Spending an hour with the 12th District Republican as he waits and wonders
by Eric Johnson
Wright McLeod needs a haircut.
Even if he didn’t, that’s what you do when you’re killing time waiting for bad news. And for a political candidate, the news he’s waiting for couldn’t get much worse.
It’s 1 p.m. on Thursday, August 9, and McLeod is waiting to find out if the recount he requested for the 12th Congressional District Republican primary somehow managed to find the 580 votes he needs to claw ahead of second place finisher Rick Allen and therefore into the runoff with the primary’s clear winner, Grovetown farmer and state representative Lee Anderson.
Getting a haircut beats sitting around the conference table in his Evans law firm thinking about how unlikely it is that the news he hears will be good.
“We’re working on two letters,” he says. “One — gear up, we’re in. And two, it’s over.”
Later in the evening he’ll distribute the “it’s over” letter, of course — he gains only four votes in the recount — but now, at 1 p.m., there’s still the glimmer of a chance that it will turn out differently. So McLeod sits at the conference table preparing for his haircut and mulling over the what ifs.
All he’d wanted to do was make the runoff.
“We felt like there we had the advantage,” he says. “That makes sense to me, especially if we are running against Lee. I would have picked up more of [fourth place finisher Maria Sheffield’s] supporters and more of Rick’s supporters than Lee would have. So the goal was just to get in the runoff. And there was no doubt; we thought we were in the runoff.”
It wasn’t just hopeful thinking. A poll three weeks before election day had McLeod within the margin of error of Anderson and a few points head of Allen.
“I think the poll was wrong,” he says, a hint of bitterness creeping into his voice. “I think it was a tremendous waste of money. It didn’t change anything that we did, but I look at the information that came in and it didn’t mean anything to me.”
That information said he had an unbelievably high favorability rating, which wasn’t exactly an unknown fact.
“Money wasted,” he says, looking out the window.
A preliminary poll taken at the beginning of the race told him even less — nobody knew who he was.
The second poll felt good at the time, though, and the positive response he was getting on the campaign trail had him feeling pretty confident coming down the homestretch, even in spite of a flurry of negative mailers from both Allen and Anderson. The mailers capitalized on the constant negative drumbeat coming out of the Allen camp, a drumbeat that was amplified by the Morris newspapers — echoed by the Augusta Chronicle and the Columbia County News Times here in the CSRA, but originating at the Savannah Morning News, which serves as the primary paper for the southern part of the district, a part of the district McLeod lost badly.
“Horribly,” he clarifies.
Despite all that, McLeod felt confident he would make the runoff, even as late as 6:30 p.m. election night.
“Could we have been in first place — yes,” he says. “Could we have been in second place — yes. Did we expect to be in third place — no.”
When all the votes were tallied, Anderson came in with 34 percent of the vote. Allen was second, ahead of McLeod by 580 votes, which was within the one percent threshold required for a recount.
Once the vote was certified, McLeod had two days to request a recount, even though the chances of changing the outcome were next to none.
“My thought process was that there is a procedure in place when the margin of victory is less than one percent,” McLeod says. “In this case, the margin of victory was less than one percent — follow the procedure. Add that with the 200 emails telling me to do the recount — nobody said don’t do it.”
Though his supporters were vocal about the recount, some in the Republican community criticized it as a waste of time, and though McLeod acknowledged the odds were low that he would pick up the necessary votes, he pushed forward with his “trust, but verify” plan anyway. While he waited, Anderson and Allen moved forward without him, attacking each other as if he were no longer in the picture.
During the primary, McLeod consciously chose not to engage in that kind of campaign, and was forced to live with the consequences.
“We got an unbelievable amount of compliments on the way we ran,” he says. “But… we lost.”
Losing, of course, opens up everything — every choice and decision and expenditure — to Monday morning quarterbacking.
“It’s painful,” he says of the second-guessing. “It’s brutal.”
Though his analytical mind keeps him from feeling sorry for himself, it also keeps him running through all the variables in an endless loop of possibilities.
“Were there some things that, had we done them differently, would have changed the outcome? I think that’s correct,” he says. “Were there things that my opponents could have done differently that would have negated my changes? Yes. So it’s not as simple as saying had I done X instead of Y then I would have won. Had I done X instead of Y I might have won, but they could have done A instead of B and prevented my change.”
Part of the second-guessing has to do with the way early voting has affected the campaign process.
