I used to play a lot of Hearts in high school and, if I may say so, I was pretty good. But I always struggled when facing off against my friend Avi because he employed such a bafflingly illogical style. My strategy, after all, was premised on the assumption that my adversaries were logical. I thought a lot about Avi during last year’s U.S. Senate race against Christine O’Donnell. I had the privilege of working with Chris Coons, a man whose political odyssey in 2010 ranged from sitting out the election, to being aggressively recruited by the national Democratic Party to run for U.S. Senate, to being more or less abandoned as destined to drown in the Republican tide, to being—in the words of MSNBC’s Chris Matthews—“one of the luckiest people on planet Earth.”
Before the year’s end, Chris would be sworn into the Senate and provide key votes in the lame-duck session to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and ratify the New START treaty with Russia. While Christine O’Donnell is nothing if not unique, there are some broader lessons that can be drawn from my experience working on the campaign against her.
Lesson #1: Candidates can, to some extent, make their own luck.
While many Democratic candidates launched their campaigns in 2009 when it was unclear that November 2010 would be a debacle for the party, Chris Coons entered the race with his eyes open. Beau Biden, Delaware’s attorney general and the vice president’s son, had been expected to run for Senate, but a week after Scott
Brown’s January 2010 victory in deep blue Massachusetts signaled profound discontent with the Washington Democratic agenda, Beau announced that he would instead run for re-election as attorney general.
Everyone assumed that the Republican nominee would be the most successful vote getter in recent Delaware history: Congressman Mike Castle, who had won thirty consecutive primaries and general elections dating back to 1966. But Chris dove into the race, working hard to raise money and put together a credible campaign. He met with, and impressed, national political handicappers and opinion leaders, but they still predicted he would lose. The conventional wisdom was encapsulated by the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza, who wrote in July, “Coons was one of the best candidates we have met in the cycle so far…. The problem for Coons is that he is running against the well-liked and well-funded…Castle who is, without question, the strongest candidate Republicans could have fielded.”
In his ads, Coons emphasized his record of fiscal responsibility.
The old saying, “The harder I work, the luckier I get,” rang true for Chris. Sure, his odds of winning soared when O’Donnell defeated Castle, but political history is littered with candidates who caught breaks but failed to capitalize on them. Scott McAdams, the Democrat running for U.S. Senate in Alaska in 2010, was thought to have caught a lucky break when incumbent Lisa Murkowski lost the Republican primary; he still ended up in third place. Philadelphia Republican Sam Katz seemed to have caught his break in 2003 when it was revealed that the FBI had planted a bug in the office of his opponent, Democratic Mayor John Street, as part of a corruption investigation; he ended up losing by a broader margin than he had four years earlier.
Chris, by contrast, made his own luck by working like a dog for eight months before the primary, impressing people in Delaware and Washington with his knowledge of the issues and his ability to connect with voters. That groundwork allowed him to move into and maintain the role of frontrunner once O’Donnell toppled Castle. A weaker Democratic candidate might well have inspired the national Republican Party to pour significant resources into the state.
Lesson #2: Small donations can make an oddball candidate viable.
Most non-presidential candidates have a limited ability to attract national attention, but those who can have a tremendously powerful tool. One of the biggest moments of doubt during the campaign was when we learned in October that O’Donnell had raised $3.77 million in just over a month, an enormous sum for a small state like Delaware. What was even more shocking was that $2.6 million had come in the form of unitemized contributions of less than $200 each. In other words, perhaps 26,000 Americans had given O’Donnell approximately $100 apiece. Most candidates don’t get the national attention that make a haul like this possible, and O’Donnell’s national publicity certainly came with a heavy cost in terms of damaged credibility. But she pulled in enough money to give her an opportunity to redefine herself. A candidate with a more credible background would have been in the driver’s seat with such substantial resources.
Lesson #3: When rebutting an attack, be careful not to reinforce the charge.
O’Donnell’s advisors were faced with the tricky challenge of swiftly rebranding someone with hefty negative ratings. But their situation wasn’t hopeless: As noted above, they had an enormous sum of money with which to accomplish this redefinition. It’s understandable that her team felt they had to address some of the controversy over O’Donnell’s previous statements, such as her 1999 remarks on Bill Maher’s television show that she had dabbled in witchcraft in high school. However, their efforts clearly backfired when, at the beginning of her first post-primary ad, they had her speak the words, “I’m not a witch,” while standing in front of a stark black background with smoke wafting up behind her. If nothing else, the memory of Richard Nixon’s infamous “I’m not a crook” line might have given them pause. As it turned out, O’Donnell was indelibly branded as “the witch.”
Our top priority for much of the general election in our paid advertising was to ignore O'Donnell and introduce Chris to the voters as someone more than the
"sane bald buy running against Christine O'Donnell."
Lesson #4: The best candidates keep their sense of humor, even under tremendous pressure.
One of the more amusing moments of the campaign was when ABC talk show host Jimmy Kimmel told his viewers that Chris intended to capitalize on O’Donnell’s notorious opposition to masturbation by highlighting his own strong support for the practice. Kimmel used footage from a video on Chris’s website to make a phony commercial with the tagline, “Chris Coons: Masturbating for Delaware.” I called Chris the next morning and said, “Chris, before you ran, we had a long conversation in which I warned you about the sort of mean and negative things that might be said about you. But never in my wildest dreams did I think you would end up on national television as a spokesman for masturbation, and I suppose I should apologize for my lack of foresight.” Chris laughed it off—and never took himself too seriously as his prospects drifted up and down during the course of the campaign. His good humor was crucial to enduring the pressure of sudden national scrutiny and coming off as a reasonable guy in his highly publicized debates with O’Donnell. Asked by the New York Times about his opponent’s past statements on masturbation, he quipped, “I have eleven-year-old twin boys, and this campaign has allowed us to accelerate awkward conversations.”
