By Jim Spencer
When Republican Congressman Mark Green of Wisconsin's 8th Congressional District announced that he would run for Governor instead of re-election, most of the political establishment assumed the seat would stay in Republican hands. Only one Democrat had held the seat in over thirty years—and he was a one-termer. Bush won the District by 10 points in 2004 and Republicans had a stellar candidate in the race—Wisconsin House Speaker John Gard.
Our client, Dr. Steve Kagen, was a first-time candidate facing two better-known opponents in a September Democratic primary. To gain name recognition, Kagen went up on TV early. We defined him as a political outsider who wanted to take on the culture of corruption in Washington. Kagen had divested all of his stocks and largely self-funded his campaign to show that nobody owned him. The strategy worked and, by the week of the Sept. 12 primary, Kagen was the clear frontrunner for the Democratic nomination.
Kagen's surge alarmed the Republicans. In the week prior to the primary, they began hitting the doctor with negative mail and TV. After his victory, the RNCC and conservative special interests flooded mailboxes with increasingly vicious and misleading attacks.
They tried to turn Kagen's self-funding into a negative, nicknaming him “Dr. Millionaire” and claiming that he was out of touch with middle-class voters. They called him a “greedy doctor” who sued patients with serious illnesses. They said he refused Medicare patients and that he supported tax increases for middle-class families. Their strategy was to drive Kagen's negatives high enough to make him unelectable.
The attacks were vicious enough to attract national attention. Several Washington-based news organizations highlighted the race as one of the nastiest in the country. Comedy Central's The Daily Show, aired a clip of the “Dr. Millionaire” ad in a segment about negative campaigns. And across the district, people complained about the negative tenor of the campaign.
Our polling showed that the Republican strategy was effective. A benchmark poll taken the days immediately following the primary showed Kagen with a slight lead over Gard. However, a tracking poll two weeks later showed the lead had disappeared and his negative rating was approaching 30%. Most significantly, Kagen was losing among seniors, the largest block of voters.
In the atmosphere of poisoned rhetoric, we had to determine how to go after Gard without our message getting lost in the din of negativity. We turned to humor, believing that we could sharpen the contrast while softening the blow.
Gard's record provided plenty of ammunition. Our job was to take serious matters and make them humorous. In the legislature, Gard had several brushes with ethics violations and was close to several Republicans who went jail for corruption. In fact, he had become Speaker of the House after a scandal forced his friend and mentor to resign the position. He was also known as a fierce fundraiser who was close to lobbyists and special interests.
But before we began to define Gard, we used a mailer to deflect the criticism of Kagen, calling into question Gard's credibility. In a piece that mirrored a TV spot we had up, we used Pinocchio with a growing nose to cast doubt on Gard's claims regarding Kagen. When the mailer hit, the Gard campaign squealed complaining that the piece and the ad were unfair. We knew we had drawn blood.
We followed with a series of pieces highlighting Gard's ethically challenged record. The first piece out of the gate was an oversized postcard called “Fox in the Henhouse.” The front of the piece had a fox sitting on the Capital lawn with feathers flying around its head. The back had a scared chicken, that seemed to be running from the fox on the front. The back headline read “Sending a corrupt politician to a corrupt Congress? Bad idea.”
The second piece was a take-off on a Right Guard ad and included a stick of deodorant called “Right Gard” with the headline “John Gard: Covering up the smell of scandal.” The back told the story of Gard's ethical problems and shady associations.
The third piece in the run was a parody of a Monopoly game called Pay-to-play and superimposed John Gard's head onto that of Mr. Moneybags. On the back the headline read “In John Gard's political game, only money matters.” Chance and Community Chest cards highlighted Gard's relationships with special interests.
The final piece in the series was not as humorous but was a comparison. Called “Scandal Timeline,” the piece used foreboding graphics to say that the corruption in Congress was too much temptation for an already tainted state politician. A tri-fold, the inside spread offered Kagen as an alternative who could fix Washington.
The pieces were mailed in rapid succession. Shortly after the final piece in the run was dropped, we went up with another tracking poll. Kagen had regained his lead among seniors and opened up a small but significant lead overall. When the votes were counted a week later, Kagen won the seat 52% to 48%.
The Kagen-Gard race was one of the most closely watched open seats in the country. Gard entered the race the clear frontrunner for seat that rated “Safe Republican” as little as four months prior to the election. As the race got nasty, we needed a way to keep from offending voters while still drawing a sharp contrast. Humor was our weapon.
We were able to define Gard while making people chuckle. In contrast, Gard's mail was straight nasty. He tried scare tactics to make people concerned about Kagen. With seniors, the humor seemed to win out. Kagen certainly did.
Jim Spencer is a principal at The Campaign Network, a full service
Democratic political consulting and direct mail firm
with offices in Boston and Austin, TX.
For more information, go to www.TheCampaignNetwork.com.