Dec 23, 2022
On today’s very special Friday show, Crystal welcomes Phil Gardner to spill all the details behind the drama of Washington’s Third Congressional District race from his vantage as the campaign manager for now-U.S. Representative-elect Marie Gluesenkamp Pérez. As we hear about the nailbiter of a race in Southwest Washington between a rural Democrat and a right-wing fascist, Phil outlines the strategy memo he wrote that propelled an untraditional and underestimated candidate to flip a seat that had been held by Republicans for 12 years. With little to no support for the campaign from the establishment, Phil tells how a scrappy campaign fought for every vote by leveraging volunteer enthusiasm and connecting with voters in every place across the district. He and Crystal then reflect on lessons learned, possible downballot impacts, the need for continued vigilance against anti-democratic forces, and the hope that is manifested by engaging and being active.
As always, a full text transcript of the show is available below and at officialhacksandwonks.com.
Phil Gardner is a Washington state political strategist and the campaign manager for U.S. Representative-elect Marie Gluesenkamp Pérez. He spent this fall working in Southwest Washington but normally lives in Tacoma.
Phil's managed successful campaigns for federal, state, and local office, including those of Superintendent Chris Reykdal, State Auditor Pat McCarthy, Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards, and State Rep. Jessica Bateman's first campaign for Olympia City Council.
Phil previously served as Chief of Staff for Lt. Governor Denny Heck. He also served as Heck's District Director and Communications Director when Heck represented the South Sound in Congress.
Phil went to college in Washington, D.C. and worked on Capitol Hill where he developed a strong preference for living and working back home in the better Washington.
“Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler concedes; Perez will face Kent for the 3rd District” by Lauren Ellenbecker from The Columbian
“Kent, Perez brawl over two different Americas in WA congressional race” by Joseph O’Sullivan from Crosscut
Election To Watch: Marie Gluesenkamp Perez on the Verge of Upsetting Pro-Trump Candidate Video edited by Meg Herschlein from More Perfect Union
“Why aren't national Dems bankrolling WA's 3rd Congressional race?” by Joseph O’Sullivan from Crosscut
“Congressional candidate Joe Kent wants to rewrite history of Jan. 6 attack” by Jim Brunner from The Seattle Times
“In Washington state, controversial ties and rhetoric are upending a House race” by Claudia Grisales from NPR-KQED
“How did Marie Gluesenkamp Perez pull off the upset of the year in Southwest WA?” by David Gutman from The Seattle Times
“The Future Is … Doorknocking?” by Alexander Sammon from Slate
“Marie Gluesenkamp Perez Is Going From An Auto Repair Shop To Congress” by Daniel Marans from The Huffington Post
“Party reps say Gluesenkamp Perez won House seat, not Democrats” by Brennen Kauffman from The Daily News
[00:00:00] Crystal Fincher: Welcome to Hacks & Wonks. I'm Crystal Fincher, and I'm a political consultant and your host. On this show, we talk with policy wonks and political hacks to gather insight into local politics and policy in Washington state through the lens of those doing the work with behind-the-scenes perspectives on what's happening, why it's happening, and what you can do about it. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at officialhacksandwonks.com and in our episode notes.
Well, this is an exciting show for me. I'm very excited to be welcoming Phil Gardner to the show. Now, Phil Gardner is known by a lot of people who are in political circles, Democratic circles - but for those who aren't, he is a political strategist and was the campaign manager for Marie Gluesenkamp Pérez, who is the newest Congressperson in Washington's Third Congressional District, which a Democrat hasn't won in how long?
[00:01:13] Phil Gardner: 12 years.
[00:01:14] Crystal Fincher: 12 years. And beat Joe Kent in one of the longest-shot victories that we saw this cycle, if not the longest-shot victory that we saw this cycle in the nation. So very excited to talk to Phil and talk about this race. Welcome to the show.
[00:01:33] Phil Gardner: Thank you, Crystal. I'm really glad to be here - appreciate you noticing what we did.
[00:01:38] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, absolutely - hard not to notice, but definitely noticed that you were making some moves even before the conclusion of the election. I guess just starting off - getting a little bit more familiar with you - what is your background and what was your path to get to Marie Gluesenkamp Pérez's campaign?
