The brief, ill-timed political career of Joe Lhota

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Lhota. (Patrick Cashin via Flickr)
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Joe Lhota will not be mayor.

At 9:45 p.m. on election night, to the sounds of Journey's "Don't Stop Believing," he walked into a swanky penthouse lounge at the Park Avenue Gansevoort Hotel to deliver his concession speech. New York State Conservative Party chairman Michael Long clapped to the beat.

"I’m reminded of a scripture reading, the words of Paul in the letter to Timothy," said Lhota, who was flanked by his wife, his daughter, his father and his mother, who was celebrating her birthday. "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race and I have kept the faith.”

He urged his supporters to unite behind the mayor-elect, even as he offered a final argument against his Democratic opponent: "Despite what you may have heard, we are one city."

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Lhota lost by a ton, in the end: It was clear by the time he spoke that Bill de Blasio was going to end up with more the 70 percent of the vote. It's not clear he could have done much better than he did, no matter what sort of campaign he'd run. 

In the absence of rampant crime or a terrorist attack, in a New York City whose supply of white ethnics willing to vote Republican is shrinking, after two terms of Giuliani and three of Bloomberg, it was time for a Democrat. Sometimes that's just how it is. 

“In political science, there is a statistical concept called the normal election,” said Ken Sherrill, a political science professor at Hunter College. “In a normal election, all that matters is the long term factor of party identification. ... New York hasn’t had a normal election for mayor in a very long time. But we are having one this year.”

The numbers never budged. In September, fresh off his primary win over the colorful billionaire John Catsimatidis, Lhota trailed de Blasio 41 points. A poll released on Sunday put de Blasio's lead at 39. 

Lhota strained against his destiny as a Republican, gamely trying to position himself, somehow, as a candidate of change

But Christine Quinn couldn’t play that game against de Blasio, and neither, really, could Lhota.

“We could not be the opposition candidate,” Quinn strategist Josh Isay told me after the primary. “It wasn’t where she was. We could be the ‘We want progress, but for everyone’ kind of candidate. We tried to do that. But the truth is, it was not heard. It was too complex. And that was an untenable spot to be in considering the mood of the electorate.”

Lhota also tried distancing himself from his party during the government shutdown, even as he called for delay in implementing Obamacare.

“I think it just reinforced every voter in New York City's bad impression of why they don’t like the Republicans,” a Republican operative who has worked with Lhota, told me, referring to the shutdown. “And, I just think it’s unfortunate, because Joe’s certainly not to be blame, but de Blasio did it very well the first debate. And I think that, it’s actually, you could also see where Joe is a first-time candidate. He was kind of taken aback by the idea that anybody would attack him for something where there’s no substance. Of course, that happens. He was kind offended by the idea that you would tie him to the Tea Party.”

Lhota didn't respond effectively. Maybe there was no effective response. But there is also this: Lhota is not a good politician. Yes, he has worked for people who know their way around an election—as Rudy Giuliani’s budget director and second in command, as Governor Cuomo’s M.T.A. chairman. But he is at heart an administrator.

Lhota's personality came through in public settings only occasionally: last winter, when he was mulling a run and when (inconveniently for him) few voters knew his name, and then again in late October, when he decided to dispense with the caution and message discipline that had served him so poorly as a candidate.

“Didn’t you miss me, Dana?" said Lhota, 13 days before the election and the day after a relatively successful debate performance. "I’m back."

Where did he go?

"I don’t know, I don’t know, but I realized, I realized that I have to be ... I went into the debate last night loose, not worried, wanted to have a conversation with my opponent, with the people at home sitting watching television," he said. "And that’s what I did. I prepared for the issues, but I prepared to do what I’ve done my entire life—speak my mind, don’t anybody put words in my mouth, and just get the issues out there."

By that point, the voters had long since made up their minds. De Blasio was going to win in a landslide. Lhota, to voters who recognized him, was a dour-looking Republican with a minor lisp, a putatively capable manager identified with no issue in particular.

In January, back when de Blasio was an underdog in a crowded Democratic field and Lhota believed he'd have the luxury of presenting himself as a different sort of Republican, he proactively distanced himself from his old boss

"Joe Lhota is not Rudy Giuliani," he said.

During his last day on the campaign trail, Lhota stood by Giuliani at the Staten Island Ferry terminal while the former mayor accused the de Blasio campaign of "racism."

"I'm feeling confident," said Lhota. "I'm feeling optimistic."

In a brief press scrum following his concession speech on election night, a reporter asked Lhota if he would consider running again.

"It's too early to think about that," he said.