Campaign Execution Matters for PA GOP Success

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On Election Night, 2022, Wisconsin Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson eked out a one-point victory over Democrat Mandela Barnes in one of the country’s most closely watched races. If Johnson’s victory dashed Democrats’ hopes, Democrat John Fetterman’s win in Pennsylvania revived them. Fetterman bested Republican Mehmet Oz by nearly five percentage points in the most expensive race in the country.  

The reason the GOP won in Wisconsin yet lost in Pennsylvania tells a story of candidate quality and, more importantly, campaign execution.  

The Johnson-Barnes race matched two sitting officeholders – Johnson, an incumbent senator, versus Barnes, the lieutenant governor. Yet, Barnes was described as “a vulnerable candidate who’d been hammered for everything from unpaid taxes to old tweets in attack ads.” 

In Pennsylvania, only Fetterman could boast previous public service, serving as then-lieutenant governor. As a celebrity doctor, Oz enjoyed high name recognition, but he also suffered from high negative perception among voters. And his recent transplant from New Jersey to Pennsylvania didn’t help.  

Incumbency aside, when it came to campaign execution, Johnson far outshone Oz.  

Democrats felt that they had ample material to go after the Trump-backed Johnson, but they failed to focus their attacks into one coherent message. The Daily Beast said, “Instead of focusing on a narrow set of talking points, Democratic messengers have loosely fashioned Johnson into a Republican boogeyman.” In contrast, Republicans homed in on one winning issue – crime – and hammered it.  

In Pennsylvania, Fetterman was hardly a “strong” candidate, particularly after suffering a pre-primary stroke that took him away from the campaign trail for three months. Yet he overcame this weakness through effective campaign execution and media complicity.  

While Oz took a three-month post-primary hiatus from the airwaves over the summer, Fetterman hit the airwaves immediately, attacking Oz and defining him in voters’ minds. And even though Fetterman was physically absent for several months, his ad presence was widely felt.  

Indeed, Fetterman proved the messaging master. Although a progressive liberal, he presented himself as a blue-collar moderate. His ads spoke of fighting inflation, bringing back jobs, and cutting taxes for the middle class. He effectively ran as a moderate Democrat, not the socialist Bernie Sanders acolyte that he in fact is.  

When Oz finally appeared on TV, he took up the Republicans’ strong suit, crime, yet Republicans diluted the message by spending too much time questioning Fetterman’s blue-collar image.  

Despite his weakness as a candidate, Fetterman ran a strong campaign, and that was enough to overcome Oz and his double negatives – weak candidate, weak campaign.   

Oz’s campaign failure mirrors that of Wisconsin conservative Supreme Court candidate Dan Kelly, who lost 55–45 to liberal Janet Protasiewicz in a high-profile race earlier this year.  

By all measures, Kelly was a terrible candidate. The Washington Times described him as:  

A largely diffident Republican candidate who had literally already lost an election for this very same job not three years earlier.… In fact, Judge Kelly, who was appointed by then-Gov. Scott Walker in 2016, has never won any sort of election. He lost in 2020 and now in 2023 by 10 and 12 points, respectively

By contrast,  Protasiewicz was a strong candidate, serving as an incumbent Milwaukee County judge and former longtime assistant Milwaukee County district attorney.  

She took to the airwaves early in the race, while Kelly – like Oz – was absent. And despite the attention abortion received as an issue, more than half of Protasiewicz’s TV ads were not about that wedge issue but about crime, an issue that resonates among voters across the spectrum.  

More than 90% of GOP ads were also about crime, but Democrats refused to cede the issue. Protasiewicz’s campaign consultant Ben Nuckels said, “For us, abortion was the single largest driving factor for most of the state. For the Republicans, for Dan Kelly, it was crime. And so part of our early strategy was not to give Dan Kelly a free ride on public safety and crime.” 

The strategy worked.  

Bottom line: candidate quality matters, but campaign execution matters equally, if not more.  

This year, Pennsylvania faces critical judicial races. Republicans talk about restoring the rule of law to the courts, but they’ll succeed in that goal only if they nominate quality candidates who can also execute solid campaigns in November.  

Republicans can either dismiss past election outcomes or learn from them.

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