How Mary Wilson and her 22-year-old consultant beat the odds in CD-21.

Good Monday Austin:

Democratic political consultant Joe Trippi appears to have been onto something when he said that the Democratic candidate best suited to win in the 21st Congressional District was the one who would appeal to those voters seeking calm amid the political chaos in Washington.

What he didn’t count on, was that that candidate might not be his client, Joseph Kopser, but rather rival Mary Wilson, who finished ahead of Kopser, forcing a runoff on May 22 where, it would appear, the mathematician/minister, who spent $39,000 to Kopser’s more than $600,000 is now, of all things, the front-runner.

Trippi was the chief media strategist for Doug Jones in his narrow triumph over Judge Roy Moore in last year’s Alabama special U.S. Senate election. On Feb. 24, while in Texas tagging along with Kopser’s campaign,  Trippi did a town hall of sorts at the Tamale House East to talk about the lessons of the Jones campaign for Democrats in 2018.

As I wrote in a First Reading at the time:

“There are a lot of people who say, if you just get all the Democrats out,” Trippi said. “There were just not enough Democrats in Alabama to win that election. It doesn’t work that way and there are plenty of districts where it doesn’t work that way.”

“What we discovered its that the common ground message we wanted to deliver was the most powerful message in the race,” Trippi said. “This is what’s going on in my view. Trump is fueling two things. He is absolutely fueling the energy among the Democratic base, minority and young voters in particular. To give you an idea, in 2008 for Barack Obama, African-Americans, who are 24 percent of the population, were 27 percent of the vote. In 2017, for Doug Jones, they were 29, 30 percent of the vote. Young people. Obama in 2008 won under-45’s nationwide by 15 percent. Doug Jones won the under-45 group by 28 points.”

Trippi said that Republican women, particularly in the suburbs, and under-25 college educated voters, “they can’t take the chaos,” under Trump.

“They may even like some the things that he’s doing, but they can’t stand the chaos. They’re exhausted by constantly being on edge, this feeling of chaos and exhaustion they just want it to end. I call it chaos exhaustion,” Trippi said. “They talk in terms of, `I can’t believe I’m saying this but for the first time in my life I’m actually thinking of voting for a Democrat,’ which is a huge opening, particularly for Republican women who are thinking like that, and what we discovered is finding common ground and ending chaos and division does not chill the Democratic base, the intensity went up, the more we talked about it.”

It appears that in race in which, as I wrote in a story on the campaign, Kopser openly feuded with rivals Derrick Crowe and Elliott McFadden, about whether it was wiser to appeal to the center or rally the base, it was Wilson, who stayed above the fray and ran her own race her own way, even when it was widely written off, who finished first.

“One of the special things about Mary is everybody remembers Mary,” said David Logan, her 22-year-old political consultant, on Saturday. “She’s very memorable. That is a key aspect to who she is, as a person, as a candidate,  the candidate touch. It is absolutely the case of the candidate touch, that nice little unique fit.”

From my story:

The candidate touch’

Wilson, 58, who for many years taught math at Austin Community College, is the pastor of the Church of the Savior in Cedar Park. She said she originally got into the race as a “sacrificial lamb.”

But, as she began campaigning she realized that “as the female candidate with a nonpolitical background, I actually have a different voice to bring to it.”

Wilson doesn’t criticize her opponents. At a recent forum in Boerne, she asked her opponents to each say something they liked about each other. At the next event in New Braunfels, she talked about the value of “attentive listening.”

“I decided I’ll stick it out, ride it through and see how it goes,” Wilson said, even though it meant pausing work on her divinity school doctoral project on the meaning of the Resurrection to women who are survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

So far, she’s barely raised any money, but her novice political consultant, David Logan, said no candidate works harder and no campaign is more handcrafted.

On Thursday, Logan said, “When I got home from handing out 22 of the massive 4-foot by 8-foot field signs and handing out 300 yard signs, I came to her house and there were 350 postcards she had handwritten with addresses on them. That is the type of campaigning I see out of Mary Wilson.”

“The candidate touch is something that’s very important,” he said. “We’ve done analysis and we’ve run some algorithms, and it is entirely possible for a candidate to work hard enough to win a congressional seat. It is entirely mathematically possible for a candidate to talk to enough people to win.”

“It takes a special person to go the whole way especially when the narrative has been against you the whole time, especially when there are entire articles, great pieces that have entire analyses on what it is to be Derrick Crowe vs. Joseph Kopser, and at the very end it will say, `Oh, by the way, Mary Wilson’s also running.’ To get those kind of articles and still be like, “I still have a chance, I can still do this.'” said Logan. “It takes a lot of perseverance to do that. And I think a lot of people responded to that.”

