Magazine article Politics Magazine

Our Hail Mary Pass: Why We Ran the "Godless" Ad-And What I'd Do Differently

Magazine article Politics Magazine

Our Hail Mary Pass: Why We Ran the "Godless" Ad-And What I'd Do Differently

Article excerpt

In the final week of the 2008 election, Sen. Elizabeth Dole's campaign aired a television ad that would be one of the most controversial of the year. The ad criticized our opponent, Kay Hagan, for attending a fundraising event in her honor at the home of two well-known atheists. One was a founding member of the Godless Americans PAC.

Many in the media, especially on the liberal side, were quick to point to the ad and claim it backfired, costing Dole the election. Nothing could be further from the truth. When a football team is trailing by 7 points and throws a "Hail Mary" on the last play of the game, they don't lose because they failed to complete the play, they lose because they were down 7 points and time was running out.

To get a full picture of the circumstances that led to the "Godless" ad, you have to go back a few months and look at how the race developed.

After the primary in May, the Dole campaign realized just how much trouble it was in. That was when I was brought in to manage the campaign. We also asked Dan McLagan to run our communications shop--he had been through the fire with Rick Lazio's Senate campaign against Hillary Clinton, and Sonny Perdue's 2002 Georgia gubernatorial race. We also hired a top-notch researcher in Andrew Shulman; he is probably the best researcher I have worked with.

We also had an all-star team that made the campaign's final strategic decisions, including the airing of the "Godless" ad. The decision-makers included me, pollster Dave Sackett of the Tarrance Group; Fred Davis and Bill Kenyon of Strategic Perception; Mark Stephens, the former executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee; Ron Butler of Creative Direct; and Brian Nick, Sen. Dole's chief of staff. This was an extremely experienced team that collectively had worked hundreds of political campaigns.

By the time the staff changes were made, however, there were three big strikes against us. The Dole campaign had raised $10 million but only had $3 million on hand. Second, Kay Hagan had gotten a bump from her primary victory and was polling even with Dole. And third, Barack Obama's presidential campaign decided to target North Carolina and focused on registering new Democrat voters. By Election Day the Democrats had added 250,000 more new voters than the Republicans. The make-up of the electorate on Election Day would be 46 percent Democrat and 32 percent Republican.

We decided to run a two-week summer media blitz. We thought that if we could bump up Dole's numbers, maybe we could spark our fundraising--thereby encouraging the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to spend its money on better opportunities in other races. I didn't like the idea, only because the campaign had burned through so much money already and the thought of another million going out the door in the summer horrified me.

The ads were very good and had the desired effect of pushing us out to a 10-point lead. But as we would soon learn, the DSCC had sufficient financial resources to essentially avoid targeting and spend heavily even in races that didn't appear competitive. At the same time, the Obama campaign was opening 40 offices across the state for voter registration and turnout. It would be August before the RNC and John McCain's campaign focused on North Carolina. I don't fault them for that--they, too, had limited resources.

We knew we had three weaknesses. A report by Congress.org had ranked Dole 93rd out of 100 senators in effectiveness. She voted with President Bush more than 90 percent of the time. And during the two-year period when she was chairman of the NRSC, she only traveled to North Carolina a handful of times. "We were particularly concerned about the time spent in the state. In 2002 she was attacked as a carpetbagger, and accused of only returning to North Carolina to win a Senate seat. She overcame those attacks in her first run, but we knew that this was an issue we would be vulnerable on. …

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