Anatomy of an Upset

Ellen Corbett loses by 413 votes.

CONGRESS | 15TH DISTRICT | Just how big an upset did Hugh Bussell pull off last week? It’s hard to quantify since upsets normally entail winning something, but with the state’s top two primary system, second can be as good as first. Maybe the extremely low voter turnout during the June 3 primary was a major factor in State Sen. Ellen Corbett’s shocking third place finish to Rep. Eric Swalwell and Bussell, but other factors of her own doing may have hastened her early demise.

Even though Corbett was telling local officials and supporter of her desire to mount a challenge for the 15th Congressional District seat even before Swalwell, himself, upset Pete Stark in 2012, her campaign was slow in hitting its stride. Earlier this year, some East Bay politicos were grumbling why Corbett had no social media strategy, whatsoever. You can argue it actually never hit on all cylinders throughout the entire campaign. Even when Corbett had a major trump card over Swalwelll, she was indecisive about attacking him for his regrettable vote allowing government spying. Swalwell even obfuscated his vote on the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) to the point that he seemed to be denying that it even happened.

Yet, Corbett relented and the local corporate media looked the other way. In fact, Corbett had at least three public appearances where she could have poked holes in Swalwell’s candidacy in terms of his inexperience allowing the loss of voter’s privacy and the lengthening list of occasions when he lied through his teeth. Swalwell’s television ad asserting Corbett wasn’t doing her job in the Legislature likely did great damage and was never refuted as the single most dishonest commercial and/or mailer in the entire election. The entire commercial was lie followed by a smarmy, smart-alecky Swalwell doing his best Eddie Haskell impression.

Meanwhile, Corbett, instead, went the same route as Stark two years before, by arguing Swalwell was not liberal enough for the district. The strategy was not incorrect and Swalwell’s moderate ideology will become more problematic for progressives in the area in the future, but in itself, the moved lacked sizzle. And, guess what? Progressives appeared to have sat out this election and nearly three-fourths of the voters sided with either a moderate or conservative candidate. Even if she had advanced to the November election, it is likely Corbett could have employed a perfect campaign against Swalwell and still not defeat him. The power of incumbency is that strong and the only way one can possibly lose it is by his or her own hand. Yes, just like Stark did.

San Leandro Mayor Tony Santos used to call Corbett, his former City Council colleague, one of the luckiest politicians around. The description had nothing to do with her capabilities, but her electoral fate always seemed charmed. Well, it lasted until June 3 and the political pixie dust is now attached to Swalwell. He beat a 40-year incumbent by sheer luck and pluck and never had his immense deficiencies in experience and temperament exposed. Two years later, Swalwell is still robotic and as filled with Madison Avenue gimmickry as ever and the gods have again cleared away likely his strongest challenger ever from facing him in November. In June, no less!

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