Oppo researchers for Republican Congressional incumbent Chris Gibson got another early Christmas present this week, as Sean Eldridge’s own team handed over more material which helps his opponent paint the Democrat as a standoffish outsider.
The campaign’s latest missteps are detailed by Alex Isenstadt at Politico, in a long piece entitled Chasing Sean Eldridge. Like several other publications, Isenstadt got some rather high-handed treatment from the staff of Eldridge for Congress:
“Congressional challengers typically seek maximum media exposure; Eldridge allows few chance encounters with the media. His campaign frequently posts pictures on his Facebook page of the candidate out and about in the district, but local reporters say they’re usually not made aware of his public schedule ahead of time. He declined to be interviewed by Politico, and the door to his campaign headquarters in Kingston was locked on a recent visit. No one answered a call on an intercom.”
When writing a piece last Fall for The New York Observer about the influx of boldfaceable names into the Hudson Valley this writer got the same brush-off from After another staffer indicated a willingness to talk, Eldridge’s spokesperson Morgan Hook of SDK Knickerbocker declined to make the candidate available for an interview.
Previous to that decision, Eldridge’s staff attempted to get this writer to agree to a gag order as a condition of meeting with with the candidate and other Columbia County residents who have been active in local organizing. On principle, I refused to make any such promise, though I had no prior plans of writing about it. The meeting, whose guest list I had helped assemble, was eventually canceled by the host in frustration.
Eldridge’s latest media blunder has spurred something of a pile-on both nationally and locally. The Washington Post headlined its own story about the Politico story, “Sean Eldridge teaches a master class in how to fuel a negative story.” Alex Parene of the liberal-leaning Salon agreed, saying that Eldridge “earned his Politico hit piece”:
“Sean Eldridge deserves it. He’s a man with no reason to be in Congress beyond being rich enough to throw money around a district—a district that was his second choice after his first one didn’t pan out. He represents every self-regarding super-rich would-be do-gooder who parachutes into a community with no understanding of the lives of its residents and expects them to recognize his inherent suitability for high office.”
Slate likewise chose, the headline: “Six Months Into His Campaign, Sean Eldridge Is Still Best Known as a Rich Guy’s Husband.”
Possibly most damaging for Eldridge, in terms of his potential base of support in the 19th Congressional District, are observations from liberal opinion leader Alan Chartock of WAMC—one of the few media members who has managed to obtain a lengthy audience with Eldridge:
Chartock came away without any real sense of the candidate. Eldridge sounded like “what a young person thinks a politician should sound like,” the radio host said in an interview. “He’s right on all the issues, but what I think people are looking for is a person. He’s extremely bright, has all the assets that you need to run. But it’s cookie cutter.”
When Slate, Salon, and WAMC are all questioning the Democratic challenger, there’s a problem. (Though of those three, Chartock is by far the most independent voice.)
The Eldridge campaign likely is gun-shy after its earliest brush with the media, a long New York Times piece last summer which was pounced upon by his opponent, incumbent Chris Gibson.
That article highlighted Eldridge’s initial purchase of a $5 million house in a different Congressional district further south in Garrison. Eldridge and his husband, the near-billionnaire Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes, were married in that house. But after the 18th district was won by Democrat Sean Patrick Maloney, the couple set their sights instead on a $2 million purchase in Accord, in NY-19.
The strong appearance of district-shopping, paired with the Times’ focus on the couple’s youth and wealth, may have convinced Eldridge to avoid the media. The Times also picked up on neighbors’ view of Eldridge as an interloper:
“Amy Shields, a mother of three children who lives a few miles from Mr. Eldridge, cannot get over the fact that he has just moved into town and is already planning a run for Congress. ‘It’s a little bit presumptuous,’ Ms. Shields said. ... How can he expect to represent people he doesn’t know?’”
Like the current Politico piece, the Times’ coverage last summer inspired disdain even from left-wing outlets like The Huffington Post.
At this point, Eldridge’s attempt to avoid negative media and control his message by avoiding the press appears to have become counterproductive. The Kingston Daily Freeman picked up on the Politico piece, amplifiying some of its harsher observations for a local audience.
“Democratic congressional candidate Sean Eldridge is evasive, ‘a little immature,” and “not ready for prime time,” according toa short video profile by Politico, a journalism powerhouse in national political circles. [...] “Isenstadt said the Democratic candidate is surrounded by high-priced campaign professionals who are very protective of him. Isenstadt also said political figures and voters in the district to whom he spoke characterized Eldridge ‘as kind of a stranger to us.’”
Had Eldridge agreed to talk with Politico, no doubt some of these characterizations would still have appeared. But they would have been balanced more by Eldridge’s own positions and spin, and the story would have been far less likely to go viral in other media (and, on Twitter).
Such gaffes are all the more baffling, considering that Hughes is credited with steering Barack Obama’s 2008 online presence, which was in many ways the smartest part of his media campaign.
The surest way to antagonize people who (in Dead Tree Media parlance) buy ink by the barrel is to deny them access. As a result, what began as an initial misstep now has snowballed into a self-created distraction, one which his opponent can use to further paint Eldridge’s campaign as both inexperienced and aloof.
All of this plays into Gibson’s ideal culture war narrative—namely, that a decorated military veteran, district native, and family man who still lives in the middle-class neighborhood where he grew up, gets challenged by a young, rich, haughty interloper born in Canada who is trying to buy a Congressional seat...
Will Eldridge correct course by going on a media charm offensive, or allow this narrative to continue to spiral out of his control?