Democrat Kathy Hochul began her race to fill the seat of ex-Rep. Chris Lee (R-N.Y.) in an unenviable position: She faced a largely Republican district and a significant disadvantage when it came to resources.

Hochul’s opponents in May’s special election—Republican Jane Corwin and independent businessman Jack Davis—were both willing to self-finance and right-leaning third party groups were ready to add their own financial heft.

From a media standpoint, it was clear message discipline would be critical for Hochul to be heard and that formed the basis of MVAR’s media campaign for a race that turned into a major Democratic upset.

Much of the post-race coverage has credited Corwin’s support for Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget plan as the key variable in Hochul’s victory. But, as with most election post-mortems, that’s an oversimplification. The win wasn’t just about Medicare and voter distaste for Ryan’s plan. It was about a Democrat fighting and ultimately winning a fiscal debate that Republicans dominated in 2010.         

We argue that Hochul’s underdog campaign did more than simply find a way to survive a barrage of negative TV ads in a Republican district. Her five-point victory fundamentally reshaped the narrative for House Democrats heading into the 2012 election cycle when the party will have a shot at taking back the House.

Here’s the story of how she did it.     

The Game Plan: Win the Fiscal Debate

Despite the structural disadvantages for Democrats in New York’s 26th Congressional District, we started with three key assets: Jane Corwin, Jack Davis and our own candidate, Kathy Hochul.  

Hochul proved dynamic in her own right and began with a strong base of support. She already represented about a third of the district as the Erie County Clerk, a region where she boasted strong favorables. Hochul had an independent streak having sparred on local issues with two previous Democratic Governors—Eliot Spitzer and David Paterson. She’d also won praise for efforts to remove two New York state Thruway toll barriers and to make the auto bureau more efficient and customer friendly.  

Then there were our opponents. Corwin, who presented herself as a businesswoman in her media campaign, was also a member of the New York State Assembly—an institution fairly reviled among voters in New York, and something we would be able to hang around her neck.

Davis, who had run three times previously as a Democrat and a fierce opponent of free trade deals, had secured a place on the ballot on the Tea Party line.  Thanks to the electorate’s familiarity with him, early polling showed Davis was pulling support equally from Corwin and Hochul. Davis, however, offered a significant tactical edge since we knew we could use his Tea Party designation to force Corwin to the right on the national budget debate that was unfolding in Washington. After all, New York Republicans had learned their lesson with Dede Scozzafava in the NY-23 special election just two years earlier, and we wanted to use this against them.

Strategically, we as Democrats had learned an important lesson from the 2010 midterms. We needed to engage on the issue that voters cared about: Spending. Yet, unlike 2010 when Democrats were forced to defend expensive legislative initiatives, the ongoing federal budget debate gave us an opportunity for a forward-looking dialogue on fiscal priorities that favored us.

Voters in the 26th district ranked the deficit as one of their top two concerns, and early polling showed they felt Republicans were better suited to address it.  For us, that meant taking the issue head on and defining it on our terms.

We laid out a plan of attack highlighted by three strategic imperatives:

1. Establish Hochul as independent and committed to cutting spending.

2. Question Corwin’s fiscal credentials through the Albany lens.

3. Force Corwin’s hand on supporting the Ryan budget, allowing us to engage in a fiscal dialogue on favorable terms.

Introducing the Candidate Under Fire

Thanks to Corwin’s financial edge, she began her ad campaign three weeks before Hochul and immediately tried to establish the upper hand in the fiscal debate.  Presenting herself as a successful businesswoman who would create jobs and cut spending, Corwin quickly attacked Hochul for raising taxes in Erie County by 45 percent.  

In turn, our first spot, titled “Deserve to Hear,” offered a direct-to-camera response. Hochul dismissed Corwin’s attack as typical of Albany politics and established her own independence and fiscal credentials. She highlighted her fight against Spitzer’s plan to give driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants, Paterson’s plan to require new license plates and her eight-year battle to axe tolls for commuters.   

With Corwin firmly on the attack, our second spot combated another of the Republican’s claims—that Hochul increased spending at the Auto Bureau by 54 percent. The truth was that Homeland Security had required new licenses to visit Canada, which borders the district, and Hochul found a way to get it done while saving taxpayer dollars. With such an easy pushback, we were able to call into question Corwin’s honesty. We then pivoted to hit Corwin for playing politics in Albany by “applauding” Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s budget cuts and then voting against nearly every one of them. 

In connecting the two, we not only cast doubts on the integrity of Corwin and her campaign, we were able to question her commitment to cutting spending.  

Knowing the race was quickly devolving into a negative brawl six weeks out from Election Day, we turned to building Hochul’s favorables. 

Our third spot, titled “Fighter,” ran for over three weeks. Produced with a documentary-like feel, it told the story of Hochul’s eight year fight against Albany to bring down two toll booths that were costing commuters and businesses over $14 million dollars a year. In addition to reinforcing our positive fiscal narrative, it also helped reinforce our strength in Erie County where we needed to over-perform on Election Day.

Our internals showed that during the flight of this ad, Hochul’s favorables went from 41/20 to 45/21 over a period that saw 4,000 gross rating points of negative ads run against her.

Winning the Fiscal Debate on Medicare

With Davis running on the Tea Party line, we knew that Cowin could not alienate the right on the most meaningful litmus test of the new Congress. With this in mind, we spent ten days leading up to the Ryan budget vote hammering Corwin to take a position. Ultimately, she was in a no-win situation. If she opposed the plan she would bleed support from the right. If she took no position, she would be exposed on both sides. And of course, when she finally came out in support of the budget we had her on ending Medicare. 

