'October surprises' a common challenge for political candidates

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by ROBERT MAK / KING 5 News

KING5.com

Posted on November 4, 2011 at 8:51 PM

Updated Friday, Nov 4 at 9:01 PM

An investigation that began last month into Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon, falls into what’s often called an “October surprise.”

In politics, last-minute revelations that could affect how people vote are categorized as "October surprises." Sometimes, it's dirty politics. Sometimes, it's a self-inflicted wound. Sometimes, it's simply coincidental timing.

Political history is filled with October surprises, some that had an impact, and many that didn't. In the Reardon case, not only are voters in the dark about whether the allegations are true, they don't even really know what the allegations are.

"This is an annual event in American politics, and this is the weekend for October surprises," said Seattle Pacific University professor and former King County Republican Chairman Reed Davis.

Davis says by definition, an October surprise leaves voters to make decisions without all the information.

You might recall a race for Seattle City Council in 2008 -- just two weeks before the election, the presumed frontrunner, Venus Velazquez, was pulled over for drunk driving in Ballard. A jury later returned a not-guilty verdict, but Velazquez had already lost the election.

Four years ago, word of King County Councilwoman Jane Hague's DUI arrest came out just before the primary. She won re-election anyway.

In 2006, an October surprise that technically came at the end of September, involved Congressman Mark Foley who ended up resigning after reports that he sent sexually-explicit computer messages to pages.

One of the more famous October surprises was days before the presidential election in 2000. It was revealed that George W. Bush was arrested for drunk driving in the 1970s.

"He was still elected but just barely," said Davis. "He squeaked it out and managed I think to stop the hemmoraging, but his advisors said many years later, they were stunned that that attack had been so effective."

There is a new dimension to October surprises now that Washington state votes almost entirely by absentee ballot. In Snohomish County,  it's estimated nearly half the ballots were already mailed back or in the mail by the time the Reardon news broke Thursday. So a late surprise has less impact in Washington. An earlier surprise might influence more voters, but the candidate would have more time to respond.

In Reardon's case, he claims it's dirty politics, but there's no proof at this time that the allegations are politically motivated or tied to Reardon's opponent.

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