Nuts & Bolts—Inside a Democratic campaign: Calling out a campaign for hitting below the belt

Nuts & Bolts—Inside a Democratic campaign: Calling out a campaign for hitting below the belt

Welcome back to the weekly Nuts & Bolts Guide to small campaigns. We have had an unusual period in the last few weeks, including a U.S. Representative openly publishing a cartoon threatening the life of another elected official. These issues are appalling, and they should make us angry and motivated. These are campaign issues that should be discussed with motivated Democratic voters in your district. 

If you are running against an elected official who voted against censuring officials who make threats, or they are the individuals who make threats, is it fair to bring it up? Absolutely! While Republicans love to equate everyone with “The Squad,” every single elected Republican who doesn’t stand up to Louis Gohmert or Lauren Boebert should be considered in support of the toxic, threatening behavior of members they refuse to admonish.

No, it’s not going to change Republican voters’ minds

Let’s be clear: This strategy will not change the mind of a single firm Republican voter. You can show them a video of their Republican candidate making outrageous threats or demanding that we wait for the government to fail. They will remain unswayed.

The people who are influenced by this issue are Democratic voters who can be motivated as volunteers to understand exactly what a sitting elected stands for—especially if the opponent supported such terrible behavior. The Democratic base is heavily influenced by how fired-up they are. Pointing to implicit or explicit support of threats of violence is important to informing voters, which helps you turn out more voters, activists, volunteers, and monetary support—all vital to keeping your campaign going.

The voters deserve to know who they are voting for on election day

More than one Democratic campaign has told me they have felt queasy about running traditional attack ads. This has changed over the last decade, and it is about time. Republican campaigns have, for a very long time, used targeted negative—often false or misleadingly edited—campaigns to attack Democratic opponents.

Meanwhile, Democratic campaigns have behaved like attorneys: “Does every sentence in this ad hold up in a court of law?” This is not the standard that you are held to in the court of public opinion. It is easy for a Republican elected to say whatever they want, lies or not, and then counter with, “ I didn’t mean it that way,” when the backlash comes.

On the other side, Democratic campaigns say, “Well, see, I don’t know if I want to run negative ads.” I call trash. Democratic campaigns that cower and refuse to spotlight the ill behavior of a Republican elected official or a Republican candidate are just setting their own campaigns up to fail. 

The public deserves to know you and your opponent. You have an obligation to show them who you both are. 

Don’t just take punches

You can get caught in a cycle that leads in a bad direction for your campaign if you are constantly responding to negative and false attacks on your campaign, but you do not do anything to respond.

There are two pieces of advice I like to give:

1. If an attack has truth to it, own it. Own it immediately, and the story ends that day. The press will keep the story alive if you do not do so and you leave them a story to chase. Campaign after campaign has shown that, and it is the quickest way to pull through. If the attack is false, then point it out and document it, but don’t fixate on it. Instead, ask your opponent to take ownership of the false attack. Ask the press to go to the opponent and ask questions: Why make a false claim? Did you think we wouldn’t find out? Why would you lie to your constituents?

I’ve seen one campaign implode because they went on the attack with information that turned out to be completely false. When a newspaper discovered that the attack was false, the sheer sympathy of voters in a local race made the difference.

2. After you’ve managed to turn and pivot an attack ad, think through the process in reverse on your side. Put out truthful information about your opponent. If it is damaging, so be it. Again, the public needs to know, and your campaign has every right to do it. If your opponent doesn’t own it, then stick to it: Why deny something provable? What does that say about their honesty and willingness to disclose to the public who they are in real life?

Don’t let campaigns hit below the belt. Be willing to hit back and refute.

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