I got the call one day in the fall of 2017. A thirty-three year old Navy SEAL wounded in Afghanistan by an IED wanted to discuss running for Congress to replace the retiring Ted Poe. The medically retired SEAL, Dan Crenshaw, had lost his right eye in the IED blast, spent days in a coma, recovered by the grace of God, and with typical SEAL grit and determination had found a way to get back in the fight. He told me he had re-deployed twice after losing his right eye and making his recovery. “Wow, I knew SEALs were tough, but seriously?” I asked myself.
Dan Crenshaw had immediately earned my respect and appreciation for his ten years of elite military service and the courage he displayed throughout his ordeal.
But now we were talking about the next phase of his life, and how he could best continue to serve. He had been encouraged to run for Congress by our mutual friend, and he had the support of his wife and best friend, Tara. But he wanted to think things through and make the best decision possible. So we spent some time talking about what a run for Congress would look like, the sacrifices he would have to make, and the toll it would take on his family.
I encouraged Dan to run, and reminded him that he had nothing to lose by doing so. I told him that he had a great story to tell, and he could win, if we could reach enough voters in time. But we’d have to run a nontraditional campaign in the few weeks that we had before the primary election in March. He made a few more calls, prayed about it, thought about the pros and cons, and then decided to jump in the crowded field of candidates for U.S. House District 2 in Texas.
From the moment Dan decided to run, we knew that we had to act quickly. We also knew that we would not be able to compete on TV and radio with the millions of dollars that other candidates would have at their disposal. This was going to be a guerrilla campaign utilizing an integrated field and digital approach to target voters efficiently and effectively. Luckily for me, Navy SEALs know a thing or two about how to win using asymettrical tactics.
We worked quickly to build the campaign website, facebook page, twitter handle, email templates, and other online platforms that we would need. We acquired CD 2 voter data from Voter Trove, a cutting edge data company based in Austin. We filed the paperwork, set up the bank account, and finalized Dan’s biography. One of the unique elements of this campaign was that Dan wrote most of his own stuff: his bio, his policy positions, and his public statements. He was a rare breed of candidate: someone who thought about and cared about the ideas as much as the strategy and tactics of campaigning.
From the moment we launched the website and the facebook page, I could sense the potential for momentum. The first ad we posted on facebook captured the imagination of thousands of people. Here was a picture of a Navy SEAL all decked out in his gear, with his helmet and rifle. The photo was clearly taken either on the way to a mission, or on the way back from a mission. Either way, here was an image of an American warrior doing his duty, serving his country in a combat zone thousands of miles away from home. And the caption textualized the image: “My service to my country does not end on the battlefield.” Dan Crenshaw had served on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, and now he was asking to serve in Congress. The ad nearly “broke the internet.”
We knew that we had a special candidate, that voters inherently trusted veterans, and wanted to send representatives to Washington who could be trusted to do their duty. Now we had to make sure that enough voters in the 2nd district were aware of Dan before they went to cast their votes in the primary on March 6th.
We focused the next few weeks on increasing Dan’s brand awareness through social media, especially through email, facebook and twitter. He also began making fundraising calls so that he could pay for the essentials of any campaign. In the beginning, many donors and voters were noncommittal, but Dan worked on them one by one, and did start out with a loyal following of volunteers. He and his family attended local Republican and tea party club meetings, Chamber of Commerce meetings, and many other social and civic gatherings.
We captured as many photos and as much video as we could to provide an inside look into the campaign, and into Dan’s heart and mind. And we pursued an aggressive earned media strategy that got him on local and national television, radio, and podcasts. Once each interview was over, we blasted it out to our supporters on social media and encouraged them to share the clip. This transparency and proactive earned media approach is not common in political campaigns, but we knew its power.
We also knew that we would have to rely on committed volunteers to help us reach voters directly at their homes and on their phones. Everywhere Dan went he seemed to pick up another handful of volunteers that wanted to help. So we began to organize them by precinct and empowered them with the tools they needed to spread the word about Dan.
We printed and distributed thousands of field signs, yard signs, door hangers, and palm cards throughout the district. We encouraged our supporters on social media, armed with Dan's message, to make the case for Dan to their friends and family. And we eschewed costly television ads that air to hundreds of thousands of people completely outside the district. Instead, we beefed up our online presence with ads promoting our campaign videos, graphics, and earned media clips. We systematically identified likely Republican primary voters based on their past voting history, and targeted them efficiently with door knocks, phone calls, digital marketing, and direct mail.
