It wasn't a miracle, we just decided to take our country back.
Note: This is the story of NH-1 from my perspective, which is not the perspective of perfect truth. But I had a front row seat for history so I wanted to share my experience unfilterd. While the netroots didn't see it happening we were quite literally running a completely people powered grassroots campaign.
I've been scribbling down my memories since election night. This is a long story but I think it is a good one. I'll write another diary sometime to tell you more about the candidate herself.
I am a very lucky person. I met Carol at a DNC/DFA meetup back in November of last year. Previous to this I hadn't been active in politics but I thought maybe the state or some local politicians could use some volunteer work from someone like me with some computer skills.
I remember I was talking to someone and laying out a scenario where Democrats would yet again be out maneuvered by Karl Rove in the 06 midterms. Carol would have none of it! She is so full of optimism and hope. When she told us that she was considering a run for the first district seat I offered her a little help with her website. I figured it wouldn't be much trouble.
I had no idea how sleep deprived I was about to become.
In January I started working with Carol and her campaign manager Sue on developing a look and feel for website. At this time the staff was pretty much the 3 of us. But they had a unique, and as history will note, a brilliant strategy to build a massive grass roots network. It was based on the book "The Tipping Point" by Malcome Gladwell, which is not a book about politics but about how trends spread through culture.
It wasn't long before we started bringing in some help, all volunteers. We didn't have any money, we didn't have much expertise, many thought this was simply a vanity campaign. Carol knew different.
As the only person in the campaign with any computer skills I found myself having a piece of many different aspects of the campaign. I designed all of our materials, printing most of them myself. I did lots of policy research and helped with framing issues. Before it was over I'd be heavily involved in field coordination, voter targeting, managing our volunteer database, communications, fund raising, strategy, and messaging. Mind you a year ago I didn't even know what these things were.
Back to our story, our fund raising efforts hit a brick wall when House Minority Leader Jim Craig threw his hat into the race. He was supported by many key people in the party, got all the union endorsements and the money all went his way. Things were a little bit grim in Camp Carol, until the DCCC endorsed him, then everything changed.
Many NH Democrats, particularly on the seacoast, were angered by the intrusion into our process by the national party. Jim is a very gracious man and a good progressive but, in the view of many not as strong a candidate as Carol. So many viewed the DCCC endorsement as simply them endorsing the candidate with the largest war chest. While that view might be to some degree practical it is morally bankrupt and undermines democracy itself.
Beating back this its-all-about-the-money approach to politics energized out volunteers. This became more than an effort to win one house seat, it became a mission about the democratic process. I know when it was 3:30 am and I had to be up in 4 hours it kept me going the extra mile.
As the primary campaign went forward we picked up more and more supporters and they DID begin to carry the message for Carol. Our campaign was entirely under the radar of everybody. No one took us seriously, which was fine with us. Carol's mantra was "Just because you can't see it, doesn't mean the grass isn't growing".
There were a series of well attended Debates across the district as well as many Democratic events where all the congressional candidates were invited to speak. Carol repeatedly won room after room after room with her message of clarity and hope. And they didn't just want to vote for her... they wanted to help her win.
There was some reason for optimism in the early days due to the fact Carol was the only woman in a 4 way race. 2 of the candidates were lawyers from Manchester, which would dilute the Manchester vote. So long as we worked the district hard in a primary that would be 55% female voters the demographics seemed to be in our favor.
But one of our 4 opponents got caught up in a strange auto accident and he was never able to get the media off his back. Then one of the Manchester candidates dropped out.
At this point I pretty much felt we needed a miracle.
We had a bit of a problem getting our ground game going due to the fact that the State party charges a significant amount of money to access the voter file. We simply didn't have the money... so we did what any bunch of crazy Carol supporters would do - we built our own voter file one town at a time.
Volunteers went town to town getting paper check lists and scribbling down who pulled a Democratic ballot in the 04 state primary. As we would find out later this data was not in the voter file the state sold. This was a gigantic advantage for us as we could target our limited resources solely at the voters we knew would show up in what we knew was going to be a low turnout election. I had the nasty job of taking this information from some 80-90 towns, all in different files, all formatted differently and creating 18,000 mailing labels for our personalized postcard mailing. I didn't sleep that week.
Our postcards, all 18,000 of them, were hand signed by our volunteers in nearly every town in this district. They were mailed locally first class. Our volunteers wrote little notes asking people to support Carol. We let them do their own thing with that. This well targeted personal contact was the only way to combat the slick DCCC style mailings of our opponent. We could only afford one touch via direct mail so we had to make it count.
