Truman National Security Project

Scott Holcomb Wins Reelection in Georgia: Why We Care

By Truman Project Staff | 11.7.12

Truman Fellow Scott Holcomb just won reelection to his seat in the Georgia House of Representatives.   Why should you care?  Because his victory has scared the living hell out of Georgia Republicans.

Holcomb won against a heavily stacked deck, against the combined power of the Speaker of the House, the State GOP and a mountain of campaign cash.  The victory took coordination with political allies, a disciplined and effective campaign organization and a great deal of personal integrity.  Importantly, he won by projecting a set of values that come directly from his military experience.  The race is a model for progressives who are trying to claw back to relevance in states like Georgia, where the Republicans hold all the levers of power.

Here’s the background.  Holcomb, a former JAG officer, first ran for office in Georgia in 2006.  He jumped into a crowded field competing for the office of Secretary of State.  It was a bold move.  He didn’t win, but he ran a spirited campaign and caught the attention of some of Georgia’s political elites, including former U.S. Senators Cleland and Fowler, and former Governor Roy Barnes.  Holcomb worked that political network for the next several years.  In 2010, in the sort of break that President Obama enjoyed in his early career, Scott got a walk-over victory to take a seat in the Georgia House.  As an effective freshman and a media darling, both parties identified him as a rising star.  In Georgia, where very few Democratic candidates pose any sort of threat to Republican hegemony, Holcomb’s appeal made him a marked man.  Perhaps with the exception of U.S. Rep John Barrow, Scott was the single biggest trophy Georgia Republicans wanted to harvest on election night.  He not only escaped, Holcomb emerged stronger than ever before.

The redistricting process in Georgia is a particularly raw exercise in power politics.  It is a process wholly owned by Georgia Republicans.  Holcomb was gerrymandered into a district with another strong Democratic incumbent.  The district was then packed with Republican voters.  Expected performance was 55% Republican, 45% Democratic.  The two Democrats were sure to endure a bruising primary, leaving the winner to fall to the Republican in the general election.  One district, two defeated Democrats and the end of the pesky Mr. Holcomb as a political threat.

What happened was far different.  Holcomb and his Democratic colleague, Elena Parent, refused to engage.  Parent stepped away, taking a prominent advocacy job which kept her in the political fray and which cleared the path for Holcomb to the General Election.  Meanwhile, Holcomb built a campaign team that was experienced, passionate and smart.  I was part of that team.  With access to national money built through his membership in TNSP, the Council on Foreign Relations and other organizations, Holcomb gathered a war chest larger than any other Democratic legislator’s.  For all his fundraising success, Holcomb was outspent by about 3 to 1.  His opponent had essentially unlimited resources from the state GOP and from the House Republican Caucus.  It didn’t matter.  When the polls closed last night, Holcomb had won 56% of the vote.  He won convincingly throughout the district.  The race was hardly in doubt as soon as the first returns were in.  It was a beat down, pure and simple.  It was also gloriously inspiring.

A baseline poll taken at the outset of the race demonstrated several important facts.  Chief among them, Holcomb’s distinguished military record and subsequent professional accomplishments played very well in the district.  The biography appealed as much to independents and Republicans as it did to Democrats.  Holcomb’s biography includes 12 years of military service, three overseas deployments in support of the wars in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, experience as a military prosecutor, and civilian pro bono service to veterans and their families.  We also field tested policy issues and learned, to no great surprise, that Holcomb’s positions on education, ethics and access to women’s healthcare appealed across a wide swath of the district.  Messaging was designed to highlight the biography, with a focus on Holcomb’s lifelong  story of walking the walk in service to others.  His values were the district’s values.  His priorities lined up with theirs.  We didn’t hide Holcomb’s Democratic label, but we didn’t rely on it to win votes, either.  To win, we would pit Holcomb the man against the individual who was running against him.

Holcomb’s opponent in the general election was the very definition of a “generic Republican”.   A young lawyer with no identifiable accomplishment, he spouted Tea Party-style gibberish about taking back Georgia for free market capitalism and liberty.  He also endorsed a “personhood” amendment to the state constitution, a position clearly more extreme than the district’s voters.  These were vulnerabilities that we felt could be exploited.  Once the campaign ramped up there was hardly time for that.  The opponent attacked and attacked and attacked.  While he offered a thin veneer of “I’m for education,” his campaign was almost solely an exercise in character assassination.  The most egregious affront to good taste was the release of an ad, designed for TV but posted to the web, that accused Holcomb of using illegal drugs while an officer in the Army.  The spot got national media attention for its blatant, mendacious falsehood.  Other equally false claims followed, most alleging that through his legal practice Holcomb was facilitating financial fraud against old gray grandmothers, or was engaging in fraud himself.  New attacks came every day, via direct mail and robocalls.  The opponent was up on television as well.

Holcomb’s response was hard-edged but honest.  When hit, Holcomb did hit back, but never with untruths.  Having cultivated press relations while serving in the House, Holcomb got favorable coverage in local media, including the primary Atlanta paper and influential weeklies.  He earned coverage by the legal press, by political blogs and by a local political talk show.  Most of this coverage came through hard work and strategic response from the campaign.  We pushed back against media that wrote generic “horse race” stories, insisting that there was a larger moral issue at stake.  The campaign used social media aggressively, amplifying the messages that were coming from earned media.  Our message was always consistent:  Holcomb had values and integrity as exemplified by his outstanding military service.  By contrast, the opponent lied repeatedly and lacked character.  He was unfit for public service.  By campaign’s end, Holcomb earned the public endorsement of several prominent Republican voices who announced that the Republican in the race was unfit to serve and a “lying fool”.

Building toward election day, we did what good campaigns always do.  We ran an organized and effective ground game.  We built a truly outstanding team of committed volunteers who were canvassing, leafleting and yard signing the district.  Holcomb was highly visible in the district, and made a point of listening as well as talking to constituents.  We were focused on expanding from our natural base of supporters to those independent and leaning-Republican voters who we believed could be persuaded by Holcomb’s biography and values.

Our communications strategy was nimble.  While we had to respond to the vicious attacks, we never lost sight of the singular advantage we brought to the fight.  Our candidate embodied crucial values that distinguished him to our swing voters.  To protect that advantage we could not get down in the mud with our opponent.  We did not speak untruths.  We stayed on message and we closed the race with optimism and with language that focused attention on Holcomb’s commitment to service to the community.  The strategy worked fantastically well.  Holcomb won going away.  The opponent conceded, tail between his legs, admitting his failings only after the voters had rejected him.

Fairly deep into the campaign, Scott had a conversation with Senator Cleland, himself a victim of a similar smears campaign on his military service.  Cleland offered some pithy advice on how to deal with the falsehoods and vitriol.  This community will likely appreciate the advice.  He said, “Scott, you’ve been to war.  You’re at war again.  Your opponent is trying to kill you.  You have to kill him.”  So we did.

Jeff Schoenberg is a Truman Security Fellow