And in a race in which Kopser, an Army Ranger with a naturally aggressive personality, was in serial combat with Crowe and McFadden, who took turns pounding him for being insufficiently progressive, Wilson, a woman with a minister’s healing demeanor, stood out.

“Frankly, a lot of things lined up,” Logan said.

“What we’re starting to find out is that Mary was always the front-runner, once the four candidate were lined up,” Logan said.

I first met Mary and David at that early February candidate forum in Boerne,  at which she posed the question to her fellow candidates, “Given the divisiveness in our country and that natural competitive of an election, please identify one or two traits” you admire about each other.

When the question was posed to each of the candidates about whether it was tactically sounder to try, per Kopser, to appeal beyond the Democratic base, or, per Crowe and McFadden, to rally and rouse that base, Wilson sought a middle ground.

My spouse and I have been jokingly saying with one another about this race, `You be you, you be you.’ And what I have found is if I am just myself, and I don’t try to pretend to be anyone else, what you see is what you get with me, and so people will recognize that authenticity. And I’ve had people tell me that I have never voted in a Democratic primary but I am going to vote for you in this one. Now I am going to take their vote, and I’m going to be really happy to get it, and so I am going to take all those votes that we can get.

I am also emboldened and inspired by going to places like the Kyle-Buda Democratic Club where they had a roomful, standing room only, and this room, I mean would you have had a  room like this, filled like this, four years ago? We have a growing wave of people who want to come vote for Democrats because what we are seeing is scary to us. We don’t like the racism. We don’t like the divisiveness. We don’t like what we are seeing from the Republican Party, and there are Republicans who don’t like it either.

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But I agree with Derrick on this. We’ve got to stick with what we know. We’ve got to stick to our guns. And then let people come join us.

So the reason I got into this race, where the first seed was planted, is, a little over a year ago, Lamar Smith said the only place we can get the unvarnished truth is from the president. (laughter.) Exactly. I thought I can’t tolerate that. I don’t know what I’m gong do about that. But I can’t tolerate that.

Wilson said she called the state Democratic Party to see if any Democrat was running against Smith – who subsequently decided not to seek re-election – and told them:

If we need a sacrificial lamb, I am willing to do that because we need to contest every race, every race. And  so I started with the idea that we just had to stand up for truth, to stand up for truth as our first priority.

One of the things that really bothered me in this last election was the number of evangelical Christians who voted for Donald Trump. And what continues to bother me are evangelical ministers that are willing to excuse everything under the sun and say it’s all OK because he’s on our side. He gets a Mulligan for, whatever. I  am not OK with that.

You know what I think it means to be a Christian minister? I think you hold people accountable, especially when they’re on your side. So I want our side to be the ones that tell the truth. I want our side to be the ones that  have higher standards. I want our side to the ones that will call each other out to be better than that side.

And quite frankly, I want us to call out that side too, and say you can do better because I think Donald Trump represents the antithesis of everything I have ever heard you claim  you stood for my entire life.

 I am here because I think truth actually matters. I think it matters in my personal relationships, I think it matters when I stand up and preach. I think it matters when I go out and counsel people and give them pastoral care. I think it matters in DC. I think it matters wherever we are a and I am not OK with anything that’s less than straightforward, anything that’s less than transparent, or anything that’s less than a yes is a yes and no is a no.

So, when I am your representative you will hear from me the truth, whether I like the truth or not I will still tell the truth, and I think our country needs that.

Thank you very much.

Logan got his start in politics as a student at Lake Travis High School, working on phone banks for Obama’s re-election campaign.

Last fall, Logan arrived early for a forum at Scholz Garten on veteran’s issues for the Democratic candidates in a CD-21 race that was still taking shape. He was sitting at a table  outside the meeting room, working on some GIS stuff on his laptop when Wilson arrived and he recognized her.

“My father went to her church a long time ago. I went there once. I didn’t real get it,” Logan said. But, “Mary shows up and I say, “Hey I know you.’ She’s very memorable. And this is the key to Mary. She looks at me and she goes, “David.'”

From there, they began communicating with one another, on Facebook, and then in conversation, with Logan eventually emerging as her one and only political consultant.

She liked the training and volunteering he had done with the Red Cross in Luling during Hurricane Harvey – training he had undergone at the suggestion of Elizabeth Bryant, a first responder who he had been helping on her run for Texas House District 45 before health concerns forced her to leave the race last fall.

Logan had gotten involved with the Red Cross to better understand Bryant. To get to know Wilson better, he started attending her church services.

“If I’m going to spend a lot of time with a candidate, I might as well know where they’re coming from,” Logan said. “For the first month, at every single service, I would just start to cry. People would ask if I was OK. I’d say, `I’m fine. I’m being introduced to new things.”

Wilson also realized that Logan knew things she didn’t, and, that unlike some other potential consultants who had some kind of conflict because of cross-cutting friendships with those involved in the rival campaigns, Logan, at 22,  “didn’t have a 20-year friendship with anybody, so it worked out.”

