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Democratic Governor Jerry Brown won reelection in the Golden State by nearly 20 points, but he lost his legislative supermajority when a $2.1 million independent expenditure helped carry Republican newcomer Catharine Baker to a surprise state legislative victory in the most unlikely of places: the San Francisco Bay Area.
The open seat in California’s 16th Assembly District was considered a long-shot opportunity for a Republican upset. The 32 percent Republican district was represented by a popular term-limited Democrat, Joan Buchanan. President Obama won the district twice by an average of 20 points and Gov. Jerry Brown won reelection in the district by 24 points.
Two political factors provided the backdrop for the Republican upset. First, a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) strike disrupted the lives of voters in this commuter-corridor district. This strike quickly became a political fault line in a bitter intra-Democratic primary battle between centrist Steve Glazer, who opposed the BART strike, and labor-backed Tim Sbranti, a former political chief of the California Teachers Association, who supported it.
The second political factor was labor’s aggressive and divisive $2.4 million primary campaign against Steve Glazer, tying him to tobacco interests. Sbranti emerged from the primary along with Baker, but the BART strike and labor’s divisive attacks on Glazer provided an opening. We saw Catharine Baker, a Berkeley-educated attorney and former congressional aide to Sonny Bono, as the right Republican candidate to take advantage of this opening. Baker is a social moderate, fiscally responsible small business counsel, and a working mother of school-aged twins who volunteers in local schools.
Led by consultants Justin Matheson and Duane Dichiara of Revolvis, the Baker campaign’s pragmatism and focus on district issues—education and banning further BART strikes—helped Baker earn endorsements from local newspapers, including the San Francisco Chronicle. What Baker lacked was the ability on her own to compete financially with the two biggest-spending political powerhouses in California: the California Teachers Association and the SEIU. Sbranti and his allies would spend over $6 million to Baker’s $650,000.
This funding disparity meant Baker needed help, which she received from an independent expenditure campaign that was a combination of $1.8 million from Spirit of Democracy California, a committee whose largest donor was physicist Charles Munger, and $300,000 from the California Chamber of Commerce’s JobsPAC, which had backed Glazer in the primary and was focused on electing a business-friendly ally.
Our firms—Chariot LLC and Red Maverick Media—played leading roles in Spirit of Democracy’s efforts. The strategy and media was led by Chariot LLC, while Red Maverick Media directed the Chamber of Commerce IE mail program. Polling was conducted by Penn Shoen Berland and focus groups by Brenda Gianiny of Axis Research.
Even with the $2.1 million, our campaign to elect Baker would be outspent once labor’s IE weighed in.
We needed a game-changer, so Spirit of Democracy launched a surprise summer blitz to exploit the intra-Democratic primary battle.
A Summer Attack
In order to frame the race before labor’s millions flooded it, Chariot LLC produced a summer multimedia campaign against Sbranti, featuring a 16 page Newsweek-style magazine called “Anatomy of a Smear: how Sacramento’s most powerful special interest punished a Democrat who dared challenge their agenda." The content referenced
newspaper reports, public records, and used explanatory graphics to define former union boss Sbranti as a political bully who “smeared” centrist Democrats.
“Anatomy of a Smear” required a month of research and 29 drafts to produce; it was essentially a research book sent to 170,000 of this highly-educated district’s voters. It was backed by 900,000 voter-targeted pre-roll impressions (via CampaignGrid), a footnoted website, and even a PBS-style documentary video. The strategy was that the timing, length, and breadth of the piece would be a key factor in establishing its credibility and visibility.
The “Anatomy of a Smear” campaign immediately made news. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that it caught the Sbranti campaign off guard.
The surprise summer attack from Spirit of Democracy successfully defined Sbranti and polarized centrist Democrats against him; polling by Penn Shoen Berland completed after the summer blitz showed the race now a dead heat. And survey verbatims from anti-Sbranti voters read directly from the magazine.
The impact was felt right through Election Day. Canvassers hired by the California Chamber of Commerce reported the magazine was a conversation piece that they saw in voters’ living rooms into late October.
Phase II – Fall Mail
Having used the summer blitz to frame the race along the intra-Democratic primary feud’s fault lines, Spirit of Democracy produced a seven-piece contrast mail sequence to nonpartisans and multi-partisan households designed to reintroduce Baker and keep the heat on Sbranti as vote-by-mail voters received their ballots. With just over two weeks to go, another Penn Shoen Berland poll showed the race again tied 43-42. Mixed-party households and independents now favored Baker by 11 points, but Republicans, who were still widely unfamiliar with Baker, had slipped 10 points.
