As we reported in detail beginning Thursday, conservative U.S. Senate candidate Patrick Hughes served himself up a whole mess of trouble by touting what he claimed he understood to be an endorsement by legendary Chicago Bears player and coach Mike Ditka, only to find that Ditka did not back up this claim when fellow senate candidate Andy Martin called it into question. As we explained previously, Martin had threatened to picket Ditka's restaurant in response to an open letter from one of Hughes' operatives that singled out Eric Wallace and John Arrington (who happen to be the only two African American candidates in the GOP primary) to bail out of the race to clear the field for Hughes against Congressman Mark Kirk. Dikta's camp then sent out a press release that very clearly indicated that Ditka did not endorse Hughes' candidacy, nor did he agree to serve on Hughes' campaign finance committee (which Hughes has also claimed).
"...while I [Ditka] may have endorsed some concepts discussed to his [Hughes'] gathering at the restaurant, I never ‘publicly officially endorsed him and certainly did not agree to serve on his finance committee.” [October 15, 2009, press release]
On Thursday, after having confirmed the Ditka press release that Da Coach had clearly disavowed the endorsement, we at Team America ran with the story early Thursday morning, which was quickly picked up by Capitol Fax Blog and prompted a detailed story by The Hill (which quoted Ditka's representatives as clearly denying any endorsement had issued). HuffPo also picked up on it later in the day.
After sending the Hughes and Ditka camps into full panic mode, they came up with a terse joint statement in the afternoon on Thursday that stated that Dikta, as of that afternoon, was endorsing Hughes, but would not serve on his finance committee due to his personal and business commitments. And, by the way, they were done talking about it, and would not address questions with any media.
Wow. Didya get all that?
Here it is in slow-motion: Hughes sent out a press release claiming that Ditka "endorsed" Hughes. Whether or not Ditka said so at the evening event that Hughes paid for at Ditka's restaurant is a matter of debate, but Hughes admits he never ran the press release by Ditka for approval before he sent it out. It made the news, but Ditka never complained that Hughes was publicly claiming the endorsement (assuming he noticed). That is, until Andy Martin complained to Ditka and threatened to picket his restaurant. Ditka's team then sent out the press release saying that Dikta did NOT endorse Hughes. Martin called off the picket, and everything was fine, until Team America decided to write about it. Hughes and Ditka huddled and decided the only way to save face was to have the coach issue an endorsement that very day but strike a deal that he would not be on the finance committee (note that nowhere in the press release did Ditka say he wrongly previously denied having issued an endorsement).
So, did Hughes ever actually have the endorsement prior to Thursday, October 22? According to Dikta's prior press release, no. That's why the Thursday press release was carefully worded to say that an endorsement was issued as of that day (so let's just all have it clear that Hughes original claim of an endorsement was not exonerated by the Thursday press release, as some have implied).
Now, was Hughes lying when he previously claimed that Ditka had endorsed him? Doubt it. As readers know, I know Pat, and he's not a liar. But the real issue is, did Hughes ever drop the claim of the endorsement when he found out that Ditka had disavowed it, or try to clear up the issue at that time? Apparently not. Instead, the whole thing boiled up until it took on a life of its own, and both Hughes and Ditka sent out the Thursday Hail Mary press release trying to throw water on the fire. They then went into lockdown mode and stated that they would make no more public statements on anything related to any of this.
Regardless of Hughes' campaign team's desperate desire to put this disaster behind them, it's clear that the issue will not die just because they refuse to discuss it further. Hughes' fellow candidate Eric Wallace noted the issue on his own campaign website and perceptively suggested that the whole thing was much less of an endorsement than simply damage control. It was the talk of the day on not just one, but two comment strings over at conservative blog Illinois Review (while some commentors seemed to back Hughes and some did not, many agreed it was a complete mishandling of the situation by the Hughes campaign and made them look like they were not ready for prime time). Several other blogs have also taken note and written about this. And even Carol Marin noted the "smackdown" of Hughes in her Sun-Times column.
And to really put the icing on the cake, Andy Martin is back to threatening to picket Ditka's restaurant.
For all aspiring candidates seeking to understand how all of this works, and how to effectively manage your message and image in the media, you can pretty much take all of this as a textbook example of how NOT to do this. Ever.
Will any of this matter to GOP primary voters in February? Perhaps not directly. But, as the candidates jockey for position and support among the GOP county and township chairmen and committeemen, and other leaders (who have a big influence on GOP turnout and support in the primary), a debacle like this can erode your party support and stop any momentum you may have in its tracks, as people question your ability to lead and manage a crisis. If you can't handle this, how ya gonna handle Afghanistan?
UPDATED 10/25/09 4:25 p.m.: You know, just for kicks, I checked in on Pat's campaign website to see if he's added the Ditka endorsement he received last Thursday. Nope. Hmm... isn't that a bit odd? Pat had apparently scrubbed the previous "endorsement" (as Pat claimed after the event at Dikta's where coach made some nice comments about Pat but later denied it was an official endorsement) from his website sometime earlier last week (I have before and after screenshots, but I doubt anyone cares enough to have me upload them)--and I noted that the scrubbing was done even before Team America started writing about the Ditka press release last Thursday (also odd).
If Pat is so proud of his endorsement (although from The Hill article referenced above, it seemed like Pat was about ready to cut Da Coach loose and label him as a liar, until the two apparently patched things up at the last minute) then why isn't it back up on his website? I wonder if maybe part of the "settlement" was that aside from last week's desperate Thursday afternoon joint press release, Pat would never mention the endorsement in the media again. I guess we'll have to wait and see.