D.C. mayor's collapse came amid disastrous March

Incumbent D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray throws a couple thumbs up as he emerges from a polling place after voting Tuesday. Gray lost to challenger Muriel Bowser in the Democratic primary.

Story highlights

  • Incumbent Mayor Vince Gray at one time held a healthy lead in his re-election bid
  • A businessman's plea bargain agreement over Gray's 2010 campaign raised doubts
  • Challenger Muriel Bowser's poll numbers surged while Gray's remained flat
  • Bowser ended up with a double-digit win over the one-term mayor

After Washington Mayor Vince Gray voted Tuesday morning and a vocal contingent of volunteers moved on to another precinct, Gray's campaign manager headed downtown to write three news releases to issue based on the outcome of Tuesday's Democratic primary election.

Chuck Thies started with the hopeful news first and wrote the release his campaign would blast out if the mayor won the contest with a wide margin.

But as voters across the district went to the polls Tuesday morning, even Gray's closest confidants and advisers acknowledged that outcome was not likely. Many cautioned that the election would be close, possibly within a few thousand votes.

Thies then wrote two other news releases: one for if the race was too close to call but Gray was winning, and one for if it was too close to call and Muriel Bowser, the upstart councilwoman who was Gray's most obvious challenger, was leading.

Thies didn't write the news release for a loss. Why? "I am superstitious," he said.

As results slowly streamed in Tuesday night, it became apparent that the "we lost" statement would be the one the Gray campaign would be forced to send.

Shortly after midnight Wednesday morning, Gray conceded defeat to Bowser in the district's Democratic primary. At that point, 127 out of 143 precincts had reported and Bowser was running at 44% of the vote, compared with Gray's 33%. And shortly after Gray conceded, Bowser accepted her party's nomination in front of a raucous crowd.

For Gray, no moment knocked the wheels off his campaign more than what many campaign insiders began calling "Machen Monday" -- the day that U.S. Attorney Ron Machen went to court and linked Gray to a 2010 shadow campaign run by businessman Jeffrey Thompson.

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Prosecutors publicly claimed in March that Gray was aware of the illegal fundraising and had agreed with Thompson to cover it up. Even though Gray had not been charged and has vehemently denied any wrongdoing, the news elevated questions about honesty and ethics that had plagued Gray since his 2010 campaign and left many voters with doubt.

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March was full of bad news for Gray. The Washington Post endorsed Bowser that month, while polls showed the race tightening.

The Thompson news, which the U.S. attorney has been inching toward for years, sent shock waves through the Democratic primary. Gray's opponents seized on the Thompson plea deal, and the ethical questions propelled Bowser into a neck-and-neck race with the incumbent mayor down the stretch.

The Thompson plea deal "sucked a lot of the oxygen out of us," close Gray campaign aide Stephen Glaude said after the primary loss. Some volunteers left Gray's campaign after the news, according to Glaude, and some usually deep-pocketed supporters tightened up and stopped giving.

"Clearly the Thompson plea and the manner in which it was reported was a shot to the gut," he concluded.

And then the public polls hit. While Gray was the frontrunner in early polls, a Washington Post poll shortly after the Thompson news showed a surging Bowser with 30% of Democratic support. Gray remained stagnant at 27%, according to the poll.

It was more than just external polling that had Gray's team a bit nervous. Their internal polling also showed the same thing.

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According to Thies, the Gray campaign's initial polling showed the mayor with 28% support and Bowser with 19%. Shortly before "Machen Monday," another internal poll showed that Gray's support had grown slightly to 34% but that Bowser's had grown more and was sitting at 28%.

But then news broke of Thompson's plea deal and, according to Thies, the campaign "bled off everything that we had gained and we went back to our base." While Thies contends that Gray has a solid base of support in the district of around 28% to 30% of Democratic voters, he admitted that an internal poll after the announcement showed the race in a dead heat.

"The good news is that stuff is coming back to us," he said Tuesday morning, based on voter contacts and knocking on doors.

And that outward positivity might have been why Gray was so publicly confident Monday night and Tuesday morning.

At a stop to rally the troops at campaign headquarters, the mayor munched on a burger, some fries and drank a soft drink. He talked with campaign supporters, slapped a few backs and thanked everyone for their work.

In the morning -- admittedly not Gray's favorite time of day -- he talked about the campaign's late momentum and the good feel he had about Tuesday's primary. He acknowledged that "Machen Monday" set him back but said he thought the race should not be close.

"Given the record that we have, there should be no question about re-election for us," Gray said with a bit of bravado. "This city is going in the right direction, and I am excited that people see that."

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But by Tuesday night, as polls closed across the district and results began to stream in, it appeared that Gray's confidence couldn't overcome the numbers.

By 11 p.m., Bowser had a sufficient lead on the mayor, and at Gray's campaign party at a local hotel ballroom, volunteers started to feel slightly concerned.

"I can't do this," said Bernita Carmichael, a vocal volunteer who chanted for Gray for most of Tuesday. While she didn't say she was worried, Carmichael said she got a negative sense from the room.

Her senses were correct, because by that time, Gray and his closest advisers in a back room had begun to have doubts.

As a cadre of close advisers watched results stream in, Glaude said the mood was souring. By the time 20% of the precincts were reporting and Bowser's lead was not shrinking, Gray's political guru said it was apparent that the campaign "wasn't doing as well" as it needed.

"We were hopeful, but when it jumped up to 20 and people were staying where they were, we kind of knew," Glaude said.