As early voting approached in late February, I could already sense our momentum. But then the candidate himself came up with an idea that was crucial to our victory. Dan called me and said, “Brendan, I’m going to run the entire length of the district in five days.” I replied, “You mean you are going to run 100 miles.. in five days?” The Navy SEAL who had been through hell and back replied, “Yes, and we are going to raise money for Hurricane Harvey victims along the route.”
And that’s how Dan Crenshaw Forrest Gumped the race for CD 2.
The facebook live videos of his run were incredible. One video would feature Dan speaking directly to the camera about how Houston was still devastated by the flooding from Harvey. The next video featured Dan running off into the distance, a man with a mission.
Then, after a few days, more people started to recognize him, and they honked their horns or stopped to talk with him. One day a group of veterans showed up driving military vehicles adorned with American flags, and escorted Dan to the next stop on his run. Then a man along the route came up and gave Dan an American flag to carry with him as he ran. The image was powerful: a Navy SEAL running for his country, for his district, for his community.. How could the voters send someone other than that man to Congress to represent them?
As early voting continued, the momentum only increased. Local television crews and newspaper reporters came out to interview Dan on his run, and the images went viral on social media. There was something special happening in the 2nd congressional district, and I was seeing it in the data and in the feedback I was getting from staff, volunteers, donors, and the media.
Our Get Out the Vote calls were showing about 10% support for Dan just before early voting started. But by the end of the early voting period the calls were showing 30% support for Dan. The trend lines were incredible, and I excitedly reported the findings to Dan and the team. We figured that we would under perform with the mail in ballots but we would over perform during early voting and Election Day, and we did just that. Election night was nerve wracking, and required a lot of frantic math, but it was also great fun.
As the first results came pouring in, they showed Dan down in the mail in ballots. But as the early voting numbers came in, we could clearly see that we had plenty of room to make up the difference. Every time more numbers came in, I did the math to see if we could make it into the runoff election, and every time more results came in, we closed the gap.
In the end, we jumped ahead of the third place finisher by 155 total votes out of more than 48,000 cast. We had shocked the political world in Texas, besting a self-funded candidate who poured $6 million into the race and spent most of it on television and radio. Dan Crenshaw, a non-politician and political neophyte, had beaten big money, big endorsements, and big odds. He sprinted into the runoff election on May 22nd with continued momentum, and despite an onslaught of a million dollars in negative, personal attacks against him, he won the day again. He ran away with the race, getting 70% of the vote to his opponent's 30%.
And he did it with honor and class. He responded to the negative attacks but he never returned them in kind. He kept the moral high ground, ran a clean race, and proved that voters are hungry for heroes that they can trust. We didn’t run a single television ad in the runoff, spent very little on radio, and instead poured resources into direct voter contact, as we had in the first round of balloting. Dan remained an open and transparent candidate who would meet with anyone, talk to anyone, and even give out his cell phone number. He was not, and is not, your typical politician. He is someone that the voters can be proud of, and someone who appeals to our better angels.
As a political strategist, it is refreshing to work with a candidate like Dan. I am glad that we ran a unconventional campaign that did not look and feel like politics as usual. It was necessary, in my view, but it is also a better way to run campaigns. Tell a story, connect directly with the voters, utilize the power of face to face contact and social media, and stay positive in the face of negative, nasty personal attacks.
If more candidates and operatives subscribed to this type of campaigning, perhaps we would all be better off. We certainly showed that such a candidate and such a campaign can win the day. And we will show it again in November.
In one of our campaign videos Dan shares a memory about his late mother. He recalls, “The first hero I ever knew was my mother. I watched her fight cancer for five years. She never quit, she never complained, and she never stopped taking care of us. She told me something before she died. She said, You will soar to great heights.”
I have no doubt that Dan will keep soaring to even greater and greater heights. And our country will be better off because of it.
Brendan Steinhauser is Dan Crenshaw’s political strategist and a partner with Steinhauser Strategies, a public relations and political consulting firm based in Austin. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Brendan Steinhauser is a national political strategist focused on campaigns, media, and public policy.