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How the Viral Campaign Ad Became a Political Trap

In late April, M.J. Hegar released an online video to launch her campaign in Texas for the U.S. Senate. At the start of the ad, which runs nearly four minutes, she rolls a flat-screen television into a room and takes a deep breath, looking less like a politician challenging a three-term Republican incumbent and more like a substitute teacher confronting skeptical high schoolers. “Where do I begin?” she asks. “We made a video, and people watched it.” Then she grabs a remote control from the pocket of her blazer and presses a button, and the TV screen is filled with cable-news talking heads.

They’re all talking about the video Hegar made a year earlier, when she was running for Congress. A CNN anchor notes that the video has “gone viral”; MSNBC’s Chris Matthews calls it “dynamite.” As the camera whirls around the room — now filling up with busy-looking workers — it lands on a laptop screen, where we see liberal celebrities tweeting their reviews. “The best political ad anyone’s ever seen,” raves Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of “Hamilton.” “Stop what you’re doing and watch this,” instructs the former “Who’s the Boss?” star Alyssa Milano. The comedian Patton Oswalt is hailing the ad as “extraordinary” when his Twitter avatar suddenly comes to life as a celebrity cameo: “But M.J.,” he says, “what if people haven’t seen ‘Doors’?”

“Doors” is the name of the ad they’re all raving about, the one that turned a first-time candidate into a political star. It’s a key example of a new and thriving genre: the campaign launch video, made for and distributed over social media, not television, with the hope that it will go viral and lead to a prodigious fund-raising haul. “Doors” had a sweeping, cinematic style and a jangly guitar score that borrowed from the Rolling Stones. In three and a half minutes, it told the story of Hegar’s life through a series of doors, from one of her first memories — watching her father throw her mother through a plate-glass door — to the doors she kicked down to become an Air Force helicopter pilot. During the last of her three tours in Afghanistan, her helicopter was shot down; its door now hangs on her dining room wall.

Within six days of being posted to YouTube, “Doors” had racked up nearly two million views, fueling an avalanche of online donations to Hegar’s campaign. In the end, she raised more than $5 million — nearly three times as much as her Republican opponent. But Hegar was running in a deep-red district in Central Texas; she lost to John Carter, an eight-term incumbent, by about 8,000 votes, or nearly three points. Her performance was 10 points better than any Democrat had ever done against Carter, but even a 3-to-1 spending advantage couldn’t secure the seat. In the ad launching her current Senate campaign, Hegar spins this as a victory, an activation of “new voices, new volunteers, new voters” that “made it all worthwhile.” It also made her new candidacy plausible, at least in the minds of donors: In a little over two months after the ad was released, she raised $1 million.

She’s not the only one to benefit from such videos. In 2018, two other congressional candidates — Randy Bryce, an ironworker running in Paul Ryan’s Wisconsin district, and Amy McGrath, a former Marine running in Kentucky — both used similar spots to each raise $8.6 million for their respective races. Like Hegar’s, their ads leaned heavily on their biographies, with shots of Bryce in a hard hat on construction sites and McGrath wearing a flight jacket in front of a fighter jet. (McGrath and Hegar share the same ad maker, Mark Putnam.) And just like Hegar, Bryce and McGrath — Democrats running in heavily red districts — both lost.

These ads are not really designed to win the votes of people in their districts. They are geared to attract the money of people elsewhere, by playing to stereotypes of what voters in those districts — places the donors are often thousands of miles away from, both geographically and culturally — want from their politicians. For nearly two decades, voters in southeastern Wisconsin sent a performatively thoughtful policy wonk to Congress, but there was Bryce, sparks bouncing off his welding helmet, challenging Ryan to “come work the iron” while he took Ryan’s place in Congress. McGrath’s ad boasted that landing jets on aircraft carriers was “the toughest flying you can do,” but Kentucky voters preferred Andy Barr, the soft-handed son of a prominent family, who was being busted in Key West for having a fake ID while McGrath was at the Naval Academy. The touring production of “Hamilton” will make stops in Fort Worth and Houston next summer, but it seems likely that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s support for Hegar is a bigger deal online than it is in Texas.

In some instances, these ads will lead enthusiastic Democrats to waste money on unwinnable races; in others, they may help make a “red” area competitive. But in both cases, their most striking effect is forcing the candidate to appeal simultaneously to voters in a conservative area and to distant online donors, many from liberal enclaves. This is why the videos focus on biographical homages to the local culture (like military service, blue-collar bona fides or, in Hegar’s Senate ad, riding a Harley-Davidson) rather than policy ones (like being generally moderate or into gun rights). McGrath, who is now running for Mitch McConnell’s Senate seat in Kentucky, experienced the perils of this last month. The day after launching her campaign with a new video, which premiered on “Morning Joe” — “What’s your website?” Mike Barnicle asked her, “because people who saw that commercial are going to want to donate to you” — she told The Louisville Courier-Journal that, had she been in the Senate at the time, she “probably” would have voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. It was a statement designed to appeal to Kentucky voters, but it infuriated many of those outside the state who were moved by her ads. A few hours after The Courier-Journal reported her remarks, McGrath was tweeting that “upon further reflection and further understanding of his record,” she would have voted no.

There are new entrants in the online-ad field. Mark Kelly launched his Arizona Senate campaign with a four-and-a-half-minute video about his career as an astronaut and marriage to Gabby Giffords, the former congresswoman who suffered a severe brain injury in an assassination attempt. He has already raised over $8.3 million, more than many presidential candidates. And in an ad titled “Battles,” Kim Olson, a retired Air Force colonel, strides down a runway for more than three minutes, narrating her career (“My call sign was ‘JETMOM’ ”) as she announces her intention to unseat a Republican congressman in Texas. Between now and November 2020, there will certainly be others. Whether they will convince the voters they need seems almost beside the point. Winning these seats can be hard for Democrats, but winning Twitter is easy.


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