“In the past, it was pretty easy,” says Holly Croft, McLeod’s campaign spokesperson. She’s sitting around the conference table, too. Waiting. “You just chased the absentee ballots. Early voting changes it. You pretty much have to have your door knockers and such out a month before early voting starts.”
In other words, we don’t have an election day as much as we have an election period.
“When we talked to people approaching election day, they told us they saw Wright in the debates and felt he clearly won them,” Croft continues. “In the future, we need to schedule those earlier.”
The final TV forum, hosted by former Augusta mayor Bob Young, occurred the Friday before the election, the same day Allen’s mailer calling McLeod a trial lawyer was landing in mailboxes.
“You know how many cases I’ve tried?” McLeod asks. “Zero.”
That’s the way negative campaigning achieves its goal, though — not with one eye-popping revelation, but with a chorus of whispered innuendos.
“I acknowledge the so-called experts that say negative campaigning works,” he says. “Death by a thousand cuts. But it’s still not who I am or what I believe or the way I want my children to behave. I do not acknowledge the justification ‘that’s politics.’”
When they started the campaign, McLeod and his wife, Sheri, made a decision that they were going to run a campaign that they could discuss around the dinner table in front of their three daughters.
That proved more challenging than anticipated.
“So this thing gets into it and the allegations start flying and you feel yourself sinking to a level that you don’t want to be at,” he says. “I don’t want to think like that. I don’t want to respond like that. I didn’t want my children to hear me talk like that.”
In spite of the punishment, including a complaint filed by Allen Campaign Manager Scott Paradise with the Federal Election Commission that brutalized him in headlines throughout the campaign, McLeod continued to stay positive. Then, just before the election, his advisors approached him.
“They come back and go, ‘Okay, you’re getting ready to get hit,’” he says. “‘You are perceived to be the spoiler, and if you don’t prepare for these hit pieces, you are going to lose.’”
The hit pieces were anticipated to occur sometime during the week before election day, long after he would have time to respond.
“So you prepare,” he says. “You prepare your own hit pieces.”
He shakes his head and frowns at the memory.
“They send them to me to look at, and I look at them and go, ‘That’s just not me,’” he says. “It’s a bunch of half truths. It’s making assertions we have no business making.”
But his people respond with a simple fact: he’ll lose without them. These are his advisors talking, the people he pays for direction. So he says do it — run the ads.
Ultimately, the ads don’t run, though, because — here’s irony for you — after McLeod loses his battle with his better self, the experts change their minds. After causing a change of heart, they have a change of heart themselves.
“Am I proud that we didn’t send them?” he asks. “Yes. Am I mad that I let myself go to where I went? I am absolutely mad. I did not stand up and say no, we’re not going to do that. I flat said do it. They’re the ones who said no.”
Now, in the midst of the hotly contested runoff, McLeod potentially holds the key to victory, and though he was contacted by both Anderson and Allen, he says deciding who he’ll vote for is difficult, especially knowing how many of his supporters are looking to him for guidance.
“What I have is one candidate who has absolutely beat the crap out of me,” he says. “And I’ve got another candidate over there who really hasn’t played near as hard, but we’re at opposite ends of the spectrum. Do I let my personal feeling get in the way of who I think it should be or not?”
The bitterness goes beyond ego and the dashing of dreams, however. Not only was McLeod’s house vandalized and his tires slashed on election night, his parents’ farm in south Richmond County was wiped out. And while that seems like a personal attack that goes well beyond the reach of ‘that’s politics,’ he makes no distinction between that and the FEC complaint.
“How is that any different than the $20,000 legal fee that I have to pay for the FEC complaint?” he asks, drumming his fingers on the conference table. “How’s that any different than breaking into the farm? I guess you can argue that they believe that their allegations are correct, but…”
He continues drumming his fingers.
“Twenty grand,” he says. “That stings.”
And right then all the negativity seems to combine with the realization that he’s been talking as if it’s over, and it sends him voluntarily to the What’s Next question.
“It’s awful hypocritical to stand up there and say these things are important and you all need to donate and you need to vote and you need to help me and then all of a sudden you get your knees whacked and you walk away,” he says. “That’s not me.”
But that’s all he’ll say on the subject, because it’s now 2 p.m., there’s a lot that’s still up in the air and only one thing that’s absolutely clear. Wright McLeod needs a haircut, and the time has come for him to get it.You Might Also Like: