Buoyed by his convincing reelection in the face of severe controversy, Rep. Jim Bates (D-San Diego) on Wednesday described his victory as a “repudiation of smear tactics” and confidently pronounced himself “ready to take on all comers” in 1990.
But his defeated Republican opponent, lawyer Rob Butterfield Jr., predicted that the sexual harassment allegations that dogged Bates in this fall’s 44th Congressional District campaign will be an even greater political liability in his next race, adding: “I think 1988 was the beginning of the end for Jim Bates.”
With an undetermined number of absentee ballots remaining to be counted today--not enough to affect the outcome--unofficial returns show that Bates defeated Butterfield by a better than 3-2 ratio, 85,315 votes (60%) to 51,646 (36.3%). Libertarian Dennis Thompson finished a distant third with 5,381 votes, or 3.8%.
Although he had never before received less than 64% of the vote since capturing the seat in the heavily Democratic district in 1982, Bates said Wednesday that the slight decline in his margin this year belies speculation that the harassment allegations have left him vulnerable.
“I don’t see how anyone can say getting 60% under these circumstances is a sign of weakness,” Bates said. “I think it’s a sign of strength, and I’m only going to get stronger. They threw everything they had at me and took their best shot, and it hardly fazed me. So, I’m feeling very good and very strong.”
Bates, Butterfield and their respective strategists attributed the election’s outcome to four major factors, starting with the Democrats’ daunting 55% to 32% voter registration edge in the southern San Diego district.
“It takes some big mistakes by the incumbent, plus a lot of time and money, to overcome that hurdle,” Butterfield’s campaign consultant, David Lewis, said. “Unfortunately, the first thing was there, but the other two weren’t.”
That registration advantage was complemented, the two camps agree, by:
Voters’ inclination to either disbelieve the harassment charges or at least to give Bates the benefit of the doubt pending a possible investigation by a House ethics committee.
The insurmountable problems faced by Butterfield in his attempt to, as his consultant put it, “jump start” a campaign that was essentially dormant until the allegations against Bates surfaced only six weeks before the election.
A public backlash against the sharply negative tactics employed by Butterfield in his effort to transform the election into a referendum on Bates’ honesty and integrity.
A tired but exuberant Bates suggested Wednesday that the origins of his victory can be traced to his considerable political and legislative spade work in an 18-year public career that began with service on the San Diego City Council and county Board of Supervisors.
Even in non-election years, Bates usually spends hours most weekends walking neighborhoods, attending community meetings and doing the kind of nuts-and-bolts politicking that many politicians find tiresome even at election time. Long a favorite of minorities and environmentalists, Bates has, as he once proudly noted, “expanded that base a person at a time” by placing a strong emphasis on constituent casework in his office.
“Eighteen years of serving the public, solving problems, getting the job done--that’s what saved me,” Bates said. “People remembered I was there when they needed me. . . . They voted for the Jim Bates they know, not the way the Republicans tried to make me out to be. . . . All that work over the years paid off. And I’m going to be doing a lot more of it before next time.”
Before the harassment allegations, even Butterfield regarded Bates’ fourth consecutive landslide victory a virtual certainty. The complexion of the race changed dramatically, however, when more than a dozen former Bates staffers anonymously complained to a small Washington newspaper in late September that the congressman habitually sexually harassed female employees and treated workers cruelly.
Two former female Bates aides have since filed formal complaints with a House ethics panel, which is expected to decide early next year whether to investigate the allegations. Bates has conceded occasional “careless . . . flirting and kidding around” on his part, but disputes most of the charges.
The allegations’ emergence so late in the campaign, combined with the fact that, as of Election Day, they remained unproved, appeared to lend credence to Bates’ claims that the charges represented “an orchestrated Republican smear,” Butterfield conceded.
“A lot of people just didn’t believe or weren’t ready to believe the charges,” Butterfield said. “Bates was very effective in getting people to think this was just a campaign trick. The timing definitely helped him do that.”
Butterfield strategist Lewis said, “I think there was a tendency to give Bates the benefit of the doubt at this stage. He’s had a generally favorable impression among a lot of people for years. Most of them decided to stick with him until they see what the ethics committee does.”
