The race to head the Cherokee Nation isn’t typically a contest favorable to the use of more traditional campaign techniques—new media, direct mail and phones. So the question for our team upon deciding to take on the challenge of unseating a 12-year incumbent this past year was whether modern campaign tactics could work in a storied and somewhat closed political culture.
The short answer is yes. But it meant breaking 30 years of tight control from an insular group, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, and nine months of focus on a project undertaken on a whim.
The goal was to unseat Cherokee Nation Chief Chad Smith, who was running for another term as head of America’s largest Native American tribe. We knew from the start that it would be no easy task. Smith was an attractive, charismatic politician who understood how to use the mechanism and resources of government to completely control the Cherokee Nation—and to maintain a stranglehold on the tribe’s election process. Previous races against the chief ended in lopsided losses as vendors and insiders contributed the $5,000 max to the incumbent and challengers were left with no avenue for contributions.
The imbalance was easy to understand. As chief, Smith named the tribe’s Supreme Court, the election commission, the attorney general, the secretary of state and the treasurer. The Nation’s Council of the tribe must approve the appointments, but Smith had long ago gained control of that body. In his position, he single-handedly controlled an annual budget approaching $1 billion, nine casinos and a myriad of businesses. Arguably, chief of the Cherokee Nation is a better job than Oklahoma governor.
But this past year, it was a two-term Cherokee councilman named Bill John Baker who decided to take on Smith. He had the ability to self-fund—to the tune of about $200,000—making him the first serious opponent Smith had faced. And the initial decision to assemble a full campaign team proved critical.
Baker had a friend in one-time Oklahoma congressional hopeful Kalyn Free. EMILY’s List had previously backed Free as a challenger to Rep. Dan Boren. She agreed to help Baker and phoned me. We decided to bring on John Jameson of Winning Connections to handle phones and Merv Wampold of Wampold Strategies to develop a direct mail program. Carey Crantford—a pollster out of South Carolina—had experience working with Native American tribes, so we hired him to run a baseline poll. I handled communication and strategy. A rising star named Jonathan Levy was the manager.
Now, I’m a media consultant but buying TV made absolutely no sense from a strategic point of view. In addition to phones and mail, we figured some new media and radio could also work given the environment. Underpinning our game plan was the fact that Baker is smart as a whip and he proved to be one of the few clients I’ve had in my 25 years who completely placed the strategy in the hands of his consultants. He did not second guess us once.