After Tuesday’s result, Ben Guarino in the Washington Post interviewed Kopser.

When Kopser spoke to The Washington Post on Thursday he described the impending runoff in cordial terms: Kopser and his daughter had been joking, he said, that the last time a big event involved two characters named Mary and Joseph, “it turned out to be pretty good for a lot of people.”

What did you make of Tuesday’s election? What happened that you weren’t expecting?

Kopser: This is exciting to be a first-time candidate returning to public service. [Kopser, a military veteran, held a government position at the Pentagon.] And so what was exciting was to see democracy in action. Nearly a year of my life had gone into planning, preparation, and then the actual day of execution was just a thrill.

By our accounts, on our projections, some 8,000 people showed up to the polls that we had not anticipated — even on the high side.

Evan Smith from the Texas Tribune said it best: There was not a blue wave in Texas. There was a pink wave in Texas. It is reflected in so many races where women finished strong, and in many cases women were the top two finishers.

Now we know there’s an even larger universe of people that are eager to have their voice heard. But we survived. We made it past the primary, and now we can focus on the runoff.

You now have a lot of data after Tuesday’s election. Are you going to use that to hone your approach for the next part of the campaign?

Kopser: Heck, yeah, I’m going to be engineering this sucker.

We haven’t decided on exactly the best methodology, but you better believe it’s going to be data-driven. It’s going to be driven by good practices. It’s going to be engineered in such a way that we will make the most efficient use of our time and our resources. It’s a big district, as you know, and you’ve to target the right people, because unfortunately so few people actually show up at these primary runoff elections.

I don’t always give bumper sticker answers. There have been plenty of forums where I’ve been booed. And at the end of the day, I’m not here to tell people what I think they want to hear. I’m here to tell people what I think they need to hear. The results validate the fact that that’s what people respond to.

Logan said Wilson was not surprised by the turnout.

Mary has a mathematics degree, and she told me we had to get to 12,000 votes to get into the runoff. She knows her stuff very well. Mary knew it was going to be a higher turnout and she knew it for sure after Virginia. We saw dramatic turnout numbers, and this is the awesome part, they were in races that are not like easy Democratic seats, but there were huge turnout changes  in races that were Republican districts but always Democrats running, “close-enough” seats, I guess you would call it.

Logan said he thinks that Kopser’s explanation to the Post about being surprised by the turnout was “looking for an out” in order to explain the surprising result to disgruntled donors.

“They want to know why for every $100 they’ve given him, we spent $4,  and that’s, by the way, what we’re going to continue to do.”

The numbers are stunning.

Here’s Kopser’s report:

 

And here’s Wilson’s.

 

“The whole campaign cost $40,000 of which $9,000 went to signs,” said Logan.

“We talked to every single female voter in the Hill Country (who regularly votes in Democratic primaries), and Mary got to talk to most of them individually, as people.” said Logan. “The list I gave to her was some 3,000 Democratic voters in the Hill Country.”

That was exclusive of Hays and Comal counties. For Travis, Comal and some of Hays, especially Kyle/Buda, the campaign sent out 10,000 hand-noted postcards – hand-addressed by Wilson, who would also sometimes add a personal note.

“What does that leave – the biggest gap in the entire campaign? San Antonio – and that’s where the signs came in,” Logan said.

We put 200 4-by-4’s and 25 4-by-8’s throughout parts of San Antonio that were in the district, and some parts that weren’t in the district to get the arteries into San Antonio or around it. And we had those up for 60 days, because I think legally 90 days is the max.

And I started getting text messages about 30 days in from people saying we’re seeing them everywhere. And that was a great feeling. And we were that only campaign that had any signs in San Antonio. (All four Democratic candidates live in Austin). And we were the only Democrat in CD 21 that had any big signs, the whole race.

 

“Signs don’t vote. That’s true. But it is name recognition,” Logan said. And, unlike mailers, which are instantly disposable, you can’t thrown a sign away. It gave Wilson what she needed – name recognition.

DIANA ROSS and THE SUPREMES the ballad of Davy Crockett (MARY WILSON on LEAD!)

And, Logan said, with its mirrored M and W, “Mary’s design is really good.”

When I saw it, I said I’ve got to get this out as much as I can. We couldn’t afford to play social media really well. We couldn’t afford to put $100,000 into Zynga ads. But we could put these out. So we printed them out and put them out.

It’s a very good design, isn’t it?

Let’s pause here to meet, as I did yesterday, at Wilson’s Sunday church service, Hannah Gaskamp, the graphic design student at Texas State University in San Marcos, who wanting to help her pastor’s campaign, designed the logo.

Like Logan, Gaskamp is 22.

