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Strother: The San Antonio Civil War of 2015
Colin Strother, a strategist on the Jose Menendez for Senate campaign, pulls the curtain back on how they were able to pull of what many in the capitol community saw as a huge upset over Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer
Editor’s note: Quorum Report has previously reported on the analysis offered by Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer about the tough race in which he was defeated by Sen. Jose Menendez. We now offer the other side of the argument for your consideration – SB
I’ve been on more than a few underdog campaigns.
In 2004 I engineered the defeat of then-Congressman Ciro Rodriguez in the Democratic Primary and defended the seat two years later. To say we beat the establishment is an understatement. Trial lawyers, environmentalists, labor, and party officials (including the state party chair) marshaled all of their resources against us to no avail.
The special election and runoff to replace former Sen. Leticia Van de Putte in 2015 looked the same on paper: A largely ineffective yet beloved partisan in Trey Martinez Fischerchallenged by Jose Menendez, a commonsense problem solver with relationships across the aisle and an unparalleled work ethic.
The San Antonio Civil War of 2015, as I’ll call it, wasn’t exactly brother against brother (although media consultant James Alderete was with Trey while his brother Eddie Alderetewas with Jose), but it pitted neighbor against neighbor and friend against friend. Although I was Jose’s first Chief of Staff I am also friends with Trey.
Since the 19-point win we laid on the favorite I haven’t had many questions about why or how we did it. Instead, it’s mainly been met with astonishment. After all, Trey was supposed to be the roughest, toughest, rootinist, tootinist, guy West of the Brazos.
He was a paper tiger who had never been in a real fight, but was certain that if he ended up in one he could whip anyone. He took bad advice from bad consultants who were unable to overcome 14 years of Trey painting himself into a hyper-partisan corner.
Trey had spent years cultivating his brand as a partisan “fighter” and focused on getting headlines. Jose, on the other, hand spent nearly the exact same amount of time just being Jose: building trust and good will both in the district and in Austin, getting to the table where decisions were being made, and getting results.
When voters – Democratic voters – were presented with the empirical evidence, they chose the work horse over the show pony.
When Democrats found out that he was receiving tens of thousands of dollars from Republican donors like predatory lender Trevor Ahlberg they either voted against him or stayed home (either outcome a victory for us). When Democrats found out that he represented money laundering clients and profited from insurance lawsuits while serving on the committee that regulates insurance companies they were repulsed in a way far exceeding our hopes.
Do not believe the amateurish “analysis” that says State Senator Jose Menendez was elected by Republicans. The data paints a decidedly different picture.
In fact, even if zero Republicans voted in the runoff Senator Menéndez still wins by 922 votes – not exactly a squeaker.
The fact is that in the entire runoff we did not target a single Republican. If a Republican got one of our mailers or a doorknock it was either an accident or the result of a house divided. We beat Trey with Democrats by exposing who he really is. We did it without the glitz and the headlines, just the raw data about who was funding him, his voting record, and his lack of a legislative record.
So how did we do it? I’m glad you asked. It was simpler than one might imagine.
First, we assembled a team of worker bees and eschewed queens. Second, we challenged the candidate and committed him to a plan based on data instead of daydreams. Third, we went old school: ID, persuade, and turnout.
In fact, if I had my way we would not have spent one penny on television. I felt it was an exercise in vanity and the results from the first round of the Special Election backed that up. But, the truth was that donors expected to see us on television and see that we were competitive in terms of our buy versus Trey’s buy. We had to spend money on a worthless endeavor in order to make money for our worthwhile endeavors.
We obliterated any semblance of an echo chamber and fostered a culture that could only be described as “perpetual disagreement” where every idea, strategy, and message was rigorously debated, cussed, discussed, and honed until it was beyond good.
We played for the win from day one in both the first round and the runoff. Trey on the other hand was urged on by ego and bad advice to pursue an outright victory without a runoff. (He spent $1 million in the first round ($144 per vote!) and was left with an empty tank for the Runoff Election. In fact, if it were not for a $250,000 check from Steve Mostyn just before the 8-day report in the runoff Trey would have reported about $26,000 cash on hand.)
While Trey narrowed his path to victory at every turn until it was the width of a soup spoon we widened our path to victory at every turn until it was the size of a superhighway. He ended up needing to thread the eye of a needle from 100 yards and we ended up needing to throw a hotdog down a hallway.
Ultimately this race reflected the personalities of the two candidates.
Trey tried to muscle all Democrats into turning out while Jose worked to persuade targeted Democrats that he was the better option and turn out only the ones who supported him. Our campaign made decisions based on a desired electoral outcome rather than a desired profit margin for the consultants involved.
In fact, at a meeting with potential donors a prominent member of the San Antonio business community held up our budget and pointed out how low our administrative costs and overhead were and used that as a motivational factor to raise more money for our effort.
We put the rubber to the road instead of the money in our pockets. Campaign Manager Kevin Lopez worked for a pittance. Media and mail were done for cost by Laura Barberena. Sean Gagen at Grassroots Solutions completed 97% of our targeted door contacts in less than three weeks for only $45,000. Sandra Hernandez at Prestige Printing cranked out our printed materials at the speed of light at a price far below market rate. If you wanted that new deck for the Summer, this wasn’t the campaign for you.
We knew we needed to be nearly perfect, and we damn near were.
The San Antonio Civil War of 2015 was one for the ages. The contrast in the styles of the candidates was manifested in the styles of the respective campaigns. It was tough for everyone involved and I suspect that some relationships will never be repaired. In the final analysis, the right man won, the best campaign won, and the families of the 26th Senatorial District won big.
Colin Strother is an Austin-based political scientist and Democratic political consultant. He was a strategist on the Menendez for Senate Campaign. He can be found at www.colinstrother.com.
The complete column from Colin Strother can be found in the R&D Department.