Magazine article Politics Magazine

Winning DeLay's Former Seat: How an Unknown Candidate Built Name Recognition and Drove the Debate

Magazine article Politics Magazine

Winning DeLay's Former Seat: How an Unknown Candidate Built Name Recognition and Drove the Debate

Article excerpt

From the beginning, it was an uphill climb for Pete Olson, a former Naval aviator, member of the Joint Staff in the Pentagon, and Senate staffer who decided to leave his job, return to his childhood home of Texas and offer himself as a choice for voters in the 22nd Congressional District. He had been away from the state for several years, although Texas had always been home to him. With no name recognition and never having held elected office, Olson was running in a year when the Republican brand was at an all-time low. But he always believed in "service above self," as evidenced by his nine years in the Navy, and felt voters would appreciate having an option who was not a longtime politician.


His first move was to gather information and opinion from those he trusted: Sens. Phil Gramm and John Cornyn, both of whom he had worked for. Olson also reached out to Rep. Pete Sessions, who had won a bruising election in 2004 against former Rep. Martin Frost--the match-up occurred after a mid-decade redistricting effort led by former Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Indeed, DeLay had long held the seat Olson was seeking, but stepped down from office after handily winning the 2006 Republican primary. De-Lay's name stayed on the ballot, leaving a wide open path for the Democratic challenger, Rep. Nick Lampson.

The situation was unique: Texas' 22nd District, a solid Republican area, was held by a Democrat who won the general election against a write-in Republican candidate--who at the same time had won a special election to fill the remaining six weeks of DeLay's 2006 term. Even with her write-in status, Shelley Sekula-Gibbs garnered a strong 42 percent of the vote in the 2006 general election against Lampson.

Despite some population changes, the candidate emerging from the 2008 Republican primary could be favored to win, if it was the right person. However, Rep. Lampson was widely regarded as a likable person who worked hard, and changed his voting record to expand his appeal to voters. He had raised a sizable war chest, was supported by a well-funded national party organization, and could rely upon other third-party organizations to develop negative messages about his eventual Republican challenger.

Olson's first challenge, though, was winning the primary. Knowing this, Olson took Sessions' recommendation and reached out to Chris Homan of Marathon Strategic Communications. Homan is a Dallas-based consultant who was Sessions' campaign manager during the 2006 election against Frost--he could build a successful campaign with limited resources.

Initially, 10 people vied to be the Republican candidate--including the former congresswoman, a state representative and four other elected officials. The goal was to emerge from the pack to compete in a two-person run-off.

From the outset, the campaign focused heavily on grassroots outreach: block walking, attending meetings of local civic and political organizations, and reaching out to core constituencies such as Republican clubs, business groups and critical industries across the four-county district. Most importantly, Olson recruited a strong team of volunteers who worked on his behalf, thus leveraging the paid staff time and reducing expenses. Olson constantly reminded his supporters that this was "your" campaign, building an all-important team atmosphere that would deepen over the course of the campaign.

Olson's emphasis on a grassroots, neighbor-to-neighbor effort propelled Team Olson to knock on more than 150,000 doors during the 2008 cycle, hold more than 100 meet-and-greet events and build a network of supporters across the district. Team Olson took nothing for granted. No precinct was ruled out in the primary because conventional wisdom viewed it as "out of reach." Indeed, Olson devoted extra time to areas seen as tougher for his candidacy, making personal and repeated contact with voters.

Another key element in the strategy was message discipline: Know who you are and stick to your message. Olson's values and positions resonated with the Republican district, but he was also ready to acknowledge his party's shortcomings in Washington. On one occasion, Olson knocked on the door of a man who told the Republican candidate how the party had failed. Olson's willingness to recognize the problem and offer a vision for how that could be changed garnered the man's support. Even before the "change" theme gained momentum in the national election, Olson was talking about it locally and offering voters the opportunity to support a candidate who was not a "long-time politician."

While concentrating on building the core Republican support in the primary, Team Olson also reached out to independents, who could vote in Texas' open primary. Running as an unknown against numerous elected officials posed a challenge, but the anti-incumbent mood of the electorate worked in Olson's favor.

As the primary progressed, Olsons momentum grew. With a month left to go, he began to draw fire from four other campaigns--all of whom were past elected officials. While opponents used direct mail pieces to misrepresent Olson's record, and others used their time in front of voters to advance smears, Olson stuck to his message. He addressed the false charges in an aggressive earned media campaign, holding press conferences, making talk radio appearances, and contacting supporters directly through an extensive e-mail and online effort. Each one of these items also included the positive message of Olson's conservative values and positions. With limited resources to compete in the expensive Houston media market, Olson turned to Brad Todd of On Message Inc. to develop a paid media strategy with selectively placed radio and cable buys.

