It's been an interesting week in the political business here in Erie County.
We have an incumbent, Republican Chris Collins, who was overwhelmingly elected to the office four years ago. Collins ran on the proverbial "I'm a businessman, not a politician" platform that has proved popular in some cases. In this case, county government was a mess, with a control board overseeing expenditures, and Collins promised to clean that up.
Here we are in 2011, and Collins is running for reelection. He is running against Mark Poloncarz, the County's Comptroller. It figured to be an uphill climb for Poloncarz, mainly because of money. Collins has shown an ability to tap into donors to pile up cash in his bank account.
On Sunday, a poll came out on the race. Surprisingly, Collins only led by a couple of points, within the statistical error built into the survey. In other words, it's too close to call. The Poloncarz people were quick to point out what that might mean to his campaign, perhaps anticipating the idea that a donation would no longer be money down the drain. The Collins staff apparently cancelled a public appearance, said their own polling had their man well ahead (without releasing anything), and attacked the polling methods. In other words, the Collins staff said "Holy mackerel, this isn't good" in a variety of ways.
Therefore, we seem to have a horse race. And the reason is fascinating. I looked at the complete poll results, and "everyone" has agreed that Collins has more or less done what he said he would four years ago. He's balanced the budget and shrunk government. However, Collins has gone about his business in such odd ways that a percentage of people dislike him personally enough to not vote for him no matter what he does. That covers everything from charges of ignoring the city in favor of suburban issues (guess where this Republican's votes come from) to asking to lead a parade earlier this year. Among other things.
It sounds like a good recipe for the "Rose Garden" strategy, where a candidate stays out of sight and let's others do the talking for him. Why should your face if it only reminds people of what they think of you? That's a little harder when you don't live in the White House, of course.
The two men got together for their first public debate on Thursday. It was televised on public television. While it's easy to wonder how many people watched it, it certainly creates some conversation that pops up in other areas (radio, newspaper, TV, Internet).
It was something of a coming-out party for Poloncarz, who probably has never been on the news for longer than 20 seconds for a sound bite on county finances. This was a chance to see them both in action for an hour without commercials.
Collins certainly stuck to his talking points about cleaning up county government and keeping taxes low. He had some trouble, for example, when it came to why he took stimulus money that was designed to put people to work and put it in the county bank account to keep taxes down. The incumbent always has a hard time in these debates, because he has to defend a record while the challenge can merely say what he would have done and would do. But Collins did seem nervous and sometimes didn't come within a 3-wood of answering the question, which is always annoying. He also brought a typical bit of arrogance with him -- as one person put it, "He's the smartest person in the room ... just ask him."
Still, it sure seems like Poloncarz missed an opportunity. He seemed to know his facts and figures and attacked Collins whenever possible right after saying "good evening." But I wouldn't call his performance "warm and fuzzy" either.
I'm a firm believer that the more optimistic candidate often wins close elections, as people prefer to vote for candidates who offer a little sunshine down the road. Poloncarz never did that in an hour.
I still think Collins ranks as the favorite to win this race, mostly because of money. But there's a lot of anger out there at the current County Executive over his style of governance, and there's still plenty of time to turn that into votes and an upset win.
In other words, I can't wait to see what happens next.