Dan Laughlin was a regular guy straight out of central casting: a contractor who worked with his hands, raised his family, and had never run for office before. Friends urged him to enter the race for Pennsylvania State Senate in Erie’s 49th District. He rounded up the signatures at the last minute and everyone expected him to be his party’s sacrificial lamb against the well-funded first-term incumbent. The district has a heavy Democratic registration edge and the incumbent state senator had a healthy war chest, while Dan had nothing in the bank. Capturing this seat was going to take an aggressive and well-messaged campaign.
It would require earned media for a start, and face-to-face voter contact. But, with local news outlets inclined to do cursory – if any – coverage prior to the final two weeks of the contest, we knew advertising would make the difference.
Absent money, Dan needed to establish his name with voters – and to move the poll numbers enough to tell political funders that he was viable. He sat at a scant 28 percent in the first poll. It was this simple: Dan had one shot and needed to hit the mark.
ENTER COLD SPARK MEDIA.
Dan came to Cold Spark Media because of its reputation as a boutique agency that specialized in insurgent political campaigns. Cold Spark first conducted a deep-dive research project on the incumbent and a poll identifying the issues on which the incumbent was out-of-step with his district.
To increase attention, Cold Spark scheduled several high-profile media events to draw attention to Dan’s rejection of perks and no-receipt “per diem” expenses. We coupled that with press events on the dire financial condition of Erie’s public schools, and added a third event at which Dan proposed solutions to Erie’s abandoned housing problem.
With research in hand, Cold Spark made Dan’s case with Harrisburg leaders who fronted enough money for a two-week advertising campaign. If the numbers moved significantly, they would commit to a fully funded campaign. Dan’s campaign was on the line.
Our team wrote and produced two spots – one introducing Dan to the electorate and a second, attacking the incumbent over one of the issues to which voters reacted most strongly: Pennsylvania’s high tax on motor fuels.
Going negative out of the gate was a risky proposition. Such ads frequently drive down the target’s numbers, but also depress support for the challenger. We kept both ads slightly comical – presenting Dan as a lovable “regular guy” and presenting the incumbent through a slightly slapstick presentation of a stranded motorist.
Two weeks later, a cheer went up in the offices. Laughlin had moved up 27 points in the polls, drawing into a statistical dead heat with the incumbent. The dramatic move shocked Harrisburg Republicans who quickly rallied to the cause and funded a full series of TV spots, supplemented by a heavy rotation of direct mail.
In the end, Laughlin won with a convincing 53.5 percent of the vote, delivering an ostensibly Democratic district to the Republican column and providing a veto-proof majority in the state senate.