Olson and Sekula-Gibbs both emerged from the primary, with Olson receiving 20.8 percent of the primary vote (11,634 votes), and Sekula-Gibbs 29.8 percent (16,697 votes). They each had a month to make their case to primary voters, the only ones who would be eligible to participate in the run-off Team Olson came out of the gate running, creating a website covering Sekula-Gibbs' record as a Houston City councilwoman and a U.S. congress-woman. While serving the remaining weeks of DeLay's term, Sekula-Gibbs made several highly publicized missteps that caused problems for her both in Washington and in the district. Team Olson highlighted the specific issues in which her record deviated from the Republican voters' values--on key issues such as immigration, fiscal responsibility, national security and good governance.

Team Olson also recruited support from former primary candidates and from Texas' Republican congressional delegation, with a letter of support from 12 members. These endorsements, along with the endorsements of local, city and county officials across the district, helped establish Olson as the front-runner. A targeted direct mail effort led by Partida Associates and phone calls--both paid and volunteer--supported the mail effort.

Olson intensified his block-walking, outreach at meetings, and earned media for the run-off. The day after the primary, Olson challenged his opponent to a public debate--a challenge that went unanswered for almost two weeks. Meanwhile, he reached out to the local press to highlight Sekula-Gibbs' record and advance his policy positions. Once again, paid media was used judiciously, with strategic cable and radio buys.

On April 8, 2008, Pete Olson became the Republican candidate, with a vote of 68.51 percent to 31.48 percent (15,511 votes to 7,125 votes). Team Olsons efforts in all four counties were reflected in this vote, and became the base of the campaign's general election effort. The pattern was repeated again: heavy grassroots emphasis, earned media and messaging, and marshalling of resources to be ready for the post-Labor Day push. However, there were some differences.

First, this was a grudge match for the national parties. The DCCC devoted more than $1 million in support of Lampson, and could have pledged more. Lampson was sitting on an equally large cache, and had not been through a primary and run-off to deplete those resources. Lampson was well-known and liked, but was also running away from his 12-year record in Congress. However, his national party was on the ascendancy, with a presidential candidate that promised to have coattails.

Nevertheless, this was still a Republican district. Lampson could not bring his national party leaders to the district to help raise money or gain earned media. Still, he used the tools available to him as a congressman: franking privileges to communicate with constituents, and town hall meetings to reach audiences in a format that did not necessitate equal time.

Indeed, the mud started flying early, with the DCCC spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on negative television and radio ads, mail pieces and phone calls through most of August. However, the attacks were ineffective since the charges were not quite believable.

Olson stuck to his message, answered the charges and moved on with his game plan. His campaign did not pivot to a defensive position, but side-armed the criticism and kept moving forward. At the same time, a new website was launched,, highlighting Lamp-son's 10-year congressional voting record with sourced citations.

Then came Ike. Category 3 Hurricane Ike hit the Houston area on Sept. 12, 2008, directly impacting the 22nd District and immobilizing America s fourth largest city. As Olson said, "Nobody writes a playbook for a hurricane hitting in the middle of a campaign."


Ike altered the campaign dynamic completely. There was a population change due to evacuees not being able to return to their homes. And the only debate had to be rescheduled due to severe damage in the host facility. Olson immediately suspended his campaign and instructed his volunteers and staff to help with the clean-up and recovery efforts--all were told not to wear campaign identification and instead focus on "helping our neighbors." Olson and his family also volunteered at local aid distribution centers. As power returned to various sections of the district, the campaign began to re-activate. Nevertheless, there would remain portions of the district that would not fully recover in time for Election Day, and the Olson campaign refrained from activities in those areas.

Olson was firmly established as a strong candidate, and had established momentum. By the last two weeks of the campaign, the Olson grassroots army was knocking on tens of thousands of households per week. Direct mail supported earned media; earned media supported in-person appearances; Internet, e-mail and new media reverberated the message and outreach; and well-produced broadcast television advertising directed people back to the communications resources. "We make the information available, document it so it can be double-checked, and let the people of the 22nd District decide for themselves," Olson repeated about the NickDCTricks website.Team Olson successfully made the race a referendum about conservative values and Lampson's record.

"The only poll that matters is the one on Nov. 4," Olson would say. On Election Day, Olson defeated Lampson with 52.42 percent of the vote to Lampson's 45.35 percent, with Libertarian John Weider garnering just over 2 percent. In a record turnout election, Olson earned more than 161,000 votes--more than any Republican congressional candidate or officeholder had ever achieved in the 22nd District.

Amy Goldstein is president of Houston-based Gold Public Affairs. She was Pete Olson's campaign spokesperson.

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