Gaskamp grew up, and her parents still live, across the street from Wilson’s hurch. Her family belongs to a very conservative Christian church, but Gaslamp is gay, and, at some point, she Googled gay friendly churches in the area, found out that the one across the street fit the bill and joined.

“It’s affirming and very open,” she said. “We’re not evangelical or judgmental.”

At first, Wilson suggested a Wonder Woman theme for the log, but it ended up too derivative.

Gakamp came up with her own take, with the mirrored M and W, and the distinctive map of the gerrymandered 21st Congressional District.

Of the signs, Logan said, “I am confident that is why we ran second in San Antonio and did better than anyone would have expected us to. They helped a lot with name recognition.”

I asked Logan where he learned the art of the campaign sign, and he credited Travis County Precinct 3 Constable Stay Suits.

“He texted me the other night and christened me, `The Sign Junkie of Austin,'” said Logan, who has the bruised hands to show for it

 

 

Logan also put up 500 polling day signs for Mary Wilson (and 2,500 for a few other clients), from Election Day eve though 6:30 p.m. Election Day. Why so late on Election Day, when polls closed at 7?

“There were lines,” Logan said.

So, let’s review.

Here is how the Kopser campaign spent its  money – mostly on DC and NY consultants and staff.

 

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile, here was the sum total of Mary Wilson’s spending on campaign consultants.

 

“The way to take money out of politics is to make money irrelevant in politics,” said Logan.

More Logan:

Mary had the message. Mary’s the person that CD 21 wants. Mary has a message for this district that I know she can carry on. We proved that the message of caring is what took the day.

One thing that shocks me is if you go back and do a very serious analysis of Alabama, Doug Jones stayed above the fray on everything. Whenever someone commented on his opponent’s actions or possible criminal history, Doug Jones stayed above it. He never flung mud. He just stayed above the fray and he won.

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He ran as a Democrat and he won.

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I think this was a win for local campaigns, and local consultants and people who really know the area. I don’t think this was me or Mary doing anything really special. I think we were local and that carried a voice much more than money could buy.

 

At Scholz Garten Saturday.

In an interview Saturday after moving into her new headquarters in South Austin – it’s Crowe’s old office which he gave to her with his post-primary endorsement, Wilson said:

We knew we didn’t have a lot of money so we had to be very focused and very strategic in what we did and I think it paid off.

I think it’s clear I got some of the female voter preference that is clearly a thing this year in Texas in this particular election. But I would also make the case and I would also argue that that would haven’t been enough to get me to the runoff by itself. It might have given me enough to move into first place.

I’m pleased to be sitting here in the position that I’m in.

I spent a lot of time the last couple of months, waking up eery day with the thought – what’s the best way to say it – that there was more to do and there were more votes that I needed to get, that I wanted to have the attitude that I didn’t presume that I was doing as well as people were telling me by word of mouth.

I heard a lot from Travis County, into San Antonio, Kerrville, a lot of different places, a lot of people telling me, “Mary, you’ve got a lot of support,” but I didn’t have any data to back that up, and so I couldn’t let myself believe that what I was hearing was anything but anecdotal, so I had to get up and work hard again to get more votes.

At about noon on Election Day, “I said to my spouse, `I’m done.’ I’m either going to win or not, let’s go the movie’ We went to see Black Panther at the Violet Crown. She had a big bowl of popcorn with a little parmesan on top.

On election night, on her way to their campaign’s gathering at El Arroyo, across the street from where she lives, Wilson got a call from a reporter with the early vote results showing her running a strong second to Kopser.

By night’s end, she had claimed first and had to surrender the title of underdog.

Wilson:

It is a good time and appropriate time to say we won the night and I can win May 22nd and I  can win in November. I have shown with the least amount of money, even 20 to 1, I can win. We’ll always have to be strategic, we’ll always have to very focused.. We’ll always have to be very efficient.”

Wilson figures they have raised about $10,000 since the primary.

Wilson said she has also heard, since the primary, from the Democratic Congressional Committee, which had tilted toward Kopser.

“I think they very politely wanted to know, `Who the hell are you?’ I don’t know how that is going to play out.”

How much does that matter to her?

“Not that much, honestly,” Wilson said.

But, she said:

It is frustrating  to have, like the DCCC  seemingly pick a candidate  prior to the actual campaigning and events and knowing who else might be a qualified candidate. If they pick somebody in advance it means they don’t know who is organically coming out of the  district.

And I would say, across the board, and not just in Texas, there is a certain frustration with the DCCC taking on that kind of role. I think what most of us would really prefer is they encourage and support what’s going on in their districts, working with the people who grow out of campaigning within the districts, who appear to be good representative just based on how they connect within the district.

I understand their role is to win. and they are doing what they think they need to do to win.  I guess what we’re seeing across the country is that they do not have not the best strategy of how to win.