32-points in 45 days
Ohio Tenth District Court of Appeals - Betsy Luper Schuster versus Mary Jo Kilroy
Appeals Courts serve as an intermediate level appellate court in Ohio. Their primary function is to hear appeals from trial courts. Each case is heard and decided by a three-judge panel. The Tenth District Court of Appeals in Franklin County also hears appeals from the Ohio Court of Claims. Most appeals surrounding state government come through the Tenth District, making it the most important of the Appeals Courts in Ohio. Judicial candidates run in a partisan primary, but in the general election, their party identification in not on the ballot. Typically, name identification is crucial for a successful election.
Franklin County in Ohio has been increasingly Democrat over the last two decades. The City of Columbus, which comprises 70% of the county, has a four-term Democrat mayor first elected in 1999. President Obama won the county by 21-points in 2008 and 24-points in 2012. Republican Governor Kasich lost the county in 2010 carrying just 44% of the vote. Kasich won the county in 2014 but his Democrat opponent imploded after it was discovered he lacked a driver's license for a decade and was discovered in a parked car by police late at night with a woman not his wife.
In the race for the Tenth District Court of Appeals, most political observers assumed that the Democrat, veteran candidate Mary Jo Kilroy, was preparing to easily win . In late September she had a commanding 24-point advantage, 43% to 19%, in this non-partisan judicial race.
In 2014, Franklin County voters were asked to choose between a relatively unknown candidate (Betsy Luper Schuster) and one of the best known candidates in Franklin County - former Congresswoman Mary Jo Kilroy.
Democrat Mary Jo Kilroy represented part or all of Franklin County in 21 of the last 24 years. She was first elected to Columbus School Board in 1991 and eventually became President of the board in 1999. In 2000, she was elected Franklin County Commissioner and served two four-year terms. In both races, she won even though she was outspent more than 3-to-1. In 2006, Kilroy was on the ballot again, narrowly losing a congressional bid by just over 1,000 votes. Two years later, when the incumbent retired, Kilroy won the seat in a hotly contested race which expanded her territory past Franklin County to include two very conservative counties. In 2010, Kilroy lost the seat to now Congressman Steve Stivers in another close race during a Republican sweep year. Since 2006, Kilroy has spent more the $5.8 million building name identification awareness and outside groups have pumped in millions of dollars more to build her name and image.
Betsy Luper Schuster was appointed to the Tenth District Court of Appeals in January of 2014. For most of her career, Judge Luper Schuster was hardly in the public light. Never elected to public office and just 41 years old, she has dedicated her career to public service but mainly served behind the scenes. She had an admirable career as an attorney in private and public practice but nothing that brought the name identification that is usually needed to win countywide.
In the race for Court of Appeals, the 2014 campaign context included these difficult realities:
- Luper Schuster was a Republican incumbent in an increasingly Democrat county. Voters were in an anti-incumbent mood, which put this newly-appointed judge with the disadvantage of being the incumbent without the advantage of name identification generated from previous campaigns.
- Democrat Kilroy had numerous campaigns under her belt, including multiple highly publicized races for Congress. She also brought her large fundraising list to a race where candidates tend to struggle to raise funds.
- Finally, the Columbus media market is expensive and would be saturated with ads for three congressional races, seven statewide races and various local races — including several other judicial campaigns.
The context was affirmed, and the uphill battle outlined when the county Republican Party conducted a poll by respected national pollster Public Opinion Strategies 45 days before the election. The crushing result: Kilroy was leading Luper Schuster, 43 percent to 19. Privately, most GOP insiders wrote the race off as unwinnable.
The outlook was bleak, but not without hope. Luper Schuster has some factors in her favor:
- The top of the statewide Democratic ticket was so abysmal it was unlikely they could recreate their voter turnout operations of 2008, 2010 and 2012.
- Democrat Kilroy was below the 50 percent threshold and had a most more fertile voting history than most judicial candidates from which we could choose issues that might resonate with voters.
- Betsy Luper Schuster was prepared to invest some personal money and also work hard to raise funds to implement tactics necessary to achieve our strategy.
The path to victory was relatively straightforward: Build Betsy Luper Schuster's name ID, make sure the Republican base knows she's their candidate, and amplify Mary Jo Kilroy's record and lack of judicial experience.
The Luper Schuster volunteer team had been working hard all summer, going door to door and attending local parades and events. Yet, by October 1, the race was still far from winnable.
The paid voter contact began in late September.
We used the following tactics with the understanding that almost universally we would be splitting between an anti-Kilroy and pro-Luper Schuster messages.
- Broadcast and cable TV (both 30 second spots and 15 second spots, which allowed us to partner with other candidates and get more spots on the air)
- Radio targeted at listeners aged 35 and older (the likeliest of voters in an off year)
- Pandora Internet radio listeners aged 35 and older
- Absentee chase mail targeted at Republicans and unaffiliated voters
- Facebook and Google ads, plus banner and pre roll video ads.
On Election Day, Betsy Luper Schuster won 54 percent to 46 percent. That's a 32-point turnaround in 45 days between when the poll was taken and Election Day. Such a large swing in a lower level race like an Appeals Court campaign is virtually unheard of in Ohio.
The results bear out that the paid voter contact made the substantial difference. In fact, the early voting was essentially tied. Betsy Luper Schuster won among those who mailed or voted in person early 50 percent to 49 percent. But on Election Day, with voters who experienced the full force of the tactics outlined above, Luper Schuster improved more than six points. The tally among those voting on Election Day was 56.61% to Kilroy's 43.39 percent.
Election Night in Ohio was full of victories, but one of the most talked about races that evening was the Luper Schuster comeback.
Below are some of the tactics we employed.
Judge Luper Schuster's mother was a long time reporter on Columbus TV. For radio, we decided to use her voice to share our message about Betsy being the best choice for the Court of Appeals.
For Pandora we played off the idea of rating songs to sure our contrast message between Judge Luper Schuster and her opponent.
The campaign chose not to send flight after flight of mail, but because we anticipated a possible Democratic advantage in early voting, we chase absentee voters with two mail pieces. This one was mailed to unaffiliated voters. The mailer below got mailed to Republicans.