Tips from the Trail: Overcoming an Insider Image
Written by Noah Rothman on January 4, 2011, 10:58 AM
Before he decided to run for Oklahoma state Senate last year, David Holt had spent his entire adult life as a public servant. After attending high school in Oklahoma City, he left the state to attend college in Washington, D.C., and stayed on to work in politics professionally. When he ran for office in his home district, however, his experience was turned against him and he was branded an outsider. How did Holt combat this potentially crippling characterization of his professional background?
Beginning in college, Holt spent seven years in Washington working for Republican officials, including House Speaker Dennis Hastert, and held a position in the Bush White House’s office of legislative affairs. In 2004, he came home and worked for Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett and then–Lieutenant Governor Mary Fallin, who is now the state’s governor-elect.
When Holt decided to run in the July 2010 state Senate primary in the 30th district, which includes parts of Oklahoma City, he got to work early, campaigning door to door and sending out his first mailers a year and a half before the election. His efforts were paying off— until his Republican primary opponent, Matt Jackson, began campaigning with an effective message: Holt is a Washington elite and a career politician.
“I had always worked in public service,” says Holt. “2010 was a year where people were looking for outsiders.” Holt recognizes that his longtime career focus on politics suggested that his ambition had always been to get into office. As a result, his opponent’s message—that Holt was a Washington insider looking to ‘carpet bag’ his way to an Oklahoma Senate seat— was resonating. “The things that would have made me a better senator made me the worst candidate,” Holt says.
Long before his opponent entered the race, Holt had been campaigning on his biography and emphasizing his local roots, which helped mitigate much of the potential damage from the carpet-bagging charge. He launched his campaign with a Web video filmed in front of Putnam City North, the local public high school that he had attended. His mailers reproduced hand-written letters discussing his upbringing in the district and the teachers he remembered from high school. The mailers were illustrated with photos of him in front of recognizable local landmarks.
However, Holt found that voters exposed to his opponent’s message before his were harder sells. “They would say, ‘You never worked a day in your life, you only worked in government,” Holt recalls. To counter this impression, Holt continued to emphasize his roots in the local community. He also worked to build his image among local opinion leaders—a more effective means of generating word-of-mouth support than using social media, due to the older electorate attracted to his down-ballot race. (Holt claims that just 10 percent of his voters were under 50.)
Despite thorough attempts to reach out to Jackson, C&E was unable to make contact with him or find any of his election materials represented online. However, an online chat among a group of Jackson supporters discussing a conversation they had with the candidate backs up Holt’s description of Jackson’s line of attack—that Holt had a Washington pedigree but lacked the conservative credentials they required in a state senator.
In the end, Holt’s efforts to define himself—and rebuff his opponent’s attempts to define him—paid off. He won 63 percent of the primary vote and went on to run unopposed in the general election.