Lesson #5: Beware of the conventional wisdom.
After the primary, there was pressure to capitalize on O’Donnell’s myriad vulnerabilities in our television advertising. But the campaign’s astute pollster, Pete Brodnitz, pointed out that defining Christine O’Donnell should not be our top priority. Indeed, our meager ad buy would barely register amid the merciless coverage she was receiving in the press due to self-inflicted errors. For example, when she announced a short-lived blackout on national media appearances to focus on local media, the local media skewered her after she refused to speak to them as well. O’Donnell had already defined herself to a large extent, while Chris remained a blank canvas to many Delawareans. Our top priority for much of the general election in our paid advertising was to ignore her and introduce Chris to the voters as someone more than “the sane bald guy running against Christine O’Donnell.”
Still, the fact that we were running against O’Donnell rather than Castle required some adjustment in how we introduced Chris to the general electorate. We started by thinking through what O’Donnell’s strongest play would be and concluded that she might cast herself as Delaware’s Scott Brown, someone who—like her or not—deserved respect for standing up to the elites who were moving Washington in the wrong direction. Her best strategy was to avoid making the race a choice of personalities and instead link Coons to Washington and make it a referendum on the Obama administration.
In our anticipated run against nine-term Congressman Castle, our plan had been to run explicitly as the anti-Washington candidate. One of the strongest pieces of advice that I and my colleague, Doc Sweitzer, gave to Chris the day after the Republican primary was that he shouldn’t be any less anti-Washington against O’Donnell than he had been against Castle. In other words, there was no need for Chris to accept responsibility for what had been happening in Washington even though he happened to be from the same party that held the presidency and both houses of Congress. Our first television ad, which started airing before the Republican primary, highlighted Chris’s record—as the executive of New Castle, Delaware’s largest county—of cutting government waste, balancing the budget, and preserving the county’s AAA bond rating.
Our first television ad after O’Donnell won the Republican nomination opened with narration designed to cut into her attempts to portray herself as the great outsider:
“The Chris Coons plan to change Washington. End the bailouts. End tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas. Prohibit senators from ever becoming lobbyists.”
Rather than refute O’Donnell’s specific charges, the Coons campaign attacked her credibility with an ad that featured
some of her oddest statements.
The rest of the ad featured Chris talking, partly interview-style to a person sitting next to the camera, partly as voiceover for footage of Chris in action: “If we don’t have a Congress that works for us, then we oughta make a change. We oughta move in a new direction that allows us to have confidence that the people we send to Washington are still part of Delaware, still rooted here, still living here, still connected to us, and still working for us.”
Chris’s comments may seem sterile on the page, but he really sold them with his delivery, perhaps because they were his words, captured as part of a longer “interview.” With his balding features, Chris came across as earnest and respectable, a stark contrast to the far more colorful O’Donnell.
Lesson #6: Adapt to a change in tactics from your opponent.
Later in the campaign, O’Donnell astutely recognized that her attempts to rehabilitate her own image were bearing no fruit. It was a source of mirth in the Coons campaign inner circle—which included Brodnitz, Campaign Manager Christy Gleason, mail guru Andrew Kennedy, and pollster Karl Agne—that every time we polled, we found that O’Donnell had somehow managed to increase her already-staggering negative ratings. In an attempt to halt her slide, O’Donnell opted to disappear from television screens and commence a 100-percent negative campaign slamming Chris as “The Taxman” in which she appeared on-screen only for the disclaimer.
We didn’t have the resources or the time to refute all of her specific charges, so—working with our longtime producer Mark Moskowitz and his talented deputy Naveen Mallikarjuna—we developed an all-purpose response to whatever O’Donnell might throw at us in the final two weeks of the campaign. It started with a female announcer saying, “Christine O’Donnell says a lot of strange things,” and then showed brief snippets of O’Donnell, using her own words to remind voters of her craziest statements: I’m not a witch. Evolution is a myth. Scientific companies are crossbreeding humans and animals and coming up with mice with fully functioning human brains.
Then the announcer said, “Huh?” echoing what most sane voters must have been thinking after being subjected to such a litany of oddness. The announcer continued: “Now she’s attacking Chris Coons. The truth is Coons cut $130 million. Taxes in New Castle County are among the lowest in the region. Unlike Washington, Chris Coons balanced six budgets.”
The point was to remind voters that no matter how angry they might be at Washington, no matter what questions O’Donnell had managed to raise in their minds about
Chris, she was simply an unacceptable alternative, and, given her history of bizarre statements, no one should put much stock in her over-the-top attacks on Chris.
To be sure, this campaign wasn’t won because of our television ads or direct mail or polling, but our aim was to make sure the race never even got close, lest Republican groups like American Crossroads or the NRSC decide to make a significant investment in her candidacy. We didn’t have to be brilliant to win the race. We just had to be good enough not to lose it—and that we managed to do.
J.J. Balaban is a Democratic media strategist with The Campaign Group.