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Lessons on How To Defeat an Incumbent Southern Democrat (Part One)

November 15, 2002

From the rightturns.com archives (10/1/02 edition; my article
"Throw the Democrats Out! Tennessee's Tax Revolution - Part Three"; see archives for the complete article):

"One year ago, I sat in our kitchen after reading the Sunday newspapers and realized that the local state representative position, long a Democrat stronghold, was winnable for the GOP. Why? The state democrats were no longer conservative.

I then began searching for the local GOPer who was planning to run for the local state representative position to offer my analysis and support.

I found him: Judd Matheny. I did not know Judd at the time. I arranged for him and me to meet and discuss his campaign. Within the first few minutes of our meeting, I realized Judd was real: an energetic, focused, practicing, walking and talking conservative. (See
www.juddmatheny.com for his background details.) I volunteered to be his campaign manager and he accepted."

I proudly report:


This is a Tennessee State Representative seat that has never been in Republican hands! The incumbent was considered a "safe seat".
The incumbent raised over $125,000!
And spent it all!
The Tennessee Speaker of the House (a Democrat, of course) pressured/threatened local officials to publicly endorse the incumbent.
The local newspapers virtually ignored Judd's campaign.
Only two incumbent Democrats were beaten in the 99 house seat races on 11/5/02.

So, facing these odds, how the heck did we do it?

The simple, truthful answer is by sticking to conservative principles and executing a campaign of relentless pressure on the incumbent.

Let's look at how we did it. Bear with me because I am first going to describe the technical steps in the campaign. Believe me, the tale will grow more exciting.

Our plan, devised one year before the election, was straightforward:
1. Build name recognition
2. Learn how state government works
3. Track the incumbent's voting, statements, and fund raising
4. Analyze the 24 precincts in the district for the last two election patterns.

Build name recognition:
State representative districts in Tennessee have about 35,000 registered voters. Our goal was for Judd to meet as many of these voters as possible. Today's voters feel out of touch with elected officials. Our incumbent, especially, had built a reputation of not returning phone calls and feeling confident in his incumbency. Judd began a relentless schedule of going to local community events. We watched the local newspapers for when and where these events would occur. He handed political "business cards" that described his background; his key principles ("No state Income Tax"; "stop the cycle of fiscal mismanagement"); and how to contact him (mail; email; phone number; fax number). In addition, about six months before the election, Judd put up over 100 hard (made of plywood) road signs at key intersections throughout the district. These were not expensive, fancy signs; they were made in his backyard using primary colors, weatherproof paint, and stencils. The signs were simple in message: "Judd Matheny" "State Representative". The effect of this early effort was two fold: it brought out volunteers who were emotionally ready to fight for a change in the district (most of these volunteers became dedicated campaign warriors all the way through the victory election night) and it gave daily exposure of Judd's name to voters as they came and went in their activities.

Learn how state government works:
Paralleling the above, one year ago Judd began setting appointments to meet with the state commissioners and department heads of education, information technology, safety, etc. (BTW, for all you future candidates, it is not difficult to set these appointments; remember, they are public employees) He asked them what problems they were facing, the future problems they were facing, and what were some solutions they were seeking. These meetings gave Judd the language used by state employees and the issues facing them. In addition, Judd met with incumbent Republican representatives to pick their brains. These steps are very important when running against an incumbent. Incumbents represent to voters a level of comfort; a known quantity. Incumbents emphasize this by typically referring to their opponents as out of the loop, not knowing what is really going on; and referring to themselves as the expert ("When I was talking with the Speaker the other day, he asked me…"). We knew that from these meetings, Judd could talk with voters with an "inside knowledge" tone just like the incumbent. A VERY IMPORTANT POINT.

In the next column, I will lay out how we did
Step 3 Track the incumbent's voting, statements, and fund raising;
Step 4 Analyze the 24 precincts in the district for the last two election patterns.
And begin detailing the stages of the battle.


Sam T. Harper graduated cum laude from Vanderbilt University.  Following a tour in the US Navy and a stint as Operations Manager at Roadway Express, he earned his MBA from Stanford University Graduate School of Business.  He was a contributor to “In Search of Excellence,” the best selling business book of all time.  Sam was also Manager, Economic Planning & Analysis at Sohio Petroleum, Partner and Chief Financial Officer at investment-banking firm Bridgemere Capital, and Chief Operating Officer of the Institute for Contemporary Studies, a San Francisco Bay Area-based think tank and international publishing firm that specializes in self-governing and entrepreneurial public policy.  Sam was a chairman of the San Francisco Republican party and the GOP co-host of California Political Review on KALW-FM in San Francisco.  Sam is currently the co-owner of the Tennessee based Institute for Local Effectiveness Training, LLC – a management consulting, training, and coaching firm.