A political operative's nine lives

The recent killing of a campaign manager’s pet is a reminder of the dangers staffers face when races get heated.


In the heat of a campaign, political operatives deal with all sorts of stressful and unusual situations. Sometimes an operative has to deal with something more sinister. On Sunday, for instance, the campaign manager for a Democratic challenger in a congressional race in Arkansas came home to find the family cat dead and the word “liberal” written across the side of its body.

It's an extreme example, but most political operatives will experience some form of disturbing tactics during their careers. 

For me, it happened on my very first race when some perpetrator covered my candidate’s signs with bumper stickers with the words “Mormon Bigot.” More recently, during last year's Wisconsin recall elections tempers were running high on both sides. One of the supporters of our campaign came into the office with her yard sign that had a swastika painted over the name of the candidate and another supporter had a sign with the candidate’s name burned out of it. We soon found dozens of yard signs damaged in the same way. 

In situations like these, it's critical that staffers and operatives handle the problem professionally. As soon as the problem is brought to the attention of the campaign, operatives need to make sure no one on the campaign reacts publicly until you assess the damage and notify the appropriate authorities.

It’s easy to overreact and point fingers, most likely at your opponent’s campaign, without evidence. But these situations almost always create backlash and, for good or bad, will end up benefitting your campaign in the long run. Your opponent will most likely know this, so it doesn’t make sense that his or her campaign would do something too extreme. It’s more likely the work of fringe members of your opponent’s ideology who don’t understand how they're hurting their own candidate.

In Wisconsin, after the authorities were notified of the yard sign vandalism, we took pictures of the damage in case anyone was caught. We put out an email to all of our supporters and volunteers informing them of the incident, asking them to exchange any damaged signs for clean ones and asking that our supporters let any action against the vandals be handled by the authorities.

Thanks to the email, the press contacted us about the damage. We shared the information we had, including the pictures and names of those affected by the vandalism. We did not speculate.   

As a professional operative, it’s your responsibility to help your campaign, volunteers and supporters be above such antics. You help set the tone of your race and everyone benefits by keeping the attention on the issues.

Jen Harrington is a Republican consultant. She works at the Prosper Group with dozens of campaigns across the country to develop strategy, messaging and fundraising.


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