Jaffe Report: As Mayor's Race Approaches, Private Poll Shows Bowser Support Broad But Soft

Harry Jaffe, a longtime chronicler of the people and politics of Washington, D.C., writes a column for NBC Washington's First Read DMV blog.

With the 2018 mayoral primary just a year away, Mayor Muriel Bowser has favorable ratings but remains vulnerable in her bid for a second term, according to a citywide poll conducted in late May. 

The D.C. chapter of Democrats for Education Reform commissioned the poll. Director Catherine Bellinger said the poll was for internal use and not released to the public, but sources who read the poll described some of the results.

"Overall," one source said, "Mayor Bowser’s favorability is strong – but it’s soft."

Another source described her support as "a mile wide and an inch deep," and those supporters lacked deep, emotional attachment. 

In general Washingtonians responded that they were satisfied with the city’s direction, and they expressed no burning need to change the leadership. Taken together, the poll’s results point to a race that is the mayor’s to lose, a year away from the crucial Democratic primary.

"The mayor has detractors," her 2014 campaign manager William Lightfoot said, "but she doesn’t have strong, organized enemies in the community who will finance a campaign against her."

Lightfoot, who’s expected to chair her reelection bid, predicts Bowser will win on her broad support across the city, with a strong base in the gay community, Ward 3 and her home base in Ward 4.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and Attorney General Karl Racine are also up for reelection, which means the District’s top leadership could change. At this point none of the incumbents has formally announced for reelection, and no challengers have formally declared for any of the three positions.

But the jockeying and handicapping have begun. Bowser skates to a second term without a serious challenger, so who might block her path?

Attorney General Karl Racine showed up Monday evening at the Lamond Riggs Civic Association in far Northeast D.C. to swear in the new executive board members. Was he there to make a point in the community where Bowser ran for mayor in 2014 but failed to win in the primary? His spokesman says he makes regular visits to community events.

Racine, 54, has been coy about whether he might challenge Bowser. The District’s first elected attorney general is midway through his first four-year term. If I were a betting man, I would say he runs for a second term rather than take on Bowser.

For one, Racine is not spoiling for a chance to go head-to-head with Bowser to become the District’s chief executive. Having run only one citywide race, he doesn’t have deep name recognition. He has scored some victories as attorney general but failed to turn them into political capital.

Meanwhile, Racine still has to retire a substantial campaign debt from his 2014 run, and he shows no alacrity to raise funds.

Vincent Gray seems eager to avenge his loss to Bowser in 2014. He believes in his heart that U.S. Attorney Ron Machen stole the election from him by implicating him in an investigation into dirty money in his mayoral campaign without proving he was involved.

Gray, 74, represents Ward 7 on District Council. He could run for mayor without losing his seat, but his path to victory is narrow, at best. The Democrats for Education Reform poll did not show strong support for Gray.

In fact, one source said Bowser polled better than Gray in his home ward. He might be most weak in Ward 3, the predominantly white neighborhoods on the city’s west side. Without Ward 3, he would have to almost sweep the rest of the District.

But numbers might not stop Gray from taking on Bowser, especially if she continues to face politically damaging news. 

On Wednesday evening -- as Bowser spoke to a conference for entrepreneurs hosted by Politico at Howard University – she was absorbing news that the Office of Campaign Finance fined her 2014 mayoral campaign $13,000 for taking contributions above the legal limit, mostly from developers and property managers.

Meanwhile, an Inspector General’s report said schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson gave special treatment to some of Bowser's top appointees to get their children into schools in high demand, allowing them to overstep parents beholden to a lottery system. The story is still unfolding.

And an investigation into financial improprieties in the Ward 4 council campaign of her protégé, Brandon Todd, involved Ben Soto, her campaign treasurer.

Bowser is most likely to kick off her reelection campaign in September. At that point there will be ten months until polls open in the Democratic primary, which all but determines the general election winner.

She will have a head start on fundraising, broad name recognition and support in all eight wards, soft though it might be.

Vince Gray is notoriously late in formally declaring his candidacy. That didn’t stop him from beating Bowser’s predecessor, Adrian Fenty, in 2010. Like Fenty, Bowser may be giving Gray an opening.

Karl Racine will be under pressure to announce his own reelection, and he might face serious challengers.

It promises to be an interesting autumn, but the first poll and early betting would favor Bowser.

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