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Campaiging Against Democrats Using the Truth:
Lessons on How to Defeat an Incumbent Southern Democrat (Part 4, Final)
January 1, 2003
In my last three columns I chronicled parts of the successful campaign of Judd Matheny (I was Judd's campaign manager) in the November 5, 2002 election that resulted in the unseating of a longtime Democrat Tennessee state legislator. (See the rightturns.com archives, 11/15/02, 12/1/02, and 12/15/02 to catch up.)
In the story chronology, we are in the general election cycle. The incumbent won his primary though not by a landslide. Judd was unopposed in the GOP primary, but had a vote total better than any GOP candidate had ever achieved.
We obtained a database of most likely voters in the district (GOP, Democrat, and other) from the state GOP office. We sorted it according to party affiliation (there is not party registration in Tennessee; affiliation is deduced from primary voting records); and residence addresses and phone numbers. We printed up several thousand inexpensive postcards at Office Max with Judd's campaign message ("No state income tax"; "Responsible Spending, Conservative Government"), his background information, and a space for a short message. On the front we had his picture with his real signature and "No state income tax" again. Many people had asked how they could help in the campaign. We gave them a stack of postcards and printout of most likely voters in and around their neighborhood and asked them to mail a postcard to everyone on the list. Plus we asked them to add a personal message. Nearly every postcard was mailed out in this fashion.
Almost immediately after Labor Day, the incumbent started spending his $100,000+ campaign fund on mailers to district voters. We knew that we could not match the spending $ for $ so we decided to start painting a picture of who the incumbent really was: a tax and spend soldier taking orders from the state Democrat party, i.e., not a representative of the wishes of the people in the district.
The incumbent's mailers began to arrive weekly and then twice weekly. They claimed he was a fiscal conservative; a supporter of elderly medical care; education; etc. For money reasons, we knew we could not respond one-to-one. We held our fire. It was very nerve racking as more and more mailers flooded the district (15 in all during the campaign). One mailer had an official state representative newsletter look. I researched the postage meter mark on it and found out it was a state postage meter! The mailers actually had a beneficiary effect on Judd's campaign: checks started rolling in from folks who were shocked at the incumbent distorting his record.
Our informal polling indicated that the mailers were having little positive effect on voters. The state GOP determined that also, and coupled with the flow of money we could now report, suddenly realized that Judd's campaign was winnable. They began an independent mailer effort into the district.
Another beneficiary effect was that voters became irritated for receiving so much glossy campaign literature. Coupled with our communications that what the mailers claimed and what the incumbent was really doing were polar opposites, the voters began to develop a real dislike for the incumbent.
To get the message out we used two key methods: one no cost, one low cost.
The no cost method was scheduling public forums in each of the five key communities in the district. We sent a registered letter to the incumbent with the time and location for the five forums. He did not show up. Judd used the time to address the falsehoods in the mailers the voters brought to the forums. The voters that attended the forums were stunned at the blatant falsehoods exposed in the incumbent's mailers; I can assure you they spread the word among their friends. The incumbent claimed to know nothing of the forums when asked about them by a voter calling on a radio call-in show. We had a signed receipt for the letter informing him of them. But even worse, he had been at one of the forums two weeks before the radio interview (the only one he attended)! The caller had been there also and was actually asking him why he had not come to the subsequent forum!
The low cost method was to use 30 and 60-second radio ads on local radio to refute what the voters were receiving in their mailboxes. Local radio ads are surprisingly inexpensive.
As I stated in a previous article, the media were more focused on the governor and senate races and so paid no attention to the state races. In addition, two of the three local newspapers, despite claiming neutrality early on, began a concerted overt effort to ignore Judd and promote the incumbent. We issued press releases on Judd's positions on the vandalism against both his outdoor signs and his fund raising activities. We issued press releases announcing the results of neighborhood fund-raisers. We did all the things we could think of and the two newspapers ignored Judd's campaign while publishing all sorts of information on the incumbent's activities. They even published a patently false accusation about Judd's education credentials based on a faxed press release from the incumbent.
The two newspapers assured Judd early on that they would also editorially stay neutral. One week before the election, they both endorsed the incumbent. None of this surprised us because we began the campaign with low expectations from the newspapers.
In the last four weeks of the campaign, we knew we were making progress when local officials and prominent Democrats told us that state Democrat leaders were pressuring them (phone calls, personal visits, and in some cases threats of local funding retaliation) to endorse the incumbent. Some succumbed to this pressure and thus appeared in newspaper and radio ads. Those that stood them down are true stories of profiles in courage. Judd personally thanked many of them.
During this time, Judd continued his excellent skill in meeting voters. He would talk to them of the latest mailers from the incumbent and explain how they were false. He was on local radio call-in shows. He went to every event in the district.
As we approached the last week of the campaign, we knew, however, we had to respond to the mailers in some written form. The newspapers had shut us out. A mailer from Judd would easily be confused with the incumbent's reckless efforts.
We came up with a brainstorm: issue our own newspaper the week before the election: The 47th District Truth Gazette
"The Voter's Source for the Truth".
We designed the one sheet newspaper to answer the incumbent's mailers claims:
Mailer claim: "Fiscal Conservative"
The Truth Gazette: revealed his tax increases votes
Mailer Claim: "Supports education"
The Truth Gazette: The Tennessee education budget declined from 51% to 34% while the incumbent had been in office.
Mailer Claim: "Wants to help people, not pharmaceutical companies"
The Truth Gazette: The incumbent's biggest sources of campaign funds are the drug company PACs.
Mailer Claim: "..is there for the people in the 47th District"
The Truth Gazette: He had only eight campaign contributors from the district. Over $100,000 of his campaign funds came from PACs and state Democrat coffers.
We included humor: a movie advertisement for "The Income Tax that Won't Die!" from "Tax and Spend Pictures"; starring the incumbent (with picture); "Rated X: Not suitable for Tennessee's future."
We delivered over 5000 of these newspapers in the last four days of the campaign using Judd's many brothers and other campaign volunteers.
The incumbent had won his previous re-election bids by taking a 2-1 margin in the early voting totals. We figured if we could cut him down to a 55-45 advantage, Judd had a chance. The first election night totals announced on the radio stated that Judd won the early voting totals! That told me that we were going to win! When the final totals were added up, Judd won 54%-46%. He carried 32 of 34 precincts. He was only one of two GOP challengers that beat a sitting Democrat state representative.
I believe what we did can be replicated in other state races in Tennessee and other states. It takes planning and commitment. Judd and I are not geniuses; we are simply conservative believers that have learned to apply conservative principles in practical terms and explain them in common language. Many of you are the same, so I encourage you to start planning for '04 right now. We are.
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.