The 2020 State Senate primary race in Arizona’s 15th legislative district was a contest between two long-time representatives of the district. Our client, Representative Nancy Barto, challenged well-funded Senate incumbent Heather Carter. In the Capitol community, Barto was known as the conservative and Carter as the moderate.
Carter had developed a growing history of taking bad votes on issues from life to religious freedom to immigration to election integrity. Carter had never faced a meaningful primary challenge in 10 years, so voters in the district were largely unaware of her record or reputation. Voters in the conservative district received a shiny mailer every two years with all the right buzzwords and continued to elect her.
But she also had a strong name ID, deep pockets, and cozy relationships with big money interests. If someone was going to take her on and win, it would need to be someone with equal name ID, a proven conservative record, and grassroots enthusiasm that could overpower her opponent’s money.
Representative Nancy Barto was exactly that candidate. She had represented the district for over 10 years and had a sterling conservative record and grassroots loyalty from years of hard work on difficult policy issues.
Our calculus: The district looked more like Barto than Carter. If our calculus was correct and we could inform enough voters, we would win. If we were wrong and the district looked more like our opponent, we would lose. This simple thinking guided our strategy from 14 months before the election until the last vote was counted.
District 15 is known as solidly Republican and data from early polling before the race indicated that, while the race was close, voters moved away from Carter when they heard elements of her record (including opposition to pro-life bills and support of taxpayer- subsidized tuition for illegal immigrants). So making sure voters knew that record became the driving force of our campaign.
To do that, we launched our “Truth About Carter” campaign. The cornerstone of this campaign was a website built to address every area of her record and paint her as a moderate beyond a shadow of a doubt. The site took months of research and was heavily footnoted. It stayed away from typical exaggerated political imagery to keep the focus on substance. Every element of voter contact pointed here – from digital ads, mail pieces, and videos to street signs, yard signs, and billboards. The website had 17,525 unique visitors from its launch on June 1, 2020 until primary election day on August 4, 2020. For context, 33,233 votes were cast in this race and Barto had 17,488 of those votes.
Our unrelenting messaging led to movement away from Carter and toward Barto, with Carters’ unfavorable numbers spiking in the final internal polling.
We also reinforced Barto’s record with a site and ads driving voters to see her good votes on a variety of issues over more than a decade. Our campaign supplemented digital activity, mail, and signage with a hard paid and grassroots ground game of door knocking and live phone calls.
Message discipline was key. Carter’s campaign threw wild swings and punches, but our campaign stayed focused on highlighting both records – nothing more, nothing less. And on occasion, we turned Carter’s attacks into offensive attacks of our own.
When the votes were counted, Barto (despite being outspent 3-1) triumphed over Carter by 5.2%.