Republican Gerald Daugherty has a saying about his hometown of Austin, Texas — “it’s a blueberry in a strawberry patch.”
The incumbent Travis County commissioner knew he faced long odds of winning re-election this fall, in one of the few pure toss-up districts that exist in Texas.
What was once a reliably Republican district when he first ran for office in 2002 has been trending bluer and bluer in recent years. But 2016 was the nightmare scenario for a Republican attempting to defend a seat in a highly educated, upwardly mobile district that saw little to no value in a Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump announces new social media network called 'TRUTH Social' Virginia State Police investigating death threat against McAuliffe Meadows hires former deputy AG to represent him in Jan. 6 probe: report MORE candidacy.
Trump captured just 27.4 percent of the vote in Travis County, underperforming Mitt Romney by almost 9 percent.
Adding to the degree of difficulty was the fact that Texas is one of only 10 states that still allows straight-party balloting, where a voter can cast one vote at the top of the ballot for all candidates in their party of choice without ever reviewing the individual races. This was a problem, not only for Daugherty but for GOP candidates across Texas in marginal districts where polling showed many traditional, straight-party Republicans choosing instead to split their tickets this year.
This environmental circumstance, far beyond the control of local candidates, created a larger-than-normal under vote and reduced the vote share of most Republicans at the bottom of the ballot.
In the Daugherty race, our only path to victory involved the unenviable strategy of appealing to Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonMeghan McCain: 'SNL' parodies made me feel like 'laughing stock of the country' Hill: Trump reelection would spur 'one constitutional crisis after another' Trump defends indicted GOP congressman MORE's voters to split their ticket and vote for a Republican in the second-to-last race on the ballot, and we knew the only way to do that was with messaging that presented Daugherty as a nonpartisan pragmatist, rather than an ideologue.
We could not simply shout louder or attack our opponent, because we were messaging to Democrats, not just Republicans and Independents.
Eventually it was Daugherty’s sometimes-annoying habit of geeking out on the minutia of county government, coupled with a great affinity for “The Office,” which inspired the ad campaign that pushed the limits of traditional political advertising.
The self-deprecating final product highlighted the complex realities of local government, while conveying Daugherty’s competence and commitment to addressing the quality-of-life issues that area residents are concerned with regardless of their party affiliation.
The most difficult task was convincing Daugherty to risk his political career on a counter intuitive strategy — focusing on arguably one of his least-appealing attributes and trying to rebrand it as a strength.
The gamble paid off, and the ad was a hit at home, across the country, and even internationally. With over 9 million views online and features on every broadcast and cable news station, Daugherty’s ad became the first non-national political commercial to ever crack the YouTube Leaderboard.
Most importantly, as we approached the beginning of the early-voting period, our internal polling also showed that it was moving the needle in his district among Clinton voters.
In the final analysis, although Daugherty lost straight-party ballots (a majority of votes cast) by 8.97 percent as we feared, he won the ticket-splitters by 18.22 percent and held on to his seat “in a landslide” by 3.56 percent, while Donald Trump lost the district by 17.98 percent.
Daugherty not only out-polled the top of his ticket by 21.54 percent, there were 3,872 more votes cast in this county commissioner race than for Trump and Clinton combined — a staggering statistic for anyone who has ever worked on a bottom-of-the-ballot race.
On election night, as we celebrated a win for our client and our firm, we watched in amazement at Hillary Clinton’s epic meltdown; wondering out loud if things might have gone differently for her had she taken a page out of the Gerald Daugherty playbook.
Rather than endless attack ads against Trump or half-hearted attempts to make her seem like a charismatic leader, she could have embraced her inner wonk and presented herself as a ridiculously competent person who is obsessed with the details.
You might not want to have a beer with her, but the voters may have felt better voting for her under the simple fact that she would take care of business.
Maybe it wouldn’t have worked, but she couldn’t have done much worse. If we learned anything from this election, it’s that if you present a genuine picture of yourself to the electorate, warts and all, not only will voters forgive your flaws, they may actually love you for them.
Crow is a principal at KC Strategies, a GOP consulting firm based in Austin, Texas, since 2002.
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