Although the timing of the allegations harmed Bates in one way, it more seriously hampered Butterfield’s attempts to capitalize on them. Because the harassment charges surfaced late in the campaign--and dominated news coverage during the race’s closing weeks--they were fresh in voters’ minds when they went to the polls. However, the six-week period between the initial newspaper story about the charges and the election left little time for Butterfield to transform his skeletal operation, a limited effort founded on the premise that he was destined to lose, into a full-blown congressional campaign.
In particular, there was insufficient time for the Butterfield camp to do the kind of grass-roots organizing that ideally should be done months in advance of an election. More critically, the controversy came too late for Butterfield to attract the heavy campaign donations needed for him to have any chance of quickly making up a big gap in the polls.
Although the National Republican Congressional Committee, which had been uninvolved in the race before the allegations, contributed about $50,000 to Butterfield, he found that most traditional major GOP donors locally and in Washington had already exhausted their campaign budgets.
“A lot of people told us, ‘We think you’re great, but we gave away all our money last month,’ ” recalled Butterfield, who spent about $130,000, roughly one-third as much as Bates.
As a result, Butterfield was heavily outgunned by Bates in campaign weaponry--mailers and TV and radio ads--in the closing days of the race.
“We weren’t competitive in the mailbox and got zeroed out on broadcast ads,” Lewis lamented.
Both candidates agree that Butterfield’s sharp, caustic attacks on Bates--dealing mostly with the harassment allegations, but also his voting record--produced a backlash, a risk faced by any candidate who wages a negative campaign. They disagreed, however, on the impact of that backlash.
“People got sick and tired of having this pushed in their face over and over in the most tasteless manner imaginable,” Bates said. “I think it ended up hurting him maybe more than me.”
Butterfield acknowledges that his campaign headquarters received many calls protesting his anti-Bates mailers--which, he emphasizes, did little more than reprint news stories and editorial cartoons--but argues that most of the calls came from people unlikely to vote for him anyway.
One of the key strategic decisions made by Bates involved his decision to meet the harassment allegations head-on rather than ignore them, as some advisers and congressional colleagues counseled him. An oft-heard political axiom holds that it is best to downplay allegations or ignore opponents’ taunts, on the theory that responding to them simply ensures wider dissemination of the potentially damaging information.
Bates, however, decided that “This was one of those things that wasn’t going to go away by itself.”
“I felt we couldn’t ignore it, that we had to meet it head on,” Bates explained. “If you don’t respond, sometimes people think that means there’s something to it. I didn’t want to take that chance.”
Despite losing by a lopsided margin of more than 23 percentage points, Butterfield argued Wednesday that his performance “shows that Bates can be had next time.” He may run again, Butterfield added, depending on how the controversy surrounding Bates’ alleged conduct resolves itself.
“Jim Bates’ dreams of being a congressman for the next 20 years are over,” Butterfield said. “The perception that Jim Bates has a lock on this seat for life is gone. You’re going to see people in both parties who wouldn’t have given a second thought to running against Bates before taking a hard look at it next time. The only question is whether a Republican or Democrat takes him out.”
A major unanswered question that will have much to say about Bates’ vulnerability--or lack thereof--in 1990 concerns how the House ethics committee handles the harassment allegations.
If the panel chooses not to investigate the charges or reprimands Bates in a minor way, the issue likely would do him little harm. However, a censure or other stern penalty clearly could put Bates on the defensive and attract opposition inside and outside his party.
Dismissing the allegations by saying simply, “There’s nothing there,” Bates said he doubts that the House inquiry poses any major threat to his political career. Furthermore, he said that he views Tuesday’s election as proof of just how strong his hold on the district is.
“Voters are more interested in performance than all these personal things,” Bates said. “Most people didn’t think this was the crime of the century, and they’ll think even less of it next time.
“I’ve heard the talk about people already getting ready for ’90. All I have to say is, bring ‘em on. I’m ready to take on anybody in the primary or the general. The fact is, they had their best shot this time. And they missed.”