he Cherokee Nation sits on 14 counties in central Oklahoma. About 150,000 Cherokees live in and around those 14 counties and another 150,000 are dispersed all across the globe. Any enrolled Cherokee—18 and older—who has registered with the Nation can vote, regardless of location.
To be considered a Cherokee, one must have an ancestor on the Dawes Rolls—the official rolls of Native American tribe members created in the late 19th Century. Baker is fond of saying that all Cherokees come from one fire. But there are family rivalries that date to well before Oklahoma became a state.
The results of our baseline poll were daunting—Smith’s approval rating was 67 percent and his reelect was 53 percent, most of which was very solid. The first horserace question had Smith leading Baker 52 percent to 10 percent, and more than 65 percent of Cherokee voters thought the Nation was moving in the right direction. Given those numbers as a starting point, I’d usually advise a challenger to save his time and money, but in this case our goal was to surprise the establishment with modern tactics and a message-driven campaign. So we pressed forward.
Given the early polling, we knew that our message would have to be spot on to work. And we had to admit that things were going well or risk losing credibility. Our message required some nuance: “Taking the Nation from Good to Great.”
The initial poll showed jobs was the number one issue followed by healthcare, despite the fact that Cherokees in all of Oklahoma’s 14 counties essentially received free healthcare already. We pledged to spend more on healthcare, adding coverage for dentures and eyeglasses, which the current health plan did not provide and Smith had previously vetoed. When it came for how to pay for the added expense, we seized on a tried and true symbol of excess and privilege—a private plane owned by the Cherokee Nation.
The business wing of the Nation—Cherokee Nation Business—owned a King Air twin prop plane that was used often by Smith for business, and for some pleasure. We found that 53 percent of people were “very concerned” the Nation was spending money on a private plane, and 23 percent were “somewhat concerned.” We knew it was a potential winning issue.
Following a couple of bio pieces we mailed to voters introducing them to Baker and his business and family background, we started hammering folks with mailers demanding the plane be sold and the proceeds distributed to health clinics.
We followed it with an effort to identify and contact every Cherokee voter we could find, no matter where in the United States they lived. Jameson’s firm started working the phones to do just that. A Facebook ad campaign brought some 2,000 people to our campaign page, and we hit Smith with a web video demanding the plane be grounded.
But even after the start of a solid outreach effort, anchored by a message we were confident would help bring Smith back down to earth, the incumbent still wasn’t taking us seriously. He had his tribal employees respond to the attacks with lengthy and poorly crafted mail pieces and newspaper ads.
By the time our next poll came back, we saw progress. Smith was leading 45 percent to 25 percent. In a matter of weeks, we had managed to grow by 15 percentage points, while Smith had dropped by six points. Most importantly, he was a well-known incumbent under 50 percent and we managed to bring his job approval down from 64 percent to 56 percent.
It was a great early indicator. It was also telling that a percentage of people believe he was doing a good job, but were not saying they would vote for him. To us, it was a clear sign that he had a personality problem with many in the Cherokee Nation.
Following the second poll, we saw an indication that we needed to shift focus a bit. We began running two campaigns—one directed at those in the 14 counties encircling Tahlequah, and a second to all “outlanders,” or out-of-state voters. Understandably, the jobs issue didn’t quite resonate as much with voters out of state, so we tweaked the message. To the outlanders, our message essentially became a question: Can you name one thing Chad Smith has done for your family? We then promised to beef up the Nation’s college scholarship program so any Cherokee could earn a college degree.