T.Wall’s Tales from the Trail, Part 3: The Start-Up Process

Many people have asked me the following question: What was it like to run a campaign? Well, it’s a lot like starting a business from scratch.

Before hiring anyone in the fall of 2009, I consulted with a few close advisors, and hired a firm to conduct a background check on myself to see what kind of "dirt" they could dig up. Interestingly, since there was no real dirt, they surprised me by coming back with reports of how lawful events could be twisted into political lies. Case in point; I earned tax credits and depreciation for creating jobs and investing in new construction, thereby reducing my tax liability. We predicted that my opponent would twist this into a message of "Wall doesn’t pay taxes." (Note to Mr. Feingold: My businesses and I personally pay more in taxes each year then you’ll pay in a lifetime!)

On this issue, I called their bluff and released three years’ tax returns to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, along with a letter from my accountant. A funny thing then happened … they dropped the issue. (Lesson #1: lies are never corrected; the best you can hope for the media to simply drop the issue.)

Lesson #2: the mass media doesn’t control and can’t filter the news anymore. I consistently found that the Internet bloggers and political websites had news faster and in more detail.

The next step last November was to interview possible campaign staff. My first experience interviewing a possible campaign manager would foreshadow the future. One of the managers I was considering actually went around to my other vendors and employees (when I wasn’t around) and very quickly stirred up a hornet’s nest telling them that I couldn’t win unless I hired him! All of the sudden, reports came in from all sectors; I must hire this guy. I was doing everything wrong, they said. But my employees reported a different side of this guy; he told them they all would be fired once he was manager (hoping to prompt them to quit, I suppose). His campaign to get my vendors to coerce me into hiring him didn’t work, and I dropped him like a hot potato! No point in hiring a cancer.

Having learned my lesson, I then took a different approach. I hired mostly non-political campaign employees that didn’t have an axe to grind, and a manager who didn’t have an ego that I would have to massage. The result: a campaign team that played well together in the sandbox and that executed well.

Then came the process of hiring consultants for creating messaging, radio and TV spots, and the like. I found that the best ones get hired fast and the leftovers are leftovers for a reason. Amazingly, I found that most of the consultants really didn’t understand what was going on in this state. They didn’t understand the economy’s impact on businesses, and they did not understand the real impact of the Tea Party movement. The consultants in Washington really were out of touch back in 2009, and most certainly didn’t want to listen to me, a political novice, tell them what was happening on the street.

I found that the professional political class operates in complete isolation from the real world. They never get out and meet the voters; they don’t know what is going on in the business world, and they only talk to each other — in a circle. They also thrive on rumors, almost like sharks circling chummed up waters. Getting tangible results doesn’t even show up on their radar; they believe that so long as a political blog prints it, it means something was accomplished!

Next, we wrote a business plan, breaking the campaign into four stages; start-up, lead up to the convention, lead up to the primary, and the general election campaign in the final six-week push.

Now mind you, all the above activity took place at hyper speed in the space of three months!

The one overriding theme that I would say summed up the first few months of the campaign was this: when I entered the race for the U.S. Senate back in October of 2009, everyone (and I do mean, everyone) believed that Russ Feingold could not be beat. My biggest battle was simply to get people to take me seriously as someone who could beat Feingold. It wasn’t until May, when polling showed me actually beating Feingold, that the professional political class finally started to take the race seriously.

What did surprise me were the attacks Feingold and his operatives at One Wisconsin Now launched against me, starting two weeks before I even became a candidate. I thought they would hold back their ammunition and pull the trigger closer to the election, but I guess their strategy is to try to take out each opponent one at a time as their heads pop up.

The Democrats have one big advantage in this state over the Republicans. They have full-time political attack allies like One Wisconsin Now, funded in part with donations through a George Soros controlled entity. I survived those attacks, only to end up with arrows in my back from my own side!

The one big disappointment is the lack of real help from any of the existing elected Republican office holders. I found that they don’t want to commit to assisting any one candidate for fear they pick the wrong one. Understandable, but the Dems go all out to help their candidates, while on the Republican side we let our candidates flounder on their own; it’s sort of sink or swim on our side. And that means you’re alone, and when this approach is combined with the second latest primary in the country, with only six weeks between the primary and the general election, it means that candidates don’t have the support structure in place once the primary is over and there isn’t time to build it in order to win the race.

There are only two (honest) ways to run a campaign; micro and macro. I call Walker’s grassroots efforts micro, because he is meeting people one by one, on a micro level. Feingold got elected using this approach, what I call hand-to-hand combat (i.e. shaking hands across the state). I observed early on that the only way to beat Feingold was with a similar approach. In contrast, Johnson is running a macro campaign. In other words, he is mostly running TV and radio commercials, not getting out there and shaking tens of thousands of hands like I did. (Exhibit 1: One friend told me of how Johnson showed up almost an hour late to his own important June fundraiser in Dane County, saying a few words, and then leaving without taking time to meet and thank each person in the room. He also cancelled a number of forums in other parts of the state in which he could have met other voters.)

Both approaches to campaigning can work successfully, but they’re different. But I’m not convinced that a macro-level approach can beat Feingold because he is such a "retail politician." The guy still goes around the state in spite of getting beat up at his own listening sessions. The best evidence is, of course, the last three campaigns against Feingold over the last 18 years. The Republicans ran multi-millionaires in all three races with emphasis on TV and radio, but without an equally strong grassroots effort, and in each case that approach lost. So now here we go again, the Republicans are running the same play from the same playbook that cost them three prior elections, except they’re expecting different results!

The best approach to campaigning is the one that Scott Walker just implemented — run a strong grassroots effort initially, and then after you have built the base up, start TV commercials and the like to expand the brand recognition. I admit that there is nothing genius involved here, just hard work.

For more of Terrence Wall’s “Tales from the Trail,” check back next week at “Up Against the Wall,” exclusively on IBMadison.com.

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