A creative mail piece helped a Republican senator keep his seat...
On Dec. 31, 2007, Republican Gov. Haley Barbour appointed U.S. Rep. Roger Wicker to %uFB01ll out the term of retiring U.S. Sen. Trent Lott. In Washington, D.C., Democratic optimism surged at the prospects of regaining the White House and expanding their majorities in the U.S. House and Senate. A struggling GOP became the national narrative among political observers and reporters, and it was in vogue to project that storyline everywhere, including Mississippi.
But Mississippi is a conservative state that had not voted for the national Democratic nominee for president since 1956, except for Georgia’s Jimmy Carter in 1976, and Republicans did not expect to lose the state in 2008. The special Senate election in Mississippi required basic campaigning: blocking and tackling. Consistency can be boring, even scary, for those outside the campaign. But sure and steady won the race.
Republican Wicker defeated his conservative Democratic opponent Ronnie Musgrove—a former governor and lieutenant governor—by a 10-point margin. Here’s how we did it.
Wicker’s campaign launched on message and prospered when it stayed on message. It struggled when it went off message. The positive message: Roger Wicker is the experienced conservative leader with a proven record who will address Mississippi’s priorities and can work with both Republicans and Democrats for practical results.
For the contrast message, the Wicker campaign did not need to de%uFB01ne Musgrove. Musgrove had run statewide three times, each time with a lower percentage of the vote than the previous time. In 2003, Haley Barbour defeated Musgrove in his gubernatorial reelection bid, pushing the message that Musgrove’s four years as governor netted a loss of 37,000 jobs and turned a surplus into a $700 million budget hole.
The Wicker campaign needed to remind voters why they had rejected Musgrove’s failed record—because of his unwise and unpopular decisions as governor, his liberal national Democratic baggage and questions of ethics and integrity. The contrast message: With Ronnie Musgrove’s record of lost jobs and de%uFB01 cit spending, and his connection to liberal and corrupt supporters, he should not represent Mississippi in Washington, D.C.
In his %uFB01rst public speech as senator, Wicker did what Musgrove could not. Wicker ran on his record; voters
had rejected Musgrove’s record four years earlier. Wicker embraced his conservative party; Musgrove’s party would lose Mississippi in 2008. Wicker reached across the aisle; Musgrove had long ago burned any Republican bridges.
Wicker even gave a nod to the de facto leader of the Mississippi Democratic Party, Rep. Bennie Thompson. It is no secret in Mississippi politics that Thompson and Musgrove do not get along. After the election, when asked why Musgrove was not on sample ballots handed out by the Thompson machine in the Democratic vote rich African-American community in Hinds County and the Delta, Thompson told the Associated Press, “I voted for him but that was it. Let’s just say I did as much for him as he did for me. He never publicly endorsed me the eight times I’ve run for Congress and so I don’t feel like I need to publicly endorse him.”
Meanwhile, Musgrove attempted to force a national peg into a Mississippi slot. In his successful statewide campaigns in 1995 and 1999, Musgrove ran to the right of his Republican opponents on social issues. But he launched his 2008 campaign with an attack on D.C. and the immigration and energy policies that Mississippi voters recognized had been promoted by the Democratic majority.
Third-party groups attempting to close the gap for Musgrove only further emphasized the national nature of
his campaign. Citizens for Strength and Security placed a television buy attacking Wicker on social security and trade; but they confused the candidates and plastered Musgrove’s face throughout the criticisms in the spot. They eventually corrected the piece to substitute Wicker’s face, but they had effectively illustrated the national Democrat disconnect.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee ran a radio spot attacking “liberals in Washington” like Roger Wicker who voted for the %uFB01 nancial bailout package. But neither Wicker nor Mississippi’s other Republican senator voted for the bailout. But the bailout was an issue working nationally, and so they tried it in Mississippi, too—even though “liberal” is not a word that would describe Wicker.
Even the Musgrove campaign played national politics. Everywhere, appropriations and the use of earmarks
were being effectively attacked. The press loved the stories. Musgrove’s campaign made that a central attack piece against Wicker, who had served on the House Appropriations Committee. When asked about pork, then-Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi used to say, “Pork is federal spending north of Memphis.” In other words, Mississippians opposed to excessive federal spending can still support investing federal funding in Mississippi jobs.
In fact, Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran served as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Wicker’s predecessor in the House, Rep. Jamie Whitten, served as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Lott’s predecessor, Sen. John C. Stennis, served as Senate Appropriations chairman. The attack failed to resonate with Mississippians, and hurt Musgrove with local of%uFB01cials and business leaders.
In May, the DSSC released a poll conducted by Hamilton Campaigns showing Musgrove leading Wicker 48 percent to 40 percent. Democrats touted this poll, which complemented the national narrative to gain media attention and fundraising opportunities. But digging beneath the spin, the poll—while accurate—was less positive for the Democrats.