We did literature drops. (thousands and thousands of pieces of lit printed on my inkjet printer) in the larger towns and we empowered our supporters to do whatever they could in their communities. Ours was a fun campaign to work for. Our volunteers wrote volumes of letters to the editor, all passionate and personal, not from dictated bullet points. Getting my hands in yet one more area I wrote an application to make it easy for them to mail every paper in the district. Not having an office or any physical infrastructure we ran decentralized phone banks by sending out phone lists to individuals so they could make local calls from their homes.
About 2-3 weeks out the thing suddenly tipped. The press went from seeing us as a joke to seeing this as a "two horse race". Suddenly the editorials became very friendly and a few days later we picked up a major news paper endorsement, then another. We were described in the papers as the "Energizer Bunnies" of politics. At least some reporters caught on to the genuine "Mr. Smith goes to Washington" aspect of this campaign.
Most pundits still were pretty sure Craig would beat us comfortably but thought we should be commended for running a good race. On the eve of the election the local pollster said the race was too close to call.
When election day came we had volunteers lined up to hold signs and distribute literature at nearly every polling place. We had a sense we might surprise everyone but not being able to afford a polling firm we just didn't know what election day would bring.
After a long day on our feet we met for our election night celebration at a function room in Portsmouth. Everyone was on cell phones calling volunteers in the field to get the returns in before they were reported on the news. Manchester went strongly in favor of Craig (80% - 20%) so for the rest of the night we waited to see if our efforts would pay off in big wins for us everywhere else.
As the returns came we had a volunteer from that town read the results to the crowd. As expected we were winning big in the Seacoast and the North country. But the margins really just shocked us. We won my home town of Rochester 703-189. We were winning with 75% of the vote or more in places all over the district. I've never been in a room with this kind of energy.
We eventually took the lead but outstanding were 5 towns that I called "swing towns" with large populations. We had counted on these as being natural Craig territory and were just hoping to keep them close. We waited nervously to see if these places would cancel out our gains in the places we were strong and give the election to Craig. Word came in we won Londonderry, at that point I knew we had the election. As it turned out we won all of those towns.
At the end of the night we won every town in the district save for 6. We won the district with a 20 point margin. It was declared the biggest upset in NH history. And by the way it wasn't "too close to call".
Our opponent had a 10-1 money advantage, multiple union endorsements, the big DCCC endorsement, paid DC staffers and some quiet support from the State party (which officially remained neutral). We had a wonderful candidate, an energized grass roots army, a great strategy, and the technical ability to target our efforts better than the professionals. We didn't just outwork them, we out smarted them as well.
And that would be a really great story of people powered politics...except we were about to write a better one.
Part 2: Thanks Jeb
Way back in early February meetings Carol, Sue and I were looking over polling on Jeb Bradley (R-NH1). He had over 50% overall approval rating and unluckily for us a 35% approval rating amongst Democrats. NH Party registration runs a 5% advantage for Republicans. So not only did we need to get most independents and a few republicans to vote for our team...we had to convince 35% of Democrats to change their minds and vote for a Democrat this year. He had beaten his last two Democratic opponents with over 30 point margins. We knew Jeb would be able to raise a million dollars and if that weren't enough he could access his own considerable personal wealth. NH had NEVER sent a woman to congress and this district hadn't sent a Democrat to Washington in some 30 plus years.
And yet Carol knew she would beat him. How can you not love this woman.
The days following our Primary win were a bit chaotic. Bradley hit us with negative attacks in the press 12 hours after we were declared the winner and then he hit us again and again. This lead to nearly 2 weeks of Carol and our brand new communications director trading press releases with camp Bradley. While they did a nice job crafting the releases and counter punching, the press uses their own filters and we were only marginally successful at getting our message out. A time consuming internal debate broke out over fund raising issues. So while this went on our fund raising efforts slowed to a crawl. Because of the flood of communications coming into the campaign we needed to offload a lot of key functions Carol and Sue performed to others but we had some difficulty getting volunteers to step up into more formal (unpaid) rolls. I was swamped trying to setup a new communications infrastructure as our volunteer base had grown much to large to deal with on a ad hoc basis the way we did during the primary.
A general perception began to get around that our campaign went dark. Our volunteer base started to feel antsy. We were much too slow in just putting together a new general election message for the basic tools (palm cards, door hangers) to enable our crew to do their thing. We were slow ordering more yard signs. We were slow getting new ads up on radio and producing quality TV spots. Demands on Carol's time became overwhelming for her and we were much too slow to get her help dealing with phone and email flood. Sue had the same problem. New polls had us down 25 points to the incumbent. A flu started running through the staff taking us each out for several days one by one.
2 bad weeks isn't a big deal in some elections but in NH, the state primary is mid September and we only had a few weeks to take a seat away from a 2 time incumbent with a 50% plus approval rating.
But we turned it around in week 3. Carol named Jim Craig and Bill Shaheen our primary rival and his biggest supporter as our campaign co-chairs. Carol is a big person that way and Billy and Jim were very gracious to accept. They were huge for us in the closing stretch helping us in Manchester.
