-the-vote, attack-the-Democrats-for-running-attack-ads crusade. Taylor wasn’t involved in the planning, but he is the tour’s guest of honor, and the whistlestops wouldn’t have much steam without his participation.

“My only aspiration is to clean up campaigns,” says Taylor. “If I’m going to do anything I’m going to be the crusader. I’m going to be the Joan of Arc of trying to run honest campaigns across the state and the United States.”

If Taylor’s vacillations were strategies, they don’t seem to be working. At Hellgate High School, his second stop as the new Mike Taylor, many students don’t buy the squeaky clean makeover. For the most part, the students don’t want to hear about mudslinging Max and Taylor’s courageous decision. Like any active constituency, they want to know how Taylor can talk out both sides of his mouth, claiming he has no control over Republican Party ads—the “Shame on Max” ads, for instance—while insisting that Baucus holds total control over the Democrats’ ads.

Here’s a chance for Taylor to step back and calculate an answer. He could explain that party soft money, not his money, produced the “Shame” ad. He could deride the Republicans for continuing the smear tactics. But he doesn’t. He firmly asks for the next question.

For an hour and a half Taylor is grilled by high school students demanding his reasons for dropping out of the race, his reasons for getting back into it, his positions on NAFTA, handgun background checks, abortion, the de-listing of the gray wolf, the gamut of state politics. And as students repeat questions they don’t feel he has answered sufficiently, he smiles and responds with “I think I’ve answered the question” or “I’m sorry, that’s the end of the question.”

The questions flummoxing Taylor aren’t coming from Chris Matthews, but they are hardballs, and they’re coming from seniors, juniors and sophomores.

“I think he made an ass of himself, I really do,” says senior Sarah Johnson. “I thought he was actually going to answer our questions and be really open about it and discuss with us what his opinions were and why he thought that.”

Johnson says she’s talked with classmates afterward and that everyone was blown away by Taylor’s stonewalling responses.

“The thing I was most unimpressed about was the attitude about the kids when they we’re asking him the questions,” says senior Joe Heinzman. “We’re not geniuses, we’re just high school students, but he contradicted himself a bunch of times answering questions.”

Taylor is only a few days into his new campaign, but he’s already stumbled at Hellgate. Joe Heinzman is right: these students aren’t geniuses but they know the issues and they’re engaged. They seem undaunted by the mudslinging. They seem ready to vote, and not for Taylor.

During his year-and-a-half campaign, Taylor’s chances have headed consistently downhill. He jumped feet first into a race against a wealthy and powerful incumbent, bankrolled himself, and quit when he was humiliated and done bleeding money.

Now that he’s back in the race—not to win but to clean up the political process—he’s having trouble accomplishing even that goal. Republicans continue to run the same “Shame on Max” full-page ad in the major daily newspapers across the state, Lee polls show Taylor’s numbers continuing to drop over the past month, and he’s struggling to convince seventeen-year-olds that he’s clean, honest, dedicated. Viable.

Maybe somewhere in this crowd, future candidates are learning from Taylor’s mistakes. Maybe young Democrats and Republicans at the state or county or city level are taking notes. If Mike Taylor’s campaign provides any lesson at all, it’s that mud matters little. What might have made a difference was a candidate capable of engaging a constituency. Or at least a bunch of high school kids.

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