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There will be a lot of analysis of the Indiana Senate and Congressional races in the coming days, with people breaking down who the winners and losers are, and what it all means for the state of the Conservatives vs Establishment narrative going forward.
What happened tonight in Indiana should be used to evaluate what happens when conservatives get behind high quality candidates with credible resumes, who can explain a serious vision, and have real policy solutions.
It should also be a cautionary tale for what happens when conservatives run flawed campaigns, fail to work hard, and make unforced errors.
It’s worth studying the contrast between the Senate race and the Congressional race in Indiana’s third district. We had a front row seat down the stretch of the campaign.
Jim Banks is a conservative from the Ft. Wayne area. Armed with the right credentials, the support of conservative groups across the country, and a resume of conservative accomplishment, he won his race for Congress against a field of tough, well funded opponents.
Marlin Stutzman is a conservative Congressman from the Ft. Wayne area. Armed with the right credentials, the support of conservative groups across the country, and a resume of conservative accomplishment, he got absolutely demolished in his race for Senate.
So what happened? In short, candidates matter, and the campaigns they run matter.
In the final days of this campaign, conventional wisdom held that Jim Banks was a slight favorite. Pundits may be tempted to dismiss Banks’ victory as inevitable. They would be wrong.
In an early poll conducted by Liz Brown’s consultant, Mark It Red, Jim Banks trailed Brown by 23 points. Banks had no major endorsements at that point. He had one opponent who was far better known, and another, a rich self-funder who had the ability to essentially write himself a blank check. Despite all this, Banks triumphed. So how did he do it?
Well, for starters, Banks and his team ran a nearly perfect campaign. Led by David Keller, they were highly disciplined and organized, with a message laser focused on foreign policy and the Constitution. They ran a high-tech campaign that ran circles around the rest of the pool, and fielded a grassroots organization that built crowds and turned out the vote in a way that arguably has not been done before in an Indiana congressional race.
As has been demonstrated so many times before in races like this when conservatives win, the lesson here is not to simply nominate conservative candidates, although that is certainly a part of it. Conservatives have to also nominate candidates who have the right background, who can explain a conservative vision, and who do not make mistakes. Less candidates like Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell, more candidates like Ben Sasse, Tom Cotton, and Jim Banks.
Jim Banks is a fantastic candidate. He’s got the policy chops of Ben Sasse, and the foreign policy background of Tom Cotton, combined with the ability to explain conservatism in a way that the guy on the street can understand. Having worked with Sasse in 2014, we can say that the two are very similar in a lot of good ways. But to call Banks the next Sasse or Cotton is too simplistic: that fact is, he’s his own guy, with a broad resume that is unique to him and a worldview that he’s earned.
As a naval officer who recently served in Afghanistan, Banks has a unique perspective on national security. He is poised to be in the House what Tom Cotton has been in the Senate: an immediate leader on foreign policy.
He’s also tough and disciplined. In many ways, he’s a dream candidate: he has a record of conservative accomplishment, a long term foreign policy outlook informed by his time overseas, an intelligent, devoted wife who is his closest friend and advisor (Amanda actually stepped in and filled Jim’s seat in the State Senate when he was deployed overseas), three impossibly cute daughters ranging in age from 2 to 6 years-old, deep connections to his community, and a wealth of Indiana experience.
Over the course of the campaign, Jim stayed positive despite attacks from different sides of the spectrum once he took the lead. He never ran a single negative TV ad.
Some on the establishment side of the party took shots at Jim for the support he received from conservative outside groups. Other candidates (jealous of Jim’s support from conservatives) tried to make Jim’s time in the Indiana Senate into a liability by calling him a career politician.
The fact is, none of these folks were really correct about Jim Banks.
Yes, he’s deeply conservative–in fact, he had one of the most conservative records in the Indiana Senate. But he’s also a thoughtful, constructive, solutions oriented guy who is interested in reaching consensus, and in persuading people who are not currently in the GOP to join the conservative cause.
How Banks Did It
Banks focused early on locking down the support of conservative groups nationally and in the district. He received the early endorsement of conservative leaders like Senator Ben Sasse, after they met in Afghanistan when Jim was deployed overseas. He ran a disciplined, data-driven campaign led by David Keller, and together, the campaign told a big story about a candidate who had dedicated his life to service, first in the Indiana Legislature with one of the most conservative voting records of any member there, but also of someone who put on the uniform and served his country, while Amanda stepped in and took tough, conservative votes during a difficult time for the state. The story of this campaign was one of a conservative leader willing to serve again; of a candidate who could do more for this district than anyone else could–someone who would not simply go to Washington and be a back bench Congressman, but someone who, when he arrives, will be an immediate leader for the people of his district.
One of the most important strategic decisions that the campaign made was to go on television early, going up in February and defining Jim as a conservative leader who had served his country once, and was ready to serve again. This allowed the Banks campaign to define Jim on their terms, and to let conservatives know that Jim was their candidate. This fueled a very aggressive grassroots operation that made nearly 200,000 phone calls into the district, persuading and identifying conservatives.
