Winning competitive primary elections for Congress, particularly in open seat races with multiple candidates, is very different from winning a competitive general election race. The policy differences between the candidates are much smaller, and the strategic demands of a multi-candidate field are very different from a one-on-one match-up. Most importantly, voter turnout is very difficult to predict, and the role of strategic research is paramount to identifying a winning coalition and targeting resources effectively.
Every race is different, but in recent years, GBAO is proud to have worked with several successful Democratic candidates across the country, helping them navigate difficult terrain to win fiercely contested primaries and eventually election to the U.S. House of Representatives.
While each of these races had unique demands, we started from the same point in each – working closely with our candidates and their campaign team to craft a message that helped them stand out from the crowd of candidates and speak directly to voters’ concerns. We closely studied the electorate to identify likely voters and develop a strategy for building, and then turning out, our winning coalition.
Our recent success stories include:
- Lori Lightfoot (Chicago Mayor). In her hard-fought 2019 primary, Lightfoot ran as a reform candidate against 13 candidates, many with political pedigree or deep pockets. Few prognosticators gave Lightfoot much of a chance during much of the race. Our research showed that as a progressive and independent former federal prosecutor who had taken on the difficult challenge of reforming Chicago’s police department, Lightfoot was primed to rise through a crowded field full of better known alternatives. Lightfoot’s relentless on-message campaign against the broken Chicago “machine” resulted in a first place finish in the primary and runoff. Lori Lightfoot is the first woman of color and the first openly gay person to lead Chicago.
- Veronica Escobar (TX-16). In 2018, six candidates joined the Democratic primary in the race to replace Beto O’Rourke after he announced his bid for Senate. GBAO advised El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar in her campaign for Congress. Polling showed that women’s issues like equal pay for equal work and preventing health insurance companies from discriminating against women resonated with the Democratic primary electorate. Escobar won the six-way primary with an impressive 61.4% of the vote besting her next closest opponent by thirty-nine points and successfully avoided a primary runoff. She went on to win the November election and become the first Latina to serve in Congress from the state of Texas.
- Collin Allred (TX-32). Two years after Rep. Pete Sessions won re-election unopposed, seven Democrats entered the primary in Texas’ 32nd Congressional District. No candidate started above 20 percent of the vote in primary and Allred trailed the leading candidate by 6 points. Our polling showed that Allred’s best route to victory was rooted in telling his personal story – his Dallas roots and humble beginnings, overcoming long odds to earn a college scholarship, become a civil rights lawyer and serve in the Obama Administration. We deployed a targeted campaign that relied on direct mail and door-to-door canvassing in an expensive media market where our dollars wouldn’t go far enough on TV. With this strategy, Allred won the primary by 20 points before winning a run-off and then the general election.
- Kim Foxx (Cook County, IL State’s Attorney). In her 2016 primary, Foxx began the race mostly unknown but was able to make huge gains in the African American community, among younger voters, and with white liberals, introducing herself as the alternative to an unpopular incumbent who had made questionable decisions as State’s Attorney. Despite facing an onslaught of negative advertising against her, Foxx cut into her opponent’s early lead, drawing national attention. Dedicated to bringing holistic changes and fairness to our criminal justice system and focusing on a restorative rather than punitive approach, Foxx was able to outstrip her opponents and win by an impressive margin. She is the first African American to win the office.
- Pramila Jayapal (WA-7). In 2016, Congressman Joe McDermott’s retirement resulted in a fiercely contested, crowded primary to fill the vacated seat. Building a message around her track record as a strong progressive fighter, Jayapal was able to show that she was the real deal: the candidate who would be the best advocate for women’s rights, fighting for equal pay and protecting Planned Parenthood, and for environmental protection, demanding action on climate change and expanding the clean energy economy. Jayapal started the race trailing the frontrunner by 25 points but surged into the runoff and emerged strong, uniting primary voters to deliver progressives a huge victory in November.
- Katherine Clark (MA-5). In 2014, five strong candidates ran in a special election to replace Ed Markey, who had been elected to the U.S. Senate. GBAO advised then-state Senator Katherine Clark in her campaign. Clark’s campaign spoke to a strong desire in the electorate to stand up to radical Republican attacks on Planned Parenthood, fighting for access to birth control and equal pay for equal work. Derided by the press and many experts for running a narrow campaign, Clark proved that ‘women’s issues’ are in fact family issues. Clark’s campaign performed well in her senate district, but also organized effectively in the parts of the district not represented by any of the other candidates, propelling her to a 10-point victory in the low-turnout primary.
- Brendan Boyle (PA-13). In 2014, Pennsylvania’s 13th Congressional District (Philadelphia, Montgomery County) was an open seat, drawing the attention of several top-tier candidates, including a well-known former member of Congress. GBAO worked with then-state Representative Brendan Boyle, who was not yet well known outside of his legislative district. Early polling had our client more than 30 points behind the leading contender. The son of a transit worker, Boyle focused his message on identifying with and helping the middle class and working families while adhering to a disciplined voter targeting strategy and using a top-notch field program to turn out his base in Northeast Philadelphia. On Election Night, Boyle surprised the pundits with a double-digit victory that put him into the general election, where he won soundly in November.
- Robin Kelly (IL-2). In late 2012, Illinois’ governor called for a special election in that state’s 2nd Congressional District (Chicago and its southern suburbs) for February 2013. Former state Representative Robin Kelly hired GBAO to help her devise a winning strategy in a huge field that included 2 former members of Congress and several elected officials. After beginning the campaign in third place, 10 points behind the initial frontrunner, Kelly made an early decision to define the race around the issue of gun violence, which had been ravaging communities in the district. Kelly’s message connected with the public and succeeded in separating her from her leading opponents, helping her collect nearly 52 percent of the vote in the 16-candidate field.
- Suzanne Bonamici (OR-1). In 2011, 2 state senators and a state house member entered the primary for Oregon’s 1st Congressional District on equal footing – tied in the polls and boasting strong progressive records. Bonamici offered a message centered on standing up for the middle class with proof points going back to Bonamici’s early career as a lawyer who took on predatory lenders. She raised and guarded the resources needed to beat her opponents to the airwaves, and the race went from a dead heat to a Bonamici blowout.