At that stage in the race, it was about celebrating the small victories. A couple weeks before, the campaign’s email system sent out hundreds of emails, all addressed to “Gerry.” Even now, some of Cook’s closest friends sign of their emails to Adam as “Gerry” in eternal memory of the gaffe.
But on this particular Wednesday morning in September, the campaign sent out a fundraising email highlighting Cook’s trip. The “ask” was minimal: “$25, $50, $100 or whatever you may be able to afford.” Soon after, Cook arrived in Charlotte with his manager, Ali Chalupa, and his mother, who would pull double duty as the official photographer.
As a first-time candidate, Cook knew he would need someone with experience, so he coaxed Chalupa out of political retirement. The two actually met on their first day of law school at the University of California-Davis and had stayed in touch over the years. Chalupa was a veteran of the Democratic National Committee and past conventions but stepped away from politics to spend more time with her two kids.
Soon, the energetic Chalupa arrived at the food court and whisked her candidate away on a journey for support. Chalupa navigated the maze of nondescript hallways and ballrooms, connecting Cook with an eclectic group of supporters along the way. First it was James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, then Bel Leong-Hong, a Maryland delegate and Asian American Pacific Islander DNC Caucus Chairman known as “Belkis,” who barely came up to Cook’s elbows.
At the end of one hallway, Chalupa cornered California Rep. Mike Honda (D), introduced him to Cook and confidently asked for a $2,000 contribution. When Honda hesitated, Chalupa endearingly recited his cash-on-hand numbers ($380,000) of the top of her head. The congressman smiled and agreed to help. He followed through a week later with a check.
“Our only limit is time right now,” Chalupa explained.
She knew that contacts made in Charlotte mattered most if they could be quickly translated into campaign cash for the two-month sprint to Election Day. Cook raised over $92,000 through June 30, which seems like a lot of money in almost any situation, but was dwarfed by the $624,000 Wittman raised. Through the second quarter, the congressman had $640,000 in the bank to just $6,000 for Cook.
When Chalupa saw Fox News reporter John Roberts in the hallway questioning attendees about Democrats’ decision to remove the word “God” from the party platform, she assertively nudged her candidate in front of the camera. Cook talked deftly and confidently.
He voiced his disagreement with the decision while weaving in his family background (he is the son and grandson of pastors) and talked about the need to respect all faiths. It was a solid, impromptu answer, which was in stark contrast to national party officials, who stumbled over the issue for more than a day.
“Did you talk about running for Congress?” Chalupa immediately asked Cook after the interview.
The candidate smiled, knowing that he had not. He was still evolving as self-promoter in a role that requires it. But even though most viewers wouldn’t know Cook from Adam, his grandparents were shocked to see their grandson later that night on their favorite channel as they sat 300 miles away. Cook’s conundrum was to get his own party leaders to recognize him. In an interview two levels of the convention center below where Cook was gathering support, former DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen explained the harsh realities of establishment support.
Like any party committee, national strategists are looking for candidates with a strong organization, grassroots support and the ability to raise the resources necessary to win.
“It’s always useful to have a poll that shows it’s working,” Van Hollen added.
Of course the challenge for most candidates is trying to reach those benchmarks without outside help. As Wednesday afternoon dragged on, Cook sat patiently along the wall inside the Veterans and Military Families Council meeting. The program ran long, but once it finally came time for Cook to speak, the normally low-key candidate gave a fiery stump speech. He talked passionately about the lack of veterans in Congress and received an ovation when he talked about the need for reconciliation, all while his mom sat in the front row taking pictures. Cook came of the stage and connected with retired General Claudia Kennedy, now a Democratic activist who party officials recruited to run against Sen. John Warner (R) in 2006 in Virginia.
Chalupa had a brief conversation with Jon Soltz, director of VoteVets, which boasts 220,000 supporters and is the self-proclaimed “voice of America’s 21st Century Patriots.” Soltz’s group finally endorsed Cook the day before the election. In the back of the room, a woman asked Cook to autograph her hard-bound Barack Obama book.
“He’s dynamic, intelligent and dedicated,” said Lisa Fricke about Cook. “He’s a true hero.”
As the mother of a daughter and son-in-law in the military, Fricke could relate to the Virginia Democrat, but of course she was from Nebraska. The next day, Cook got his moment in the national spotlight, but then it was back to Virginia and back to the lonely grind of running in an obscure race.
The Lonely Sprint
The campaign outside of Charlotte was less glorious, but still memorable, including a Veterans Tour featuring General Kennedy in the days before the election. But one of the biggest struggles throughout the campaign was money — specifically the lack of it.
For at least eight months, Cook’s primary function as a congressional candidate was fundraising. With the help of three “callers,” finance staff or interns who would dial the phone numbers, Cook would ask people for money for up to eight hours a day. And it was challenging to persevere with sometimes little return.
“All those weeks and months, to try to go through the same pitch and sound excited over and over again,” Cook said in a post-election interview. “No one can prepare you for that.”
Making 150 calls a day to see a yield of a few hundred dollars was normal. It would have taken Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren (D) two days, on average, to raise the same amount that Cook brought in over the course of the entire election.
“We had sophisticated donors getting a lot of calls,” Cook explained.