The other huge strategic choice the campaign made was to undertake a massive effort to collect and utilize voter feedback in the final days of the campaign. This gave the Banks campaign a significant advantage in the efficiency multiplier it created for their paid voter contact. Using the data back from nearly 200,000 volunteer calls, and tens of thousands of paid surveys, they were able to deliver highly targeted online messages to individual voters based on feedback they were receiving in real time via the phone. In the final week, the campaign was able to deliver a saturation level of messaging to a universe of 20,000 high priority targets who they had already spoken to on the phone. The whole thing was customized based on demographic attributes and first hand feedback from what voters were saying in real time. In a race decided by just a couple points, this mattered a lot.
The story of the Senate race is much simpler: Marlin Stutzman was a deeply flawed candidate and his campaign reflected that from beginning to end.
Starting out, Stutzman had every conceivable advantage on paper and many of the same advantages that Banks did: a good voting record, support of conservative outside groups, an anti-establishment profile in an anti-establishment year–and yet, he got crushed. So what went wrong? Well, just about everything.
For starters, Stutzman acted like once he had the support of Senate Conservatives Fund and Club for Growth, he did not have to do the work of running a good campaign. Unfortunately for him, that’s just not how it works.
From the beginning, Stutzman’s campaign was a mess. He hired and fired multiple consultants, and the team he finally settled on generally sent a signal to outside allies that they didn’t know what they were doing. (Coincidentally, Stutzman’s consultants, Mark It Red, also ran a disastrous campaign for Liz Brown. According to Banks’ internal polling, Brown was the clear frontrunner until mid-march.)
The bottom line is, Stutzman and his team were unwilling or unable to execute on the basics from the beginning.
Stutzman Strategic Blunders
- Didn’t do the work, didn’t raise the money: Even though he was running against a great fundraiser in Todd Young, he never put in the kind of effort Young did, and this was born out in the results. Young blew the doors off financially, and in the final days, Stutzman barely had the money for media.
- Didn’t actually run as a conservative: This is possibly the most head scratching move Stutzman made: rather than choosing to define himself as an outsider conservative who was going to go to DC and fight the establishment, he instead chose to define himself as a farmer. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being a farmer, (they’re the backbone of this country) and certainly not in Indiana, but in a Republican primary, in an outsider year when conservatives are so angry at Washington, DC, the decision not to define the campaign by getting to Young’s right and staying there is perplexing.
- Conspired with Democrats and tried to get Young kicked off the ballot: In February, when Young had his troubles with ballot access, the Indiana Democratic Party filed a lawsuit and pulled every trick they knew in order to keep Young off the ballot. It was already happening, and Young was already going to make it or not based on what the Democrats were doing. Marlin Stutzman did not need to get involved, but he just couldn’t help himself Stutzman filed a separate lawsuit challenging Young’s candidacy. This move completely backfired. Young won in the end and made the ballot, but something larger had also happened: Stutzman looked like a craven, cynical manipulator who was out for himself; someone who was even willing to conspire with Democrats to get what he wanted. He looked like he was willing to say or do anything to win. This was a totally self-inflicted wound that never healed and set up a narrative that would define the campaign.
- Handed his opponents the ammo they needed to cement a narrative: Once Young was able to frame Stutzman as simply being out for himself, every other charge was much easier to make stick. “Stutzman claims to be a tax cutter, but had actually voted for the largest tax increase in Indiana history.” “Stutzman claims to oppose farm subsidies, but his own farm was taking subsidies.” “Stutzman told everyone in 2010 when he ran for Senate that he was not going to move his family to DC, but when he got to Congress, he bought a house in DC and moved his family there immediately,” etc. The list goes on….
By the time the race got to the home stretch it was basically over. Stutzman was so damaged that establishment outside groups smelled blood in the water, and came in with millions of dollars attacking Stutzman and supporting Young. To make matters worse, Stutzman continued to make unforced errors even into the final weeks of the campaign, and just based on spending patterns, it looks like the conservative outside groups rightly took a pass.
It is likely that establishment groups will claim some credit for Young’s win in the days to come, and maybe they do deserve some credit. But it’s also worth noting that Todd Young won by casting himself as a conservative, and by framing Stutzman as someone who had not been as faithful to conservative principles as he claimed.
Marlin Stutzman did not do the work, did not really run as a conservative, conspired with Democrats to try to get what he wanted, and simply could not stop making mistakes throughout the campaign.
Todd Young ran a nearly perfect campaign, avoided mistakes, raised the money, and convinced voters he was a conservative.
Stutzman did not get much outside help in the end because his campaign was so poorly run, Young got lots of outside help in the end because his campaign was so good.
When Stutzman tries to figure out who to blame for this loss, he will not be able blame Senate Conservatives Fund, Club for Growth, any of the multiple campaign teams he hired and fired, or even the team that ultimately helped run his campaign into the ground.
The blame will rest solely with Marlin Stutzman.
Political watchers would be mistaken to read a larger meta-narrative into the Indiana Senate Primary or extract any meaning for future races going forward.
2016 in Indiana is a case study in what happens when conservatives field credible candidates who run great campaigns, and what happens when they don’t.
Keep an eye on Jim Banks. He is a great candidate with an incredibly bright future.
Marlin Stutzman simply could not get out of his own way. He lost because he deserved to lose. It will be interesting to see whether this is the end for him, or if he has the ability to learn from his mistakes.
Conservatives would be wise to heed the lessons of both campaigns.