Musgrove’s unfavorable numbers were 30 percent while Wicker’s were only 14 percent; Musgrove’s name ID was 95 percent but his elect numbers were below 50 percent. Musgrove had no room to grow. Nearly everyone knew him; and a majority did not plan to vote for him. Meanwhile, Wicker was running only a few points behind Musgrove when 30 percent of voters had not heard of Wicker and another 14 percent had not formulated an opinion of him. Wicker was in a position to shape his identity and message to nearly half of the electorate (44 percent)—many of those voters lived in Republican areas like the Coast and East Mississippi.
Wicker launched a bus tour to hit communities all over the state and outside his own congressional district,
where he enjoyed 98 percent name identi%uFB01 cation. By the time the Democrats began sharing their polling numbers, Wicker’s campaign had already begun to make them obsolete.
The television and media strategy implemented by SSG Media was to introduce Wicker to the areas of the state where he was less known %uFB01rst. Then, as the election approached, to move closer to his home base, effectively pouring television into the state and %uFB01 lling it up from the Coast northward to the Pine Belt, central Mississippi, the Delta and Golden Triangle, and %uFB01nally Tupelo and the expensive Memphis suburbs of Memphis. The campaign went up with 500 points a week in Biloxi (the Coast) in mid-May and never went dark.
Beginning in mid-July, 500 points a week hit Hattiesburg and Jackson; Meridian and Columbus were added in August. In early September the buy increased to 1,000 points a week in all markets that added Greenwood, as well as Memphis cable. On Oct. 1 Memphis was expanded to 1,000 points and the Mississippi vase was full till Election Day. The Wicker campaign spent about $4 million on television contrasted to less than $750,000 by Musgrove, who bene%uFB01ted from more than $6 million in television buys by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Alan Lange, editor of Mississippi’s online political site Y’allPolitics.com reported, “the DSCC is spending $1.3 million more during the last week (that’s $2/second) in a last-minute desperate attempt for the seat. … They have functionally taken over the Musgrove Senate campaign effort.”
The amount of money spent by the DSCC solely on television in Mississippi in 2008 rivaled the amount of
money spent by Musgrove’s entire reelection campaign in 2003, when he was the incumbent governor. The DSCC out-purchased the Wicker campaign in the vote rich but expensive Memphis media market to reach northwest Mississippi. It also made extensive purchases in Louisiana markets to reach rural southwest Mississippi and Alabama markets, so they could reach Gulf Coast and east Mississippi voters not already touched by Mississippi television—these were unprecedented media buys in Mississippi campaigns.
However, the impact on the race, at least in Mississippi, was negligible; it did, though, have some national tactical importance by keeping roughly $2 million in NRSC resources deployed in-state.
Wicker’s congressional campaign account provided a head start in the fundraising race, with $773,560 transferred into the Senate campaign from the beginning. President George W. Bush appeared at a Jackson fundraiser that generated nearly $1 million in one afternoon. With more than 75 fundraisers across the state, plus 6,000 individual contributors, Wicker clearly had the stronger grassroots support.
Scandals involving political associates haunted the Musgrove campaign. Musgrove’s failed 2003 reelection bid reported $95,000 in campaign contributions related to the high-pro%uFB01le controversy of a failed $55 million Mississippi Beef Processors plant. The chief executive of%uFB01cer, the chief operating of%uFB01cer and the executive vice-president of the company hired by the state to build the beef plant all plead guilty for trying to in%uFB02uence Musgrove.
The Sun Herald reported Musgrove testi%uFB01ed before a federal grand jury on the matter earlier that year. Furthermore, trial lawyers, like Dickie Scruggs ($92,000 in contributions plus a $75,000 loan) and Paul Minor ($150,000 in contributions) had been critical to Musgrove’s prior campaigns. Convicted of judicial misconduct, Scruggs and Minor became radioactive to Musgrove’s campaign. Musgrove was never accused of wrongdoing in either the judicial bribery or the beef plant cases, but it was dif%uFB01 cult to raise local money when former donors were going to jail, leaving Musgrove dependant on out-of-state donors.
By the fall, the DSCC was the running the lion’s share of the Musgrove paid media campaign. Earned media broke according to the nature of the candidates. Wicker was the sitting U.S. senator and even without the campaign he was in the news because of hurricane response, federal grants and authoring/supporting/opposing legislation.
Musgrove lacked that luxury and prospered when the press covered the process of the campaign: campaign %uFB01nance law allegations, legal issues regarding the ballot, campaign tactics, the latest public polls. The best-case scenario for Republicans in these process stories was to break even, so the Wicker campaign returned to its messages.
While the Musgrove campaign was chasing left-wing bloggers, the Wicker campaign was organizing county and precinct level captains. While Musgrove courted the press, Wicker would hit several Friday night high school football games. While the Musgrove campaign %uFB01red incendiary e-mails to already persuaded voters, the Wicker campaign mailed 3.1 million mail pieces in a state that has 1.9 million registered voters.