It was the best testing hit against Corwin by far.  A full 66 percent of voters said her support of Medicare privatization raised major doubts. When coupled with extending more tax cuts to the wealthy, 72 percent of voters had major doubts.

We used Medicare in the context of a fiscal narrative about spending priorities, telling voters, “We have to cut the deficit, but do it the right way.”

Stylistically, we used third-party validation from newspapers to overcome voter skepticism. In our fourth spot, titled “The Right Way,” we took quotes directly from the Wall Street Journal, Buffalo News, Chicago Tribune and St. Petersburg Times to demonstrate she backed a plan that would “essentially end Medicare,” one in which “seniors would have to pay $6,400 more,” and would “cut taxes for wealthy Americans.”

A trickier task was dealing with Davis. A public poll in late April showed a tight race with Corwin leading at 36 percent, followed by Hochul at 31 percent and Davis at 23 percent. Davis was taking 20 percent of Democrats, 24 percent of Republicans and 27 percent of independents. It meant both camps needed to move voters away from him.

Unlike the Corwin camp and other outside groups on the right, which opened up a separate line of attack against Davis on the airwaves, we didn’t have the resources to follow suit. We also did not want to communicate two divergent messages. Instead, our goal was to put Davis and Corwin together on one side of the Medicare budget debate, and place Hochul on the other.

 In our fifth spot, titled “Both,” we hit Corwin on Medicare and Davis for his comments that Social Security benefits may have to be adjusted down, concluding that both would cut benefits for seniors while cutting taxes for the wealthy. Like our previous Medicare spot, we closed with the line, “Kathy Hochul says cut the deficit the right way, protect Social Security and Medicare, but no more tax breaks for multi-millionaires.”

After two weeks of relentlessly hitting Corwin on Medicare, she responded with a little over a week left in the race. Using a Hochul quote that entitlements should be on the table, Corwin asserted that it was Hochul who would cut Medicare and Social Security.  Because we had just earned the endorsements of both major newspapers we saw this as an opportunity to introduce the endorsements while refuting Corwin’s claims using direct quotes from the papers in our sixth spot, titled “Look for Yourself.”

By the final week of the race, there was so much saturation on the airwaves—over 10,000 GRPs—that we believed the only way to cut through the noise was to have Hochul close the campaign speaking directly to camera.

In our final spot, Hochul summed up the race with this: “Let’s get serious about cutting spending. Jane Corwin says she wants to cut the deficit, but in Albany she voted against nearly all of Governor Cuomo’s budget cuts and now she wants to cut Medicare to pay for more tax breaks for multi-millionaires. That’s just partisan politics.”

On Election Day, Hochul pulled the upset, handing the GOP its first meaningful electoral defeat since the party swept its way back into power in the House a year earlier.

Bringing It All Together

Special elections are unique contests. The tighter electorate is more informed than general election voters, and most undecideds stay home. It allows campaigns to shape the electorate and dialogue more than in a regular election. And of course the quality of the candidate is a large driving force. Hochul was one of the finest we have worked with.

We believe, however, that there were four important factors in the media plan executed by MVAR, Global Strategy Group and Mission Control that gave Hochul an edge in this campaign and offer a model for Democratic campaigns fighting similar messaging battles next fall. 

1. We engaged in the fiscal debate: The top concern for Independent voters was spending in Washington, and we did not attempt to change the topic like many campaigns tried in 2010.  Instead, we took this head on, but on our terms. We demonstrated a commitment from Hochul to cut spending and look out for taxpayers, and then used Medicare to demonstrate the difference in priorities. Pointing out that Corwin supported more tax breaks for the wealthy undercut her claim that she was a deficit hawk. Corwin’s vote against most of the Cuomo budget cuts further strengthened our case. In 2012, Democrats cannot shy away from the fiscal debate and Hochul provides a model for how to do this.

2. We focused on credibility: As a Democrat running in a Republican district, Hochul faced additional voter skepticism making the case against the Republican House Budget. In turn, we focused on using outside validation to tell our story, and never overstated our case. In 2012, Democrats have a winning message in Medicare, and the more credibility we state our case, the further it will take us.

3. We effectively used our candidate and responded to attacks: The Siena poll conducted during the final week of the campaign is revealing.  Hochul’s personal standing stood at a respectable 55 percent favorable, 38 percent unfavorable. Corwin, on the other hand, was underwater at 43 percent favorable to 49 percent unfavorable. Most striking is that Hochul’s favorable rating in the Siena poll from three weeks prior stood at 44 percent favorable to 31 percent unfavorable. Despite over $2 million dollars in negative ads being run against her, Hochul raised her favorable rating 11 points. It is not a coincidence that three of our seven ads were responses, and two of them had Hochul carrying all 30 seconds to camera. The bottom line is that there’s no better messenger than the candidate—after all it’s the candidate people are voting for.

4. We told one story and were not distracted by Jack Davis: Our game plan was always to win the fiscal debate. As our arsenal grew, the focus of our attacks shifted from Albany to Medicare, but we bridged together those elements in our final spot. Just as importantly, when we took on Jack Davis, we made it an extension of our message on the Medicare budget battle. This discipline was critical given our vast financial disadvantage. In all campaigns, it’s helpful to remind yourself that if the end does not match up to the beginning, the beginning never happened.

Jon Vogel and Steve Murphy are partners at Murphy Vogel Askew Reilly, a Democratic media firm, and worked with Global Strategy Group and Mission Control on the Hochul campaign.