When Congressman Ted Poe (TX-2) added his name to an unprecedented list of Republican members not seeking re-election in 2018, he left behind a power vacuum in his Houston district that nine candidates quickly sought to fill.
Conventional wisdom said his seat would go to the candidate with the most money and name recognition. Almost immediately, pundits picked Kathaleen Wall, a self-financed Republican donor and Kevin Roberts, a first-term state lawmaker, as the two candidates most likely to make a runoff – if one of them didn’t clinch the nomination outright on Primary Night.
In contrast, Dan Crenshaw, a 33-year old retired Navy SEAL with a Master’s Degree from Harvard who lost an eye when he was wounded in combat, was low on money and even lower on name identification. But he had a story to tell, and – true to his military training – he had a strategy to win.
That strategy focused on finding and reaching likely GOP primary voters to boost his name ID and tell them his unique story, while waging an aggressive grassroots and earned media campaign – all on a shoestring budget. We knew the only way to beat our better-known, better-funded opponents was to run a highly targeted and deeply integrated digital and field operation with a laser focus on efficiency, impact, and persuasion, one voter at a time.
Fortunately, we also knew who those voters were likely to be. Primaries are all about reaching the party base, and by targeting registered voters in CD-2 who had voted in at least two of the previous four Republican primaries or runoffs (2010, 2012, 2014, or 2016) we were able to develop an audience of roughly 100,000 voters who were at least somewhat likely to turn out in the primary.
With our target audience defined, good old-fashioned grassroots organizing tactics and cost-effective tools like Facebook custom audiences and voter-targeted banner and pre-roll advertising helped us run a multi-channel communications offensive to share Dan’s story as widely as possible. In the weeks leading up to the March 6 primary, each of our likely GOP primary voters was contacted at least 20 times with a variety of digital messages.
As Dan himself knocked on doors alongside volunteers to win over new supporters, it was clear our online branding efforts were having the desired effect as a soft introduction to his campaign. Voter-targeted digital ads proved to be a cost effective way to increase the odds that voters were seeing a “familiar face” or hearing a familiar message at the door.
Alongside that canvassing effort, Dan’s campaign worked the phones to secure interviews on Fox News and local conservative talk radio. After each piece ran, we distributed it to our growing list of supporters online – amplifying the impact of the local media hits by sharing them directly with thousands of our target voters who might never have seen the story otherwise.
Even though we could see Dan’s message was resonating we knew there wasn’t enough time to win outright on March 6, but we believed if we could reach enough voters before the primary Dan could at least come in second. Given the additional time, attention, and momentum that would come with making the runoff, we felt confident Dan’s strengths as a candidate would carry him to victory.
Our instincts proved correct. The voters Dan needed were not only interested in his story, they appreciated his personal outreach and were inspired by his desire to continue serving his country. On Primary Night, Dan shocked the political world when he made the runoff – edging Kathaleen Wall by 155 votes out of about 50,000 cast – despite having been outspent by $5.8 million, or more than $463 per vote.
Over the following weeks, as Dan’s campaign continued to gather momentum heading toward the runoff, staff and volunteers were able to knock on thousands more doors and make tens of thousands more phone calls. The data they collected was fed back into our digital targeting to refine our online audiences and make sure we got our voters out to the polls during Early Voting and on May 22nd.
It worked. More than 20,000 voters turned out to cast their runoff ballot for the Navy SEAL who had given his right eye for his country and still wasn’t done serving. On May 22nd, Dan Crenshaw, who had been essentially unknown in his own district, earned nearly 70 percent of the vote – the largest margin of victory for any congressional candidate that night in Texas.
Dan’s dramatic come-from-behind win was one of the largest upsets in Texas politics since Ted Cruz won his senate nomination in 2012, but it was just the latest example of a larger campaign paradigm that’s been shifting across the country since 2010. The candidates with the most money and name ID don’t always win anymore.
Brendan Steinhauser, Partner at Steinhauser Strategies
Josh Eboch, VP of Client Services at VoterTrove