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.

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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. …

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