Two additional threats loomed: Jerry Brown was winning by 21 points and had endorsed Sbranti, and Sbranti’s allies were pouring their considerable resources into the race to win late. To survive this onslaught, we needed to both strengthen Baker’s profile among Republicans while simultaneously winning nonpartisans and enough Democrats.
Immediately following the “Anatomy of a Smear” blitz, the independent expenditure team had put a full
benchmark survey into the field that gave the IE their messaging for the fall and clearly identified potential voters who would split their ticket or switch to the Republican candidate.
That polling, and later focus groups by Axis Research, showed that Democratic women and unaffiliated voters were turned off by the message of Sbranti as a union boss who always put the union and the party before the people he served, but that didn’t mean they were ready to vote for a Republican.
One of the critical goals of our campaign was aimed at giving these left-leaning East Bay voters “permission” to actually cast a vote for a Republican candidate. Our aim with the mail was to convey a sense of “permission” to Democratic and nonpartisan voters, highlighting endorsements from the San Francisco Chronicle and the Contra Costa Times, as well as using testimonials from Democratic leaders in the district and across the state. The newspaper endorsements called Baker “moderate,” “pro-choice,” and “centrist,” validating a message that appealed to both Democratic and unaffiliated voters.
We also knew that simply giving voters “permission” to vote for Baker wasn’t enough. We had to continue to show that Sbranti was not the best choice for voters regardless of their party affiliation. For more than 10 consecutive days Red Maverick Media mailed voters a message about education and Sbranti’s record on protecting students. As Penn Shoen Berland’s poll and Axis’ focus groups accurately forecast, the message that “Tim Sbranti is a union boss who protects bad teachers” resonated, especially with Democratic women.
Our messaging also leveraged the landmark Vergara v. California court case, which earlier in the year ruled that teacher tenure, “last in first out,” and other practices in the public school system violate students’ constitutional rights. Sbranti’s union intervened in the case in opposition.
We pulled a number of quotes from the court’s decision for our mailers, and we repeatedly highlighted to Democrats and nonpartisans that Gov. Brown vetoed legislation Sbranti and his union colleagues pushed through the Assembly. Democratic and nonpartisan voters received that message at least four times in the mail in the last week of the campaign. It would soon be reinforced on television.
Upping the Ante with Network Television
While Red Maverick Media’s mail flooded Democrats and nonpartisans, Chariot produced another, 8-piece mail sequence aimed at bolstering Republicans and ID’d, undecided swing voters. Simultaneously, Spirit of Democracy California made the decision to amplify the IE’s swing voter message with 1000 combined points of broadcast, satellite, and cable to win the final, most difficult votes.
Polling showed Democratic and nonpartisan women would be decisive in the tied race. To move these voters, Chariot LLC produced “Children First,” an ad sourcing $55,300 in CTA contributions during Sbranti’s tenure to the four legislators who killed a parent-backed child abuse bill.
Chariot tested four versions of “Children First” using MFour’s mobile research platform. One version earned an 80 percent “much less likely” score from Democratic women: clearly containing the emotional force to move Democratic voters. In anticipation of low turnout, Chariot’s buy focused on news and public affairs programming with pre-roll impressions delivered via both Resonate and CampaignGrid.
A Strong Finish
Baker surged almost 10 points in the final weeks to 51.6 percent, even as district voters reelected Gov. Jerry Brown by 24 points; nearly 1 in 4 Brown voters crossed over to vote for Baker. Chariot’s “Anatomy of a Smear” attack, Red Maverick Media’s relentless “permission-driven” fall mail program, and the emotionally powerful “Children First” closing ad helped frame the race on the intra-Democratic fault lines exposed by the BART strike and the unions’ divisive intra-party primary campaign.
As a testament to the effectiveness of the summer “Anatomy of a Smear” magazine, Sbranti took the unusual step of buying $100,000 in World Series ads in the final days, attacking the magazine and its follow-up mailers
directly on-screen. In the end, Baker actually increased her lead by two points in late ballot counting, while other Republicans across California saw their leads narrow or evaporate.
The San Francisco Chronicle called Baker’s win “a surprise victory” and “an unexpected gift for the GOP, a foothold in the Democrats-only bastion of the Bay Area.” But our strategy didn’t just produce a symbolic win—it was a consequential one that cost Democrats and Gov. Brown their Assembly supermajority, giving California Republicans their signature win in 2014.
Mike Leavitt is a co-founder of Red Maverick Media and former Chief of Staff of the Republican National Committee. James Fisfis founded Chariot Communications after serving three consecutive Republican Leaders in the CA Assembly.