Mark Holbrook has worse manners than Ted Cruz. (He refused to shake his opponent’s hand after a debate and mocked him online for being divorced and remarried.)

Holbrook is less electable than Carly Fiorina. (He’s a right-wing extremist running in a congressional district that skews strongly to the left.)

And Holbrook’s public persona makes Donald Trump look normal – almost. (He included a quote on his website claiming President Obama pitted “his Muslims against Christians.”)

Naturally, Republicans in Maine’s 1st District decided in the June primary that Holbrook of Brunswick would be the ideal candidate to take on Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree in November.

That’s because the state GOP seems incapable of grasping the concept known as “productive defeat.”

That term was probably invented years ago by some obscure political scientist, although it’s also possible I just made it up. Either way, it’s a useful tool for political parties seeking to build for the future. Here’s how it works:

Party X has no chance of winning a particular election. The seat is held by a popular incumbent. The demographics favor the opposition. The fundraising has been pathetic. The rest of Party X’s ticket has a better shot at victory, so it makes sense to direct resources where there’ll do the most good.

Even though that race is a certain loser, Party X’s candidate looks good on TV, works crowds like a pro and articulates positions clearly. That’s not going to be enough to win this election, but it could prove sufficient to set up the sacrificial lamb for future success. If Party X is willing to expend some effort on this race – enough to prevent a landslide loss – it might be rewarded with a solid nominee for something in the next election cycle.

Maine’s political landscape is cluttered with the results of productive defeats. Pingree got clobbered by Republican Susan Collins in the 2002 U.S. Senate race, but built on the name recognition and favorable media coverage from that campaign to win a congressional seat in 2008. Collins lost badly in her 1994 gubernatorial bid, but rebounded to take the 1996 Senate race. Republican Bruce Poliquin went nowhere in bids for governor (2010) and senator (2012), before finally figuring out how to disguise the fact he’s an obnoxious toad in his 2014 run for the 2nd Congressional District seat he now holds. Democrat Shenna Bellows lost to Collins in 2014, but demonstrated the campaign chops that make her the odds-on favorite to win a state Senate seat this year.

So what does this have to do with Holbrook? Other than his being, like Poliquin, an obnoxious toad?

Nothing, actually. Holbrook is going down to a non-productive defeat in November, awash in his rancid rhetoric excoriating Islam, immigrants, transsexuals and anybody even slightly to the left of Ben Carson. It’s likely he’ll never be heard from again, outside of crazed conservative social media.

But the missed opportunity for a productive defeat has a lot to do with the guy Holbrook beat in the GOP primary (pending a recount, which if it reverses the outcome, means there’s no point in reading the rest of this column) by a mere 55 votes out of over 20,000 ballots cast. Ande Smith of North Yarmouth came off as reasonable (although anybody not named LePage would look reasonable compared to Holbrook). If Smith had won, he’d likely have attracted enough general-election support to avoid embarrassing the GOP. He’d have been well positioned to run for something in 2018.

Unfortunately for his political career, Smith’s defeat by Holbrook wasn’t productive. Generally regarded as the frontrunner in that race, Smith raised more money and built a bigger campaign organization. He was an outsider, but not given to insane rants and wacko conspiracy theories like his opponent. His views were close enough to the mainstream to avoid scaring off moderates and liberals who make up the majority of voters in the 1st District.

But moderates and liberals don’t cast ballots in Republican primaries. Extremists, however, do. Despite GOP state chairman Rick Bennett’s claim that both primary candidates “have bright futures in Maine public life,” Smith’s failure to overcome the kooks will taint his reputation. Without serious revamping, he’s got nowhere to go.

Republicans wasted one here.

Get productive. Email me at [email protected]


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