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The Politicians Who Almost Never Were

“Although these no doubt play a role, even a cursory glance at recent election results (not to mention those of the past) makes clear that variables beyond the control of the candidate are often determinative, as well as that the best man does not necessarily win.”

In 1980, just two years removed from his 1978 defeat to incumbent Congressman Frank Thompson by 24 points, Chris Smith, a 27-year-old employee of his family’s sporting goods business was elected to the United States House of Representatives. Arguably running as just token opposition to the longtime incumbent in the 1980 rematch, events intervened. In February of 1980, Congressman Thompson was one of the six members of Congress implicated in the Abscam scandal. Along with three of the other implicated members of Congress, Congressman Thompson persisted in running for re-election despite his indictment. (Only one, Congressman John Jenrette, would win re-election.) In a nearly mirror image result from 1980, then-candidate Smith won with approximately 57% of the vote. (1)

Given that Congressman Smith had little previous political experience and due to the long-standing Democratic tilt of the New Jersey district he now represented, the press at the time considered his victory a fluke and predicted that he would almost certainly be a one-term Congressman. To this point, following a debate with his 1982 re-election opponent, former New Jersey state Senate president Joseph P. Merlino, Merlino allegedly said to Congressman Smith, “Beat it, kid…I’m talking to the press. When I get to Washington, look me up. I may give you a job as a page.” But, come November, Congressman Smith did the impossible for a second time and dispatched with Merlino, winning 53% of the vote. 

Today, Congressman Smith is the dean of New Jersey’s congressional delegation and has served longer than any member of Congress in the history of the state. Congressman Smith and Congressman Hal Rogers of Kentucky are currently the two longest-tenured members of the House, and between January of 2019 and when fellow New Jersey Congressman Jeff Van Drew switched parties to become a Republican in December of that year, Congressman Smith was the only Republican member of New Jersey’s congressional delegation.

The case of Congressman Smith’s is a reminder that, in electoral politics, contingencies are often what make the difference. While there is no doubt that campaign messaging or the qualifications of the candidate matter up to a point, the world of politics, much like the rest of life, seems to be governed by chance as much as by anything else. In this case, for instance, had Congressman Thompson not been implicated in Abscam or even had he wound up, like Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha, as an unindicted co-conspirator, Congressman Smith, a possible future Dean of the House of Representatives, almost certainly never would have set foot in Washington, D.C. as an elected officeholder—not to mention all that has happened as a result of his election. (2) And this is just one member of Congress. 

As I alluded to in my column last month on the presidential candidacy of former Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, it is extremely difficult to predict the future, including when it comes to election results. A lucky break here or there can alter the trajectory of a given candidacy and, by extension, a political party or even a nation. And in a way this is perhaps what Ambassador Haley is banking on in persisting in her campaign for president despite trailing heavily in the polls to former President Donald Trump. She is perhaps just a court case taking a wrong turn away from capturing the Republican nomination, and similarly President Trump is maybe a mere domestic or foreign policy crisis away from securing an unlikely victory in November against incumbent President Joe Biden. 

To this point about the ever-churning vicissitudes of electoral politics, I recall a conversation I had with Frederick T. Martens, a past Merion West interviewee and contributor, over dinner in New Jersey shortly after then-Congressman Conor Lamb announced his candidacy for United States Senate in the 2022 midterm elections. Martens was confident that Congressman Lamb was the future of the Democratic Party, at least in Pennsylvania and perhaps beyond; he was young and clean-cut—a military veteran with a moderate streak and a history of representing a swing district. Although I did not disagree with this possibility, it was far from assured. At some level of inflation, gas prices, or economic precarity, voters would likely reward the Senate seat to a candidate from the other party. But then something arguably unexpected happened: Congressman Lamb could not even secure the Democratic nomination, let alone win the general election. Despite pundits’ doubts about the electability of Congressman Lamb’s opponent, the unconventional, hoodie-wearing Lieutenant Governor of Pennsylvania, John Fetterman, then-candidate Fetterman maintained a polling lead approaching the primary. Then, on the Friday before election day, Fetterman suffered a debilitating stroke but surprisingly decided to stay in the race and went on to win the nomination. (3) Again, despite his best efforts and seemingly impressive resume, Congressman Lamb’s apparent upward trajectory was stopped in its tracks. But to Martens’ point, he did have all of the apparent makings of a rising star in the Democratic Party, another Pete Buttigieg, if you will. Had Congressman Lamb won that Senate race, perhaps he would have indeed, as my friend suggested, become a political figure of considerable import in the United States. 