Despite the fact we weren't that active with our fund raising money arrived in the form of small donations across the district. We now had money to purchase the NHDP voter file and we embarked upon another postcard mailing, this time mailing out 52,000 hand signed locally mailed post cards timed to arrive in voters mail boxes a few days before election day. We had a team of smart and relentless canvassers who went door to door through the district. We had weekly visibilities all over the place some directed by the campaign some coordinated by volunteers on their own. Up north our active crew started placing their own newspaper and radio ads. We had a phone bank of energetic kids at Phillips Exeter Academy making thousands of phone calls. I was cranking out phone and walk lists as fast as I could write the queries.
Carol did her part beating Jeb soundly in a series of debates and giving heartfelt talks to voters in town halls all over the district. At each event we garnered not just more votes but more volunteers to spread the message.
We filmed a couple of simple but elegant TV ads, one featuring Carol's mother (a life long republican who now sees we are on the wrong course) and Carol just talking to the voters. These ads really worked with their simple hopeful message. This clever idea of having her mother in a spot came right from the candidate and our communications director (a film maker) did a great job producing the spots.
Bradley to his credit ran a mostly positive campaign after his attempts to mischaracterize Carol as a crazy lefty didn't seem to resonate in the free press. His "Thank's Jeb" ads showed voters thanking him for "saving the shipyard" and for constituent service work. The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard was put on the BRAC base closure list during his last term and was beaten back by the shipyard union in consort with the representatives from Maine and NH.
So it was pretty nice for us when the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Metal Trades Council had a press conference and endorsed Carol.
Over the course of the general election we got some help Campaigning from Chris Dodd, Mark Warner, and Wesley Clark. All three were terrific. General Clark recorded a radio spot for us which we think helped us with unaffiliated voters. It was about the time of the Wes Clark trip that our field people started to report back that they felt we had "tipped". I became confident we would win.
The last week a poll came out showing us in a statistical tie with Bradley and suddenly this dark horse campaign was on everyones radar.
In the closing days we focused massive door to door efforts in places where Jeane Shaheen lost by less than 15 points to John Sununu in the 02 Senate race. We found the numbers from last 2 house elections weren't helpful to us because our predecessors were beaten so badly all over the district. We used the senate race because Jeanie's race was competitive. So we sent a crew of our best people out with local volunteers to knock on doors in a couple of large towns where we needed to keep the race tight. While our volunteers worked the suburbs Carol was working Manchester hard visiting social clubs, going door to door at businesses on Elm street, meeting with the Alderman, and doing all she could to close the deal.
The last weekend, for the first time in the race Governor Lynch did some campaigning with Carol and made gracious remarks on her behalf. There were times when we felt a little bit slighted by the corner office but in the end his timing was perfect.
Election day once again we had tons of volunteers at the polls, at 5 pm we had 8 people at the polling place I was working holding Carol signs.
After standing outside all day I came home to shower and head to our election night celebration. On my way out the door the phone rang. Great Results from Conway we won big, then it rang again we won Northwood, then we won Seabrook (Democrats don't win Seabrook), then Rye (In Rye they burn Democrats at the stake like witches). I was phoning the info to Carol and we were screaming at each other on the phone. "Hi Dave..... Carol, You won Seabrook! .... I won Seabrook???!... You won SEABROOK! ....Hey guys I won SEABROOK!"
It was all I could do to keep my car on the road.
When I arrived at the party I told Carol based on the towns we were winning that she was going to go to Washington. The way the returns came in on the news the race appeared to tighten and we were even trailing for a time but in fact it was just that numbers we already knew in our strongholds of Portsmouth and Durham hadn't been reported yet. Even as we had a lead the press was still focused on the 2nd district race. I taunted the TV reporter assigned to Carol later that evening.
Me: "So you ended up with the good gig tonight huh?"
Reporter: "Yeah, and I thought this was going to be an early night"
Me: "I know you did, we knew it wouldn't be."
We were up by about 4000 votes and I was running around gathering information on what towns hadn't reported yet when a hush came over the room. Bradley was up on the big TV talking to his supporters. He said the words "I want to congratulate Carol Shea-Porter ..." and the room just erupted for 5 minutes.
There really aren't words to describe the rest or how it felt. I won't bother to try. I'll just say this. We weren't simply a staff, we were a family. Carol's supporters will walk through fire for her and each other. And now that it is over there is a feeling amongst those closest to the campaign that despite all the long hours and tireless work and the frustrating days that we have been given soooo much more than we we could ever return.
This campaign wasn't about money, it was about hope.
Sue, our campaign manager, myself, and Carol after winning the State Democratic Primary in a huge upset.