President Donald Trump’s selection of Congressman Mike Pompeo to be the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Congressman Ryan Zinke to be secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior and Congressman Tom Price to be secretary of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services created three open seats in Kansas, Montana and Georgia respectively. While initially thought to be safe Republican seats, the intensity of the liberal resistance to President Trump put each of these seats in play. With Trump’s national approval ratings dipping below 40 percent, Democrats sought to score political points that would motivate their base, while also establishing a national media narrative that Republican control of the House was in jeopardy.
In this difficult political environment, it was expected that the Democrats would win at least one of these elections, a development that would have encouraged the recruitment of more top-flight Democratic candidates and possibly the retirement of Republican incumbents.
The race to fill Tom Price’s House seat became the nation’s most expensive congressional race ever. Nearly $60 million was spent by both sides to persuade and motivate voters to turn out in a wealthy district in suburban Atlanta.
Thirty-year-old, political novice Jon Ossoff quickly emerged as a darling of the fringe left. President Trump had only carried Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District by less than two points in 2016. This highly-educated, affluent suburban district fit the exact profile of the type of seats that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) felt it needed to win to regain control of the U.S. House of Representatives. “Flip the 6th” became a national rallying point for angry liberals across the country, who in turn flooded the Ossoff campaign with millions of dollars of out-of-state donations. At the time of the last campaign finance report before the June 20 vote, Ossoff had raised a record-breaking $23 million.
Our client, the Congressional Leadership Fund, known as Speaker Ryan’s super PAC, identified the threat early on and called upon FP1 Strategies to begin an integrated advertising offensive to discredit Ossoff.
Our first ad of the special election, The Truth Strikes Back, attacked Ossoff’s character and inexperience. Ossoff had launched his campaign by bragging that he had been a national security staffer on Capitol Hill with a top-level security clearance for five years. There was just one problem: Ossoff had been a part-time, junior aide who was attending Georgetown University during several of the years he was claiming to be an expert on terrorism and national security. Our Star Wars-themed ad, which used footage of Ossoff playing Han Solo in a video with his college drinking buddies, put Ossoff on the defensive out of the gate and led to several damaging news stories and fact checks that would provide the foundation for later advertising by other outside groups undermining Ossoff’s character.
Our second priority in the Georgia special election was to tie Ossoff to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Our polling data showed that Pelosi was significantly more unpopular in the district than Trump. With an unfavorable rating of 58 percent, Pelosi provided a perfect foil to define Ossoff as a liberal who was out of touch with the traditional Republican-bent of the district.
The ad, Yes Man, brought Ossoff and Pelosi together. While our advertising was having its desired effect of driving up Ossoff’s negatives, the massive fundraising edge he had in the first round of voting and the fact that there were 11 other Republican candidates running in the first round of voting created the very real threat that Ossoff would reach 50 percent of the vote, winning the seat outright and avoiding a runoff. Therefore, it became imperative to motivate Republican voters to turnout and ensure that Ossoff would finish under 50 percent. The ad, Extremists, helped drive Republican turnout and resulted in Ossoff falling short of winning a majority during the first round of voting on April 18.
The day after the first round of voting, we received a gift from the San Jose Mercury News. The Bay-Area newspaper had done an analysis that showed Ossoff had raised more contributions from people in the San Francisco area than folks in Georgia. The ads, Thank You, Georgia and Golden Gate, defined Ossoff as a San Francisco liberal in the mold of Pelosi, and became two of the most discussed and celebrated spots of the special election season.
Our polling data also revealed that Ossoff’s support for Pelosi’s military cuts and the Iranian nuclear deal were big hits against him. We went to Georgia to film a commercial with Donna Rowe, a retired U.S. Army Captain and Vietnam War veteran. In the ad, Nurse Donna, Ms. Rowe expressed her misgivings with Ossoff’s resume exaggerations, as well as his reckless and dangerous views on national security.