[00:01:58] Phil Gardner: Yeah, so I grew up in Pierce County outside Puyallup, graduated high school in Tacoma. So I'm from, consider myself from the state - I was actually born in Texas, but I'm a Washingtonian - and have worked in and out of politics on the Democratic side, both here in the state and back in Washington, D.C. I worked for Lieutenant Governor Denny Heck as his Chief of Staff in Olympia and also back on Capitol Hill as his Communications Director. And then have done a bunch of different campaigns in either manager or general consultant roles, like Superintendent Reykdal's 2020 re-elect for our statewide School Superintendent, the mayor here in Tacoma - I was a part of her first election in 2017, Jessica Bateman - her first run for City Council. So I have had my hand in a bunch of different political and campaign things all over the state. And actually the first federal race I was ever involved with, I was an intern on Denny Heck's 2010 campaign in the Third Congressional District against Jaime Herrera Beutler, which was the last time the seat was open. So it's not quite a full circle moment because - obviously Jaime Herrera Beutler lost in the primary and this - sort of a very different tone than what that campaign was like, but it has been an interesting sort of 12-year journey for me to find myself back down there.
[00:03:30] Crystal Fincher: Back down there and in a situation where - for quite some time, Jaime Herrera Beutler looked like a comfortable incumbent. But then this year happened - and after Trump happened and MAGA Republicans - seeing a different blend of Republicans in the district, certainly around the state, and a crowded Republican field. How did you get connected with Marie Gluesenkamp Pérez and how did just starting the campaign unfold?
[00:04:04] Phil Gardner: Yeah, so this was an absolutely wild ride that I only got on maybe two-thirds of the way into it for a lot of people that were involved pre-primary - like Marie, most significantly. But I guess to think of the timeline here - for these federal races, they're really two-year affairs at this point just because of the amount of money involved and such. And Joe Kent declared his candidacy against Jaime Herrera Beutler shortly after the January 6th insurrection, so way back in early 2021. And then he got the endorsement of the former president and that sort of propelled him into the leading anti-Jaime Herrera Beutler Republican. And I was watching all of that as anybody checking the news was aware of it. I assumed in the end that Jaime would make it through to the general election one way or another because there were also many, many Democrats running. And I just figured that she's lost a lot of support from within her party, but surely there's enough of a base to get her through against widely divided opposition.
But little did I know that Marie Gluesenkamp Pérez had much different plans for what was going to happen. She jumped in the race in February, which is quite late to jump into a Congressional race - February the year of. But as she said many times, she saw a bunch of Joe Kent signs going up around her county where Jaime Herrera Beutler signs used to be. And it reminded her in 2016 when she saw all these Trump signs appearing. And she felt that if this guy really beat Jaime, and there was a good shot at that, that the Democrats didn't have a good candidate who could beat Joe Kent. So she got in in February while she had a - I guess at that point - he was a six-month old at home, running a small business with her husband. But yeah, yeah. But she felt that this was - we needed somebody to go up against this guy if the worst were to happen.
And a lot of people didn't really take her very seriously. I think that it's fair to say that - because people didn't think Jaime was likely to lose the primary, they didn't want to do anything to - they wanted her to be able to run the race that she wanted to run. And so I think there was a lot of Democratic establishment players in the state who were not as helpful down their pre-primary. Again, not saying that they were supporting Jaime necessarily, but they just didn't see it as a priority. And there were others who were helpful, but because of that, it was - I think for Marie, it was a kind of lonely primary in a lot of ways - because a lot of people just didn't understand and see the district as she did. And in the end, they were able to clear the field. There was some negotiations and talks between the Democrats down there and that sort of got itself sorted out. And she was the only major Democratic candidate on the ballot in the primary. And she advanced and got 31% of the vote.
And then as we all saw, it turned out Jaime was in a lot more trouble than I think any of us really understood. And ended up coming in very narrowly behind Joe Kent, by about a thousand votes, but that's all it took. And again, I didn't see it coming. I was watching this as anybody was - but I did have a friend, Delana Jones, who is a mail consultant, and I worked with her on Victoria Woodards' campaign - and she did Marie's mail as well. And I remember - I think it was the Thursday after the primary, and I was actually sitting in my office at the State Capitol because I was Lieutenant Governor's Chief of Staff at the time - just sort of looking at the numbers. And Joe Kent was not ahead yet, but based on the trend from what was coming in, it was just obvious that he was going to pull ahead once they actually finished counting all these votes. And I texted Marie's consultant and I was like - This is going to happen. OMG, what the hell are we going to do? And we got to talking - and I had actually been planning to take the fall off and reset my career and sort of think about what I wanted to do because I've been doing nonstop Congressional service or campaigns since Trump took office, basically, and was pretty burnt out.
