The Best Congressional Campaigns of 2014
As a national Republican wave crested on Election Day, there were several campaigns in both parties that stood out as outstanding operations.
The GOP expanded its House majority and obtained control of the Senate. As a result, more Republican campaigns emerged deserving of the spotlight. But there were also several Democratic operations worthy of recognition.
Roll Call has compiled a list of the cream of the crop of 2014. Many faced long odds, crowded primaries, an unpopular president and millions in targeted attack ads. But through all that and more, these campaigns ably managed the curves of the cycle — and all but one were victorious.
In alphabetical order by candidate, here are the best congressional campaigns of the midterms:
Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo.
There are few members whom national Republicans respect more than Coffman. Redistricting forced him to run in a more competitive district, but Coffman squeaked out a win in 2012. This cycle, he faced one of Democrats’ top recruits, former state Speaker Andrew Romanoff.
Romanoff outraised and outspent Coffman, and the suburban Denver district was on track to be the heavyweight matchup of the cycle. But Coffman defined himself early as a reasonable force within the GOP conference. By mid-October, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee pulled much of its television advertising. Coffman went on to win by 9 points.
National Republicans praised campaign manager Tyler Sandberg’s execution. Campaign sources also pointed to minority outreach, specifically to Asian-Americans, and a sophisticated digital strategy by Targeted Victory.
But the campaign wasn’t afraid to go old-school either. According to sources in the campaign, some of the mail to voters came in the form of hand-addressed envelopes, a rare throwback that emphasized a “personalized touch.”
Sen.-elect Joni Ernst, R-Iowa
Operatives who worked on Ernst’s campaign say much of the credit for her 9-point victory belongs to the candidate. Ernst was originally considered a second- or third-tier prospect, but she turned out to be one of Republicans’ best recruits of the cycle — a personable contender with refined retail skills and a compelling story.
Behind the scenes, her campaign’s timing was impeccable. The first taste most voters got of Ernst was in her “Squeal” ad, where she discussed castrating hogs while growing up on a farm. The spot popped just hours before footage was released of her opponent, Rep. Bruce Braley, insulting popular Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa.
At the time, Ernst’s squeal ad was a necessary stunt: She was low on funds and running behind in a four-way primary. But it captured a phenomenon that propelled her to a huge victory in the primary and, eventually, a Senate seat.
Sen.-elect Cory Gardner, R-Colo.
Gardner’s campaign performed a series of carefully choreographed moves that were impeccably executed: Managing his late entry into the race, clearing the primary field and running a savvy general-election strategy to defeat Sen. Mark Udall.
The team stuck to that plan throughout the campaign, and declined to take the bait on Democrats’ relentless attacks about women’s health issues.
National Republicans are particularly ebullient over the Gardner team’s get-out-the-vote operation. They managed the state’s new and unpredictable mail-in ballot process, going toe-to-toe with Democrats’ vaunted Bannock Street Project — and won. Gardner’s campaign manager, Chris Hansen, took advantage of Democrats’ fondness of talking about the plan. When a February New York Times article laid out the strategy, Hansen said, “we took them very seriously, and we built a plan to compete against it.”
Rep.-elect Gwen Graham, D-Fla.
She was House Democrats’ best recruit of the cycle — a fundraising machine who went on television 20 weeks before Election Day in the 2nd District. Even more to her credit, Graham won the Florida Panhandle in a wave year for Republicans.
Graham had help from her father, former Sen. Bob Graham, in her underdog bid to unseat Republican Rep. Steve Southerland II. But she also had a formidable lieutenant running her campaign, Julia Gill Woodward.
For example, ahead of an early fall debate, the event organizer denied Woodward’s request for reserved seating on the front row. So she asked 28 staffers and volunteers to arrive three hours before the debate doors opened. At the debate, Southerland was forced to stare at an entire front row of Graham loyalists, including Bob Graham and former Florida first lady Adele Graham.
Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C.; Lost Re-election
Hagan’s campaign team had a heavy lift this year and was ultimately unsuccessful. Romney won North Carolina in 2012, and Hagan wasn’t known for rally skills like other southern Democrats. Despite President Barack Obama’s low approval rating and congressional dysfunction dominating the headlines, Hagan’s team, led by campaign manager Preston Elliott, put the focus on local issues — and they kept it there. Don’t like the Senate? The campaign bet it could make voters like the North Carolina legislature even less.
Democrats quickly put Republican Thom Tillis on the defensive through early October, pummeling him with ads about cuts to education spending. By the time Tillis could respond, the narrative had stuck. But in the final weeks of the campaign, Tillis was able to maneuver to offense and pull out a 2-point win.
On Election Day, even Republicans weren’t sure Tillis would pull out a victory — a sign his opponent ran a strong race.
