Less than a week before this year’s Ohio Democratic primary, a local political analyst on WOSU-TV in Columbus laid out the conventional wisdom in the race for the state’s newly-drawn 3rd Congressional District:
“Mary Jo Kilroy is going to win handily for several reasons,” the analyst opined. “I don’t think it will be close.”
To say the odds were stacked against Democrat Joyce Beatty would be an understatement. Beatty is a former minority leader of the Ohio State House who was serving as Ohio State University’s vice president of outreach when she opted for a primary bid against former Congresswoman Mary Jo Kilroy.
Kilroy began the race as the odds-on favorite. She had 94 percent name ID and high favorability, but our numbers revealed vulnerability right from the start. Though Kilroy was better known, she lacked the depth of connection and personal intensity that voters who knew Joyce had. Indeed, Joyce earned a very strong 68-degree personal feeling thermometer on our zero to 100 scale, yet was identified by just a bare majority of voters—56 percent. Kilroy had almost universal name ID, yet her personal feeling thermometer was a less intense 63 degrees.
In an open-ended exercise among voters asking why they supported Kilroy from the outset, we learned that fully one-third of Kilroy’s supporters were with her simply because they were familiar with the name, and that they were widely open to the right alternative if they could find one.
A poll released seven weeks before the primary had Kilroy defeating Beatty by a whopping 34 points—48 percent to 14 percent. And even though Kilroy was widely expected to win the primary, she had still raised millions and was ready to spend it.
In December, the Beatty campaign quickly assembled a team that included media consultant John Rowley of Fletcher Rowley, pollsters Andrew Myers and Lauren Spangler of Myers Research, campaign manager Greg Beswick and direct mail consultant Achim Bergmann of the Baughman Company.
We knew from the outset that Kilroy’s strength wasn’t our only hurdle. After Beatty entered the race in mid-December, the window to pull off an upset actually shortened: the primary election date was moved from mid-May back to March 6. For an underfunded hopeful who needs to come from more than 30 points behind to win, that’s usually fatal.
A Crowded Field in a New District
When Ohio’s new 3rd District was drawn, there was hope that an African-American candidate would have a fighting chance in a Democratic primary given that African Americans made up 36 percent of the primary electorate. But with two credible African-American candidates in the race—Beatty and Columbus City Councilwoman Priscilla Tyson—this prospect looked bleak. In addition to Beatty, Kilroy, and Tyson, state Rep. Ted Celeste (the brother of former Ohio Gov. Dick Celeste) rounded out a field of well-known and well-liked Democrats.
Yet another challenge was rebuilding Beatty’s political organization. During her time in the state House, Beatty was widely respected for her legislative leadership and for helping Democrats move from a 22-seat minority to a legislative majority. She also hadn’t faced a hotly-contested race in a decade. It meant that Beatty did not have an active campaign organization or even good fundraising and email lists when her Congressional campaign began. Putting the campaign organization together would truly be running a “hurry-up offense.”
What we had going for us was our candidate. Beatty had deep ties to the local community and a strong track record as a legislator. A large portion of her former state House district was part of Ohio’s new 3rd Congressional District. Beatty had also worked in the nonprofit sector, started two small businesses and held a high-profile position at Ohio State. She entered the right race at the right time and we highlighted a message that resonated with key segments of the primary electorate. In all of our campaign communications, Beatty was our messenger. Our baseline poll offered a clear path to making it a tight race with Kilroy.
Despite the fact that Beatty trailed by a substantial margin at the outset, Kilroy lost ground after a balanced and positive message profile, while Beatty gained, leaving the two locked in a statistical dead heat that had Beatty at 36 percent (close to the same share of the vote she received on Election Day).
We were able to close the gap with Kilroy because the environment favored Beatty and her message. The frustration of the electorate was palpable in our polling—voters were tired of the status quo and did not want a candidate who would “go along to get along.”