But Marie, prior to the primary, had one paid staffer - and she did a great job in what she was able to do, but she had no campaign experience. She just graduated from college. And all of a sudden you're in this tightly, tightly nationally competitive race, if you could get the resources into there. So I said, Well, it's a less than 100-day thing. I know it'll end. And Marie's great - I'd never met Marie before, but I knew Joe Kent was a fascist and we could not let someone like that win a seat in Congress from our state. And we certainly could not do anything less than give everything we could to try and stop it. So I took a detour - I was actually in Taiwan for a lot of August because I had a prearranged trip to do that. So there was a lot of nights of working on candidate questionnaires while I was in Taiwan and then during the day - anyway, so I finally got back onto the ground in Southwest Washington - it was Labor Day weekend. And so for me that - yeah - that is in my mind when my direct involvement began, but that's how I ended up at that point. So it was not a plan, but when Joe Kent wins the primary, you got to scramble the jets.
[00:10:09] Crystal Fincher: Got to engage.
[00:10:11] Phil Gardner: Yeah. Yeah.
[00:10:12] Crystal Fincher: Wow. So looking at just even Marie deciding to run, I completely get feeling the alarm of looking at Joe Kent, feeling that he could win, and the history of the district saying - and he could win it all. What made her think she could win?
[00:10:37] Phil Gardner: Yeah. She gets her district, she gets her community. She lives 45 minutes from anywhere, God bless her. I've been out there to that house on that gravel road and it is rural - she gets her water from a well, her Internet from a radio tower. And out there in Skamania County in the Columbia River Gorge, communities are just different when you live that far away from large population centers. And your local government - the resources are just nowhere near what they are in other places. And I think she knew that a lot of communities in the district were a lot like that. And that's true about a third of the population that lives outside of Clark County, and even parts of Clark County are a lot like that.
But I also think beyond that dynamic, I think she knew - in this community, but I think all over the country - that Democrats had not done a good job of recruiting candidates who really look like America or really look like their base. The sort of prototypical, let's-go-candidate-recruiting is - Can you find somebody who has won an office before? Can they self-fund? Can they raise a bunch of money from a pre-existing donor network? Do they not have family obligations that are going to get in the way? Can they take time off to work, or do they not even work anymore? And Marie doesn't check any of these boxes, which is why when parties go to recruit, they often - in fact, very, very, very rarely come up with moms who run small businesses, and live out in rural areas, and who have a father from Mexico. But just because of the circumstances of this, she didn't ask for an invite to be the candidate. She stepped up because she saw it needed to be done. And then she won the primary and came up against Joe Kent - and that usual sort of screener for who are we going to run in really competitive races that just didn't occur because it wasn't even on the radar of the folks in DC.
But I think she could see that was so necessary in order to connect with people like her - who work in the trades, with Latino voters - who in some parts of the country, we've had a ton of difficulty in the Trump years, with a lot of sort of conspiracies and misinformation that goes around, but nevertheless has struggled in places like Florida and South Texas. But also in the wake of the Dobbs decision, having a woman who had recently had a miscarriage and who was having a family and planning to grow her family, be able to talk about the real consequences and impacts of Joe Kent's nationwide abortion ban with no exceptions. So I think she was - for Joe Kent - a particularly good foil, but she is also, I think, as anybody who has watched her, she is just a very gifted and talented public servant. I think it's wonderful that this is the way in which people have come to learn about her, but she has been down there in Skamania County really doing that work. She ran for County Commissioner in 2016. And Hillary Clinton, I think she outran Hillary Clinton by eight percentage points in a rural red county. So she knows what she's doing. I guess that is one message - I don't want to leave people with this notion that what happened here was a fluke or unexpected or not. It happened because she knew that this opportunity was there and then decided to take advantage of it. And slowly everybody came on board, or at least enough to get us over the finish line.
[00:14:12] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, absolutely. And that was apparent for a while. This - one, it takes a great candidate to win, period. Even if you have a great team around you, if you don't have a candidate who does connect with people, who does understand the district, and who is really - feels a personal responsibility for making things better, it doesn't connect, certainly not at this level. So she was a great candidate - saw the opportunity, stepped up thankfully, and was ready to run. But it absolutely took a great strategy, which you put together. You shared publicly a strategy memo that you put together basically saying, Hey, can Marie Gluesenkamp