For those of us who served in the military, Sun Tzu is probably the most oft-quoted military strategist—and for good reason. The philosophy he laid out in his “Art of War” still dictates much of our military strategy today. It’s something I brought with me when I began my work in politics, specifically when I co-founded VoteVets.org.
Sun Tzu wrote, “One who knows when he can fight and when he cannot fight will be victorious.”
Since 2006, VoteVets.org has helped numerous veterans and progressive Democrats win seats in Congress—Patrick Murphy, Joe Sestak, Tim Walz and Gary Peters, just to name a few.
Additionally, we’ve helped take down a number of sitting members of Congress, who, while saying they were pro-military and pro-veteran, were not. We did so by choosing our battles wisely. There have literally been hundreds of candidates I’ve been incredibly fond of, personally, but VoteVets didn’t spend resources on, because we had to be realistic about where we could and could not wage a winning fight.
I knew in my gut that Tulsi Gabbard in Hawaii was one of the most compelling veterans we ever had the chance to promote. The problem was that she was a nearly 50 point underdog in the polls, and the conventional wisdom in D.C. was that she had no shot.
She was unknown and running against Mufi Hannemann, the former Mayor of Honolulu, who was viewed by some as the establishment candidate. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the conventional wisdom on this one was wrong. Gabbard represented a different kind of candidate. In the past, VoteVets has worked with candidates who served their country, and then entered politics. Tulsi was the first ever legislator in Hawaii—and the first we’ve ever spoken with—to leave elected office and head to war.
As someone who left VoteVets to do my second tour in Iraq, that meant a lot to me personally. She took a strong position opposing the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, which was a marked contrast from other veterans who have approached VoteVets for support.
This was key in Hawaii given that politics is very insular there. Elected officials seem to play a game of musical chairs—a governor runs for mayor, a congressman runs for governor, and in Mufi Hannemann’s case, a mayor runs for Congress. It isn’t very often that Hawaiians have a chance to vote for someone fresh and new. So our thought was that this put Tulsi in a very good position.
Tulsi was already raising money on her own with the little support given to her from outside her personal networks. She was fresh, young, attractive and her service was the real deal. While the topline poll numbers said she had no shot, we decided to take a closer look.
A Bleak Polling Picture
The initial polling wasn’t promising. In a Ward Research poll from early 2012, Hannemann led Tulsi by a whopping 45 points—65 percent to 20 percent. Moreover, Hannemann was well-known and mostly well-liked. In a February poll for Hawaii News Now and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, 59 percent of voters had a favorable opinion of Hannemann.
An internal poll conducted on the Hannemann campaign’s behalf in January found his favorability to be 57 percent and confirmed the 45 percent lead in the ballot.
This is what led most observers to look at the polling and conclude that Tulsi had no shot. After looking at the polls with VoteVets’ pollster Celinda Lake, however, we discovered something. On the surface, Hannemann didn’t look like a weak candidate. But he was very vulnerable and we felt that VoteVets was positioned to hit those cracks in the armor, while raising Tulsi’s profile.
Hannemann had run for Congress before—more than once. In 1986, he lost a general election and in 1990, he didn’t make it past the Democratic primary. Hannemann has taken hits before thanks to his social conservative positions, so we knew that a primary challenger with the backing to take him on could change the dynamic of the race.
We also think VoteVets appeals to certain segments of voters like no one else in the progressive arena. Polling done by Lake Research suggested that our voice goes beyond veterans’ issues and is strong on the economy, too. That’s important at a time when progressives continue to seek a credible voice on those issues. So we can appeal to base progressive voters, swing voters, and can actually cross-pressure conservative voters who might typically support Republican candidates.
We saw that working to our advantage in this contest given that Republican and Independent turnout was expected in opposition to a rail project backed by Hannemann. These voters would become prime targets for VoteVets. And unlike many other progressive messengers, we can have a greater impact when it comes to sharing messages with male voters—particularly white men.