Election night earlier this month was, by and large, a tough night for Republicans in states with off-year elections across the country. Virginia was no exception. Republicans not only failed to win a majority in the state Senate, but lost their narrow majority in the House of Delegates.
That said, it wasn’t all bad news for Republican candidates. One of our firm’s notable state legislative races in Virginia was Del. Kim Taylor, who ended up by a margin of 78 votes in a heavily targeted, predominantly urban Biden +11 district after being outspent by her opponent.
[Editor’s note: Democratic challenger Kimberly Pope Adams is requesting a recount in the race and it remains uncalled by the Associated Press.]
There are many variables that factor into election results, and candidate strength is one of the most important. In this regard, we were extremely lucky as Del. Taylor was willing to put in the hard work of knocking thousands of doors and speaking to her constituents.
But in tight races such as these, especially in years where your party is losing close elections across the state, candidate strength alone will not carry the day. Every campaign facet must be firing on all cylinders. This means there must be an efficient and effective ground game, strategic and objective messaging and communications, and a data-driven approach to identifying voters and allocating campaign resources.
From the outset in Taylor’s race, our team understood through modeling data that this district had far and away the most low-propensity (defined here as voters who turn out to vote in less than half of general elections) Republican voters of any district in the state – nearly as many, in fact, as in the next two highest districts combined.
We understood that Del. Taylor’s prospects for winning hinged on reaching these low-propensity voters and on motivating them to turn out to vote. Recognizing also that most GOTV efforts were being directed towards high-propensity voters — who also accounted for the vast majority of early voters — we targeted the lion’s share of our October Election Day GOTV efforts towards these low-propensity voters. Dedicating a six-figure spend to this end, we hit these nearly 14,000 voters over 30 times between mail, texts, live calls, and door-to-door canvassing.
Identifying and targeting the correct dataset aggressively and strategically is imperative in winning tight races, but would be rendered meaningless if the messaging employed to these voters wasn’t correct. In the case of our GOTV messaging, for instance, rather than using standardized, informational language generally encouraging voters to show up to the polls, we utilized data-proven techniques.
Our messages emphasized societal pressure language that, while demonstrated to be effective dating back at least to President Obama’s 2008 campaign, is still woefully underutilized and poorly understood in the consulting industry. As a rule, when voters understand that their neighbors aren’t only counting on their turnout, but will know and be disappointed if they don’t, they will show up to vote.
Moreover, with our broader campaign messaging, we saw early the need to break with the standardized messaging being employed elsewhere and employ our own independent and innovative approach. In Virginia, Democratic campaigns made an apparent and concerted effort to push abortion to the topline of campaign messaging, especially in swing and competitive districts.
For the most part, the Virginia Republican answer to this was to push a 15-week abortion ban to the forefront of campaign conversations in all districts regardless of their respective partisan voter index and demographic makeup. Still, we knew from polling and an instinctual understanding of the district that this wasn’t the correct approach.
In the first, with a candidate such as Del. Taylor, who has an extensive entrepreneurial background and has tangible economic legislative successes in her district, we understand that focusing on economic “pocket-book” and “kitchen-table” messaging would be far more impactful in persuading voters than would attempting to articulate and litigate an abortion position counter to where many of her constituents stand.
Second, when we were confronted with the abortion issue or otherwise made the calculation to discuss it, we didn’t take a defensive stance that led with concessions, but remained on offense and attacked the extremes of the opposing position. It’s a much stronger disposition to meet voters where they are, aggressively assert areas of agreement, and stand firm against the extremes of your opponent’s position.
Additionally, we recognized the potential for the pro-abortion messaging that Democrats were using to result in a deficit for Del. Taylor among women voters in her district. To address and prevent this, we leveraged sound data to aggressively microtarget women who were potential Taylor voters via over-the-top (OTT) advertising and mail, along with a substantial, more broadly targeted cable and broadcast campaign.
For each of these, we implemented data-driven messaging that focused on the issues of concern to in-district women and proactively tackled the abortion issue with the approach described previously.
To that end, for instance, when Del. Taylor was attacked by her opponent for her personal support for a pregnancy resource center and support for bipartisan legislation that protected pregnant women from assault, she stayed on offense and exposed her opponent for opposing providing young pregnant women with resources and for failing to stand for stopping violence against women.
By not unnecessarily centralizing an arbitrary policy that her constituents didn’t, in large part, agree with, Del. Taylor was able to quickly and effectively move forward from negative attacks, maintain control of her narrative, and keep her campaign’s focus on the economic wins and priorities that resonate with and matter to her voters.
Jimmy Keady is the founder of JLK Political Strategies, a nine-person GC shop in Richmond, Va., and a partner at Point1.