One innovative mail piece hit 30,000 undecided households and opinion leaders north of and including the capital metro area shortly before Nov. 1. Earlier in the year, Musgrove had appeared on the Paul Gallo Show on a statewide FM talk radio network and stumbled through his tightly parsed answers about his con-
nection to the failed beef plant. His response lacked eloquence and credibility, and was reduced to an entertaining 30-second audio %uFB01le inserted into the mail piece to play automatically when the card was opened.
The piece, designed by Jon Coley and Nathan Wells at Winning Edge Communications, cost roughly double the cost of a standard mail piece, but was an immediate hit. Every high school football game and Halloween Party in the area was buzzing with it. Unlike most pieces, which get pitched almost immediately, voters saved the “talking card” and carried it with them to show their friends, making it well worth the extra cost.
Additionally, the content was effective at reminding voters about their dislike of Musgrove from 2003 and got them asking questions regarding his ethics surrounding the beef plant. Musgrove’s campaign had struggled with white conservative Democrats, a major share of which lived in Wicker’s former congressional district.
In September, among white Democrats, Musgrove’s favorability numbers had dropped below 50 and his unfavorability had risen above 30. He was hemorrhaging white conservative Democrats and could not afford the total exodus that would happen if he endorsed Obama or tied himself to the liberal wing
of his party.
Meanwhile, Wicker’s only major drawback in the African-American Democratic community was that he was a Republican. Black leaders like civil rights activist Charles Evers consistently stressed that for Mississippi blacks, the team to support was Obama, Cochran and Wicker. Musgrove could not endorse Obama without offending conservative Democrats, but could not get the black vote he needed unless he did. But as summer closed out, all reliable polls showed Wicker with a small but consistent lead, with a double digit share of the black vote—good for any Republican in Mississippi, but especially in this year.
Black turnout, which traditionally trended toward the Democrats, was the wild card in political predictions, and the key to national perceptions that this was a competitive campaign. Democrats had to do something to change the dynamics.
A few weeks before Election Day, Musgrove began to quietly embrace Obama, although he still would not speak his name in speeches or when asked for whom he was voting. A slate piece produced by the Mississippi Democrat Party featuring Obama, Erik Fleming and Musgrove %uFB01lled mailboxes around the state, with Republicans lamenting they hadn’t contributed to the Democrats so it could be mailed or carried to more homes.
An Obama radio spot endorsing Musgrove ran on African-American radio stations. In the end, Musgrove (45 percent) only outperformed Obama (43 percent) in Mississippi. There was no voter surge; Obama was a drag rather than a lift to Musgrove. Furthermore, exit poll data indicates Wicker earned four times the black vote of McCain in Mississippi.
Despite the state’s conservative history and Republican trends, Wicker’s 10-point victory over Musgrove surprised almost all political observers. The Wicker team itself was pleasantly surprised by the 117,000-vote victory, despite the fact that its internal polls by Glen Bolger at Public Opinion Strategies were spot on in both %uFB01nal tallies and the percentage of black votes.
The special nature of the election was not a factor (party af%uFB01liation is not included on the ballot). There was a 42,000-vote ballot-fatigue drop-off between the presidential race and the regular Senate election between Cochran and Fleming. Only an additional 3,553 votes dropped off to the special Wicker and Musgrove contest. But Obama’s golden turnout was an el Dorado for Musgrove. Had everyone who dropped off from the top of the ticket voted for Musgrove, Wicker still would have won.
All three statewide Republican candidates carried the state. Sen. Thad Cochran won a sixth term with 61.4 percent of the vote and won more votes (766,111) than anyone had ever received in Mississippi. John McCain carried the state with 56.2 percent and Sen. Roger Wicker won with 55.0 percent.
Exit polls show 74 percent of self-described conservatives chose Wicker (compared to 81 percent for Cochran and 78 percent for McCain), but more self-described liberals cast a vote for Wicker (31 percent) than other Republicans (30 percent for Cochran; 22 percent for McCain).
In a year of change and Democratic surges, Wicker had all the drawbacks of incumbency but none of the
advantages. National Democrats poured in resources and state Democrats put up their strongest candidate, but they couldn’t move the numbers. In a time when traditional media is on the decline, new media has yet to ascend in Mississippi and the two air wars canceled each other out, leaving the earned media of a senator and the ground game of a Mississippi campaign to earn a natural win in a conservative state.
Ryan Annison served as deputy campaign manager of Wicker for Senate 2008 and Barbour for Governor 2007. Brian Perry, a partner with Capstone Public Affairs LLC, wrote about the Wicker–Musgrove campaign for his column in the Madison County Journal.
Keeping a Red State Red
A creative mail piece helped a Republican senator keep his seat....
A creative mail piece helped a Republican senator keep his seat...