District attorney races were, until recently, sleepy affairs that often did little to excite voters or donors. That’s changing. A multi-million dollar advocacy effort spearheaded by George Soros and liberal allied groups is turning these contests into genuine donnybrooks. At the same time, the tactics that used to win these races must evolve, or the campaigns risk being overwhelmed down the stretch.
Consider Soros’ $1.7 million investment in the high-profile Philadelphia DA’s race, electing defense attorney Larry Krasner in 2017. Counteracting that dollar for dollar for a DA candidate is challenging to say the least. But during my work for Summer Stephan in San Diego County earlier this year, we found a way. It started with targeted educational outreach to local reporters, a strategy other C&E writers have noted through the years.
Now, Stephan was an interim DA when he emerged as a target for Soros. Appointed by the County Board of Supervisors to complete the term of the incumbent who retired early, Stephan had very low name ID with less than a year before the election.
Polling conducted four months before the election had her barely leading deputy public defender Genevieve Jones-Wright 19-15 percent, and very vulnerable to the attacks we expected Soros to use.
Still, our greater challenge was San Diego County’s campaign finance laws, which limit individual contributions to just $800 and prohibit corporate, PAC, and lobbyist contributions. That really shrinks the potential donor pool given rainmakers don’t often see DA races as the typical place to get involved.
The benefit we had was knowing it was coming. We identified a long-term investment from Soros’s Open Society Foundations dedicating $1 million a year to local progressive organizations over at least four years, to organize at the grassroots level. This is in addition to a $50 million grant to the ACLU to help this DA-focused effort nationally.
We studied the other races Soros played in and also interviewed candidates targeted by Soros. The races took on a familiar theme – heavy TV advertising and direct mail, appearing out of nowhere five-six weeks before the election. In some races, there was also an investment in ground operations, if not from Soros, then from groups like the ACLU and Real Justice PAC.
We expected at least $1.5 million in San Diego and thought we could probably raise about $500,000. That’s a difficult resource disadvantage because after overhead, we were left with about $300,000 in actual voter contact. San Diego is the fifth largest county in the U.S. with a population of 3.2 million people, so mail universes are huge and just one mail piece could cost as much as $100,000.
Being so outgunned, our plan was to use paid social media to define Stephan, go on TV and focus advertising exclusively on broadcast and cable news programming to reach the most likely of likely voters. More importantly, we wanted to educate local media on the Soros threat well in advance of his arrival so that they already understood what was happening, rather than rushing to explain when it began.
Many reporters we met with, and even supporters, thought we were paranoid. But when Soros came, we were ready.
Five weeks out, we saw the first solid indication when Soros dropped $1.5 million into the California Safety & Justice PAC. In response, we launched a website, ThreatToSanDiego.com, with two clear CTAs: sign up for emails and donate.
Our TV ads highlighting Soros’ involvement began on the same day as the Soros ads, giving us the opportunity to bracket his messaging. California law requires major donors to be disclosed on the disclaimers so Soros’ name was on every one of his ads. Surprisingly, our February polling showed 40 percent of San Diego voters knew who Soros was and 25 percent of those voters had a negative impression.
But maybe most importantly, we organized a press conference in front of the Hall of Justice with nearly 150 people including prosecutors, law enforcement, activists, victims, survivors, and advocates. The only people who spoke at the press conference—covered extensively by local reporters—were victims and survivors.
Our goal was to taint the Soros money, so that even as he outspent us by five-to-one or more, his message would be dismissed by informed voters.
As the campaign progressed, it got more contentious. Debates and forums became more raucous, and with that came increased local media coverage, providing us further opportunity to get our message out.
Public safety groups began mobilizing, as well, with television and digital advertising supporting Stephan, but still far behind Soros in scale.
Ten days from Election Day, Soros reserved $942,000 in TV ads for the final week — an enormous amount for a market like San Diego. In total, some $2.5 million was invested into Jones-Wright's campaign.
Over the weekend, we rang the alarm with our supporters and scheduled another massive press conference turning out more than 100 people. But that afternoon, Soros cancelled all his advertising leaving Jones-Wright without the massive resource advantage in the closing week. Stephan went on to win 64-36 percent.
Jason Cabel Roe is the founder of Roe Strategic.