Perhaps this entire discussion appears so obvious that it barely is worth having, but an entire industry exists consisting of consultants, communication strategists, and the like (What do they say about politics? “It’s a billion dollar industry based on ‘I know a guy.’”)—not to mention as I discussed with Pedro Robinson and Paul Krause on my erstwhile podcast on Callin this idea that messaging, more than anything else, wins elections. Now, maybe it is indeed the case that “Daisy” or “Morning in America” won the elections for the respective presidential candidates, but, more likely than not, other factors featured just as prominently. In the former case, though the advertisement surely played a role, so did the incumbency advantage and the perceived radical approach to governance of Senator Barry Goldwater’s. And, in the latter, the easing of the early 1980s recession and a desire to avoid a return to the policies of the Carter administration, represented by former Vice President Walter Mondale, likely factored in as much as messaging. 

To be clear, none of this is to repeat the worn-out, snide claim there is no such thing as great men, leaders who rise by virtue of their characteristics and talents (as George F. Will put it, “…there is something awfully small about someone who cannot admit that anyone else was exceptionally large.”). Human actions are not always subservient to forces beyond our control, and there is something to be said for Straussian cautions about unduly embracing historicism. There are great men, and when it comes to elections such as the ones discussed above, surely, President Reagan’s charisma and sense of humor, for instance, were instrumental in his electoral successes. And, as I will discuss later on, tenacity is one of the traits that has caused many renowned and successful political figures to rise above “the clutch circumstance.” (4) But, at the same time, with respect to those who pose parlor game questions such as “If Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan square off for the Oval Office,” who would prevail, election results are determined—in practice—by factors other than just the gravitas and talents of the candidate, the cunning of his advisors and consultants, or the messaging of his campaign. Although these no doubt play a role, even a cursory glance at recent elections results (not to mention those of the past) makes clear that variables beyond the control of the candidate are often determinative, as well as that the best man does not necessarily win. (5)

It can be sobering, in a society that has tended to value so much the concept of agency, to consider the reality that a thousand votes (or even a few hundred) here or there can dramatically alter the course of a nation’s history. Had a 29-year-old Joe Biden, then a member of the New Castle County, Delaware County Council not defeated incumbent Republican Senator J. Caleb Boggs by a mere 3,162 votes in a race then-candidate Biden was believed to have almost no chance of winning, the future 46th President of the United States likely would have simply been a politically-engaged lawyer in Wilmington, Delaware. Similarly, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s initial 1984 election to the United States Senate was decided by just over 5,000 votes, out of more than 1.2 million cast. McConnell, who was then the Jefferson County Judge/Executive, became the first Republican to represent Kentucky in the United States Senate since 1974 and has since been re-elected six times. And, had Tom Pendergast, the Chairman of the Jackson County, Missouri Democratic Party, not found a young Harry S. Truman acceptable due to the latter’s lack of on-the-record denunciations of Catholics, it is very unlikely the future 33rd President of the United States would have ever achieved national office or been in the position to have—again, largely by chance—been chosen as a comprise pick to be President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s final Vice President. 

One also wonders if New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani had persevered in the 2000 New York Senate race despite scrutiny over an extramarital relationship, as well as his cancer diagnoses, that would have put an end to the electoral aspirations of then-First Lady Hillary Clinton. (Mayor Giuliani tended to poll much better against the First Lady than did her eventual opponent, Congressman Rick Lazio.)

But I do think it is telling that Senator McConnell chose for the title of his 2016 memoir The Long Game. Along with interesting insights such as “the three most important words in politics are ‘cash on hand'” and that he only speaks to the press when it is to his advantage, Senator McConnell emphasizes that he often took the long view, working doggedly in the meantime to pursue his objectives. Sometimes biding his time, he would wait for the most opportune occasion to act. Similarly, both President Biden and Secretary Clinton displayed remarked tenacity, seeking their desired political posts time and again until eventually their efforts aligned with the environment at a given time to allow them either to reach their desired objective or come darn close. Even Secretary Clinton’s chief political rival in 2016, then-candidate Trump, expressed his admiration for her tenacity during one of the 2016 presidential debates when asked by a member of the audience to “name one positive thing that you respect in one another”: “She doesn’t quit. She doesn’t give up. I respect that.” Similarly, as I discussed in my August, 2022 Hill column “Art of the political comeback?,” from President George H.W. Bush to Vice President Mike Pence, history is replete with examples of political figures whose eventual ascensions to high office can be best summarized by the adage “Never bet against the guy who just keeps showing up.” (6) 

But the fine line between success and failure persists; an aspiring actress is noticed by a talent scout and another is not. A young college student narrowly avoids being potentially killed at Kent State and goes on to become college football’s most celebrated coach; an ill-fated airplane or helicopter flight is missed, or, back to politics, a single county (or state) breaks one way or the other. As such, one thinks of all the great politicians that never were, who lost an election early in their career; thought about entering politics but “think it’s all too corrupt”; or likely to result in their name being dragged through the mud—much like one might shudder to think of all the scientists, visionaries, and authors who perished in conflicts, such as World War I and, in doing so, deprived the world of their would-have-been achievements. 

Reflecting on the worldview of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Lance Morrow, though reluctant to agree with this perspective, wrote, “Proudhon adopted a stochastic view of the universe. He wrote: ‘The fecundity of the unexpected far exceeds the prudence of statesmen.’” This appears true, of course, in politics, where an October surprise or a well-timed endorsement can alter permanently the course of a nation’s history, and it is, no doubt, true also—as much as it pains us sometimes to think about—in our day-to-day lives. As Angelo Garepe put it in The Sopranos, “Things happen how they happen.”

Now, as Morrow would want me to say, and I do not necessarily disagree, my reflections here are not the same as saying that we are all at the mercy of the tides, leaving behind the concepts of agency, hope, talent, or virtue. These still all no doubt play a role in politics and elsewhere. But, increasingly, I cannot help but dissent less and less from a sentiment that once bothered me quite a bit, perhaps best summarized by my former theater studies professor at Duke University, Bradley Rogers, who when reflecting on historical developments would often say, “Things could have been otherwise. They could have been otherwise.”.

Erich J. Prince is the editor-in-chief of Merion West.


  1. But the young Chris Smith, in 1980, was running for office in a different America, one in which voters were willing to cross party lines if their party’s candidate had engaged in clear wrongdoing, and Congressman Thompson had.  
  2. And then there is the impact of Congressman Smith’s long tenure on issues important to him, from abortion to human trafficking to human rights abroad. My father, who once attended a talk the Congressman gave to a Catholic group, remarked that he perhaps never met someone who believed so strongly—with every fiber of his being—two things: that one should not have an abortion and that one should never traffic women for sex. Two worthy causes, indeed. 
  3. Then-Lieutenant Governor Fetterman won all of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties in the primary over Congressman Lamb.
  4. There has always been something to the idea of Possunt quia posse videntur. As John F. Kennedy (or more likely Ted Sorensen) wrote of Daniel Webster, “There could be no mistaking [Webster] was a great man—he looked like one, talked like one, was treated like one and insisted he was one.”
  5. Wave elections or landslide presidential elections, for instance, are examples of how relatively middling candidates can be swept into office in down-ballot races.
  6. Invoking another example from further back in American history, one thinks also of President Franklin Pierce’s service in the United States Senate at a relatively young age. As his friend Horatio Bridge wrote, Pierce’s electoral success represents “an instance of what a man can do by trying. With no remarkable talents, at the age of 34 fills one of the highest stations in the nation.”

Erich J. Prince is the editor-in-chief at Merion West. With a background in journalism and media criticism, he has contributed to newspapers such as The Philadelphia Inquirer and The News & Observer, as well as online outlets including Quillette and The Hill. Erich has also spoken at conferences and events on issues related to gangs, crime, and policing. He studied political science at Yale University.

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