How could their "sure thing" go so terribly wrong on Election Night?
That's the question Erie County Democrats are asking this weekend after failing to retake the county executive's office.
Earlier in the year, they looked at the political landscape. They outnumbered Republicans by 120,000. The Republicans sitting in the executive offices in Washington and the Rath County Office Building were extremely unpopular.
And Democratic Chairman Leonard R. Lenihan was eagerly seeking a "fresh face" to present to voters.
As it turned out, Christopher C. Collins was the fresh face, and he rolled over the Democratic candidate James P. Keane.
Now the Monday morning quarterbacking has started, and it is apparent that the 2007 campaign for county executive has left the party with significant divisions.
"No Democratic insider should be surprised by the election results," said Assemblyman Sam Hoyt of Buffalo. "It's my understanding that their polls and focus groups told the party that the results would not be favorable."
In fact, the party's early internal polls and focus groups did show Keane would fare poorly in an election, several Democrats say, but Lenihan was boxed into following Mayor Byron W. Brown's and Rep. Brian Higgins' strong support for Keane.
Lenihan acknowledges that Higgins' and Brown's early commitment to Keane made it difficult for him to clear the field for "new" Democrats who had considered running -- including City Judge Henry J. Nowak, County Comptroller Mark C. Poloncarz and County Clerk Kathleen C. Hochul.
The early focus groups were conducted by Ryan Toohey, a Lewiston native with close ties to Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer, some Democrats point out. But despite that connection and the pleas of some local Democrats for the governor to "clear the field," Spitzer made no move for a Nowak or a Poloncarz favored by Lenihan.
Higgins now describes the election as a learning experience.
"[Collins'] message of reforming county government resonated overwhelmingly," he acknowledged. "It's frustrating, but there was a lesson in it for everybody -- the status quo won't do it."
Brown, though, reaffirmed his belief that the former deputy county executive was the best candidate but said his message and how it was conveyed were flawed.
"It wasn't a matter of a fresh face," he said. "It was a matter of the right message."
Some party figures, such as former Erie County Democratic Chairman G. Steven Pigeon, have called for Lenihan's removal from the party helm as a result of the election. But few others echo the demand. And the chairman says he intends to stay for at least the next 10 months remaining in his term.
"The Keane campaign was well-run," Lenihan said. "It's just that we were up against a notion whose time had come, and there was absolutely nothing we could do."
Because Keane enjoyed solid support from the party's top two figures, nobody could persuade him to leave in favor of the "fresh face" Lenihan's polling identified.
That, in turn, hardened the resolve of West Seneca Supervisor Paul T. Clark to challenge Keane in the primary. That resulted in a bitter contest, which Keane easily won.
And voters never accepted Keane embracing Clark's subsequent endorsement, almost all observers say.
"To have a big endorsement news conference and feign all this unity that didn't exist was a major turnoff to voters," said Brown, who decided not to attend the event announcing Clark's rapprochement with Keane. "The hug was as phony as an $8 bill. It was the kiss of death."
That endorsement then morphed into a bigger disaster a few days later, when the district attorney and FBI began investigating reports in The Buffalo News that Clark may have violated campaign finance laws.
As for his early strong backing of Keane, Brown said that if party polling showed Keane would not be a good candidate, he never saw the polls.
"Had [Lenihan] presented that to me or Brian, that would have been persuasive to us," the mayor said, adding that headquarters rejected his recommendations for consultants in favor of out-of-towners working on media, field operations and management.
But the mayor's African-American base provided weak support for Keane on Election Day.
The mayor says that stemmed from few resources dedicated to the party's most loyal voting bloc.
Still, fingers point toward City Hall. Hoyt, whose relations with the mayor are less than stellar, said Brown can mobilize troops as well as anyone -- but only in his self-interest.
"Let's face it, he dedicated lots and lots of resources to the Rivera, LoCurto and Whyte races [in the Common Council and County Legislature], personally encouraging folks to participate and raising boatloads of money," Hoyt said.
Hoyt said the mayor never even showed up at the Democratic party in Ellicott Square on Election Night.
Brown explained that he was tired and wet from a day of campaigning for Keane in the rain.
Though critics say Brown's and Higgins' insistence on Keane as the candidate discouraged other potential candidates, the congressman says he never detected serious resolve from anyone but Keane and Clark.
"There would have been a more serious discussion if one of those had expressed more serious interest -- honestly," he said.
Still, Higgins said the party needs to learn from the 2007 election and seek the new faces and new ideas that will appeal to voters. He said he remains committed to Lenihan "at this point," pointing to the pragmatic leadership he has shown since 2002.