In an early June poll, we had succeeded in driving up Ossoff’s negatives to the point where he was upside down. However, our polling data showed that Republican Karen Handel was underperforming with moderate Republican and independent women. These voters were most concerned with economic and fiscal issues. For our final television ad, we drew a sharp contrast between Ossoff’s support for Pelosi’s liberal policies putting America $20 trillion in debt and Handel’s fiscally conservative philosophy. The ad, Only, played up the fact that Handel would be the only woman in Congress from Georgia and was successful in cutting into Ossoff’s advantage with women voters.
In addition to our work for the CLF in Georgia, our digital team, through a firewall agreement, directed the digital strategy on the race for the NRCC. Our team managed an $800,000 digital ad budget, the largest digital expenditure for any congressional race in U.S. history.
Our client, Greg Gianforte, had just emerged from a tough gubernatorial campaign in 2016 with an image that had been impacted by millions of dollars in negative advertising. Our initial polling for the special election showed that his unfavorable rating was at 41 percent; almost one to one with his positive rating.
We knew we had to seize the initiative early. While Montana is thought to be a red state, voters in Big Sky Country are independent-minded and have elected Democrats to various statewide offices. In fact, the state is currently represented by a two-term Democratic governor and senator.
Our first ad of the campaign, Montana’s Side, framed the debate and positioned Gianforte as an outsider who would be willing to take on the D.C. establishment.
Our second spot, War on the West, began a campaign-long inoculation strategy to fend off negative attacks that were used successfully against Gianforte during his gubernatorial campaign. Gianforte’s Democratic opponent, Rob Quist, had hired the same consulting firm that re-elected Governor Steve Bullock. We correctly anticipated that they would try to win with the same strategy and were ready at each turn.
Another one of our challenges was to shore up Gianforte’s support with soft Republicans, a key swing voter group in this election. Our polling data showed that these voters were primarily concerned with spending and fiscal issues. Gianforte’s “No Balanced Budget, No Paycheck” proposal was supported by 78 percent of soft Republicans. The spot, Swamp, was geared directly to this key voter group.
We had two objectives in dealing with Rob Quist. We wanted to define him as a Pelosi liberal and we wanted to call into question his character. Spots like Big Hat, Rancher and Threat pushed Quist to the far, unelectable left. We also aggressively drove the message that Gianforte was endorsed by the National Rifle Association (NRA) and that Quist, who supported a national gun registry, was F-rated by the nation’s foremost Second Amendment advocacy organization with ads like Grab.
Because of opposition research that was uncovered, several stories appeared in Montana’s newspapers about Quist’s 16-year trail of unpaid taxes and debts. Ads such as Trail and Big Debt raised serious questions about his fitness for public office.
Once outside groups, namely CLF and the NRCC, fully engaged in the race and we knew our job was to keep Gianforte’s image right side up, ads like Truth, Exposed and Care fended off Quist’s attacks that were financed by $7 million of liberal, out-of-state money.
We closed our television advertising campaign with a spot called Best that touted Gianforte’s endorsements from several prominent Montana newspapers and Clear Choice, which framed issue differences between the two candidates.
We also ran a hard-hitting and aggressive radio campaign to reinforce our message strategy. Spots like Second Amendment and Going are reflective of the effort.
Finally, we used digital advertising in the final stretch of the campaign to turn out conservative Republicans. These voters were particularly interested in national security issues and our advertising featured the threats presented by Kim Jong Un, ISIS and Iran, and spoke directly to them.
Our team ran the digital campaign in the Kansas special election for the NRCC. The singular goal of our effort was turnout. To that end, we integrated offline absentee ballot/early vote (AB/EV) conversion data back into Facebook enabling us to attribute every early vote cast to an ad, ad set and campaign.
For example, if we served an ad to John Doe, and he then went and voted early, that information was tracked back into Facebook, allowing us to see not only the cost of that conversion, but optimize our messaging based on the offline metric.
Overall, we generated 3,745 offline conversions at a cost of $2.93 per conversion. In other words, we generated 3,745 votes at a cost of $2.93 a vote – and this was just the early voting. It does not account for the majority of the votes that were cast on Election Day. When added, the cost per vote based on our reach will likely drop below $1. Our trend-setting digital strategies in Kansas will be duplicated in dozens of battleground races in 2018.