Rep.-elect Evan Jenkins, R-W.Va.
For the first time in at least a decade, Republicans were all-in to take down Rep. Nick J. Rahall II.
Outside spending, plummeting approval ratings for Obama and Rep. Shelley Moore Capito at the top of the ticket helped. But national Republicans pointed to their candidate, state Sen. Evan Jenkins, and his team as running one of the best campaigns on the map.
Their task was to break the 38-year-long bond southern West Virginia voters had with Rahall. To do so, Andy Sere of DMM Media ran an ad campaign that chipped away at Rahall’s credibility, while also flowing with the case that conservative outside groups were making on the airwaves as well.
“The progression of the TV ads that they did was something that was the best that I’ve seen,” a national GOP operative said.
Also notable: Jenkins, a former Democrat, switched parties before declaring his campaign — and managed to avoid a primary.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
The McConnell campaign, run by senior adviser Josh Holmes, led the top target of both the right and left to victories of 25 points in the Republican primary and 15 points in the general.
Despite entering the cycle with less-than-ideal approval ratings, the campaign plan first crafted in February 2011 clearly worked to perfection, even against well-funded challengers.
Tea party-backed Matt Bevin had spent $3.3 million by the end of April, three weeks before the primary, but still managed just 35 percent. Alison Lundergan Grimes was recruited to give Democrats a legitimate contender against the minority leader and benefited from a national onslaught of donations, spending more than $15 million by mid-October.
But McConnell, who turned down help from national Republicans but benefited from a state-based super PAC, had raised nearly $30 million by that point and spent $27.6 million. The writing was on the wall by Oct. 14, when the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee went dark on the airwaves.
Rep.-elect Seth W. Moulton, D-Mass.
Moulton had a dream biography for a candidate — a veteran with a lucrative Rolodex and two Harvard degrees. He didn’t catch momentum until just before the September primary, upsetting Rep. John F. Tierney in the 6th District.
How did Moulton do it? His team, including Mark Mellman and Scott Ferson, ably let the district know they had another option other than the scandal-tarred Tierney. They used local newspaper endorsements, including the Boston Globe, in last-minute campaign ads to show Moulton was better positioned to defeat the eventual GOP nominee, former state Sen. Richard Tisei.
It was an unexpected primary victory, but nearly just as awesome was Moulton’s general-election performance.
His cash depleted after the primary, Moulton went on to defeat Tisei by a whopping 14 points in a cycle that brought brutal losses for Democrats. That margin is even more impressive considering the GOP nominee for governor, Charlie Baker, won this district north of Boston.
The DCCC for Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn.
Nolan faced one of the most-hyped GOP candidates of the cycle: businessman Stewart Mills. But the stubborn House Democrat was unwilling to run a modern campaign operation, so the DCCC swooped in to take control.
Every time Mills looked to have momentum, an anvil from Ivy Street fell on his head.
One of the best examples: On the eve of the game between the beloved Minnesota Vikings and their arch-rival Green Bay Packers, the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party dropped a mailer, in coordination with Nolan’s campaign, hitting Mills on his strong affinity for the Wisconsin team. The DCCC helped push the mailer to make the local news in Duluth, one the district’s biggest media markets — an incredible feat for a piece of direct mail in a House race.
Ads from the DCCC’s independent expenditure arm — created by ad-makers Travis Lowe, Clare Gannon and Mattis Goldman of Three Point Media — were also some of the best of the cycle. They painted the long-haired Mills, whose family owns a successful chain of sporting goods and farm equipment stores in the Midwest, as a trust-fund brat out to protect the rich and hurt the middle class.
Rep.-elect Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y.
Even this cycle, Stefanik’s 22-point victory in an upstate district Obama carried is remarkable. Now also consider where she started.
After recently moving back to the North Country to work for her family’s supply company, Stefanik started her campaign from scratch against a popular and proven Democrat, Rep. Bill Owens, in the late summer of 2013. The former Washington, D.C., operative quickly raised big bucks while she criss-crossed the expansive district, connecting with local party leaders initially caught off-guard by her youth.
When Owens decided not to seek re-election, the race changed drastically. But Stefanik adeptly navigated a primary with the GOP’s former nominee, wealthy attorney Matt Doheny — no small feat in a New York primary. Stefanik later clobbered another deep-pocketed opponent, Democrat Aaron Woolf, in November. Her campaign team, including general consultant Phil Musser, capitalized on Woolf’s many missteps, while she ran a nearly flawless race. Stefanik is now considered one of the most promising Republicans in the Empire State.
Also notable: The 30-year-old developed appealing messaging early in the race that played up her age as “new generation of ideas.” She’s now the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.
Clarification 4:51 p.m.
This story has been updated to include proper attribution for a mail piece in Minnesota’s 8th District.