McMillen's image, strategy backfired ELECTION '92

November 05, 1992|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Unofficial results from boards of electionsStaff Writer Staff writer Tom Waldron contributed to this article.

EASTON -- Tom McMillen should have left his cuff links at home.

He should have shredded his negative campaign ads and dumped by the roadside his satchel of money from special interest groups.

When midsummer rolled around and his polls put him barely even with Republican Wayne T. Gilchrest in the race for the 1st District congressional seat, he should have fired his political consultants.

But he didn't do any of these things. Instead, he actively solicited political advice from outside the sprawling district. He maintained an open-door policy for campaign contributors from beyond the state.

And, if his opposition campaigners are to be believed, he fell for the classic tar-baby trick. Taunted by a Gilchrest radio ad that mocked his penchant for jetting across the country, Mr. McMillen struck back with a barrage of even nastier ads. His punches landed, but he got stuck.

When the end came late Tuesday night, Mr. Gilchrest, the rumpled freshman congressman from Kent County, had beaten Mr. McMillen, the dapper three-term congressman from Anne Arundel. The final tally was 114,018 to 106,941.

Polls and pundits had pegged the race too close to call from the start. But Mr. Gilchrest took all nine Eastern Shore counties -- an outcome even his campaigners had not anticipated. They thought he'd lose at least one.

But in Cecil County, the most McMillen-friendly area of the Shore, Mr. Gilchrest won by about 600 votes.

Most observers were betting that Mr. McMillen would take the heavily Democratic county handily.

What happened there? Two appraisals from inside the campaigns tell a lot about the race in general.

"Cecil County and Tom McMillen don't have a lot in common," said Gilchrest campaign manager Tony Caligiuri.

"They don't see Tom McMillen and say, 'Gee, that could be the guy down the street,' " Mr. Caligiuri said. "They say, 'Look, the guy wears cuff links.' "

And this from a McMillen aide: "I wish I would have been included in the decision of what mail we were sending out," referring to leaflets that called Mr. Gilchrest "a famous liar."

"I wasn't asked and I think the mail hurt here," the aide continued. "We paid too much attention to what the consultants told us. They thought they were smarter than Shore people. We listened and we paid the price."

The mail. That's what many voters were talking about on Election Day. Thousands of biting leaflets depicting Mr. Gilchrest as a Grinch on children's and seniors' issues.

The piece Rita Premo got at her Chestertown house two weeks before the election affected how she voted.

"I was undecided at the time," said the registered Democrat. "When I saw the mail, I decided right there." She voted for Mr. Gilchrest.

The McMillen leaflets and similar TV commercials were just what the Gilchrest campaign had hoped for, said Mr. Caligiuri. In an attempt to gain insight into Mr. McMillen, Gilchrest supporters had studied news accounts of Mr. McMillen's basketball days and his early campaigns to win a seat from Maryland's old 4th District.

"We found out that if you make him mad early, he'll overreact," Mr. Caligiuri said. The Gilchrest travel ad -- in which a fictitious flight attendant asks, "More sushi, Mr. McMillen?" -- was designed to provoke the Democrat into a fight. It did. Calling the ad unfair, Mr. McMillen struck back hard with his own attacks.

At the same time, Gilchrest ads focused on Mr. McMillen's financial base. He spent more than $1 million -- four times that spent by the Gilchrest campaign -- and relied heavily on out-of-state groups for contributions.

Every time a McMillen ad came on TV blasting Mr. Gilchrest, undecided viewers were likely to be reminded that the expensive campaign tool had been funded by outsiders, according to Mr. Caligiuri.

The money issue even bothered some McMillen supporters. Albert Seymour, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, said he voted for Mr. McMillen "more or less" as a party vote.

"I'm not real happy," he added. "A lot of his funding comes from outside of where it should come from."

"Our biggest fear was that in the last two weeks, McMillen would go positive," said Mr. Caligiuri. "He didn't. Our research proved us right. The difference is that they didn't do the research on Wayne. If they had, they would have known Wayne doesn't get nasty at the end. They never got to know their opponent."

McMillen campaign chief Brad Fitch disagrees. "I hesitate to be critical of the Gilchrest campaign," he said yesterday, "but I don't believe that."

Mr. Fitch argues that geographic allegiances -- not campaign strategy -- explain Tuesday's outcome.

He notes that Mr. McMillen was significantly hurt by last year's redistricting plan, which effectively eliminated his old district. Running in the redrawn 1st, Mr. McMillen was trying to capture a district in which 57 percent of the voters reside on the Eastern Shore -- Mr. Gilchrest's turf.

On the Saturday before the election, the once-confident Mr. McMillen made the same point. "Let's face it, I was dealt some bad cards," he said.

1ST DISTRICT TALLY

Area.. .. .. .. ..McMillen.. .. .. .. ..Gilchrest

A. Arun... .. .... 58,198.. .. .. .. .. ...42,150

Balt. City.. .. .. .1,824.. .. .. .. .. .. .. 659

Caroline.. .. .. .. 2,443.. .. .. .. .. .. .4,777

Cecil.. .. .. .. ..11,200.. .. .. .. .. .. 11,832

Dorch... .. .. .. ..3,925.. .. .. .. .. .. .5,468

Kent.. .. .. .. .. .1,822.. .. .. .. .. .. .4,633

Q. Anne's.. .. .. ..4,011.. .. .. .. .. .. .8,602

Somer... .. .. .. ..3,063.. .. .. .. .. .. .3,578

Talbot.. .. .. .. ..2,890.. .. .. .. .. .. .8,458

Wicom... .. .. .. .10,596.. .. .. .. .. ...15,697

Worc... .. .. .. .. 6,969.. .. .. .. .. .. .8,164

Totals.. .. .. .. .106,941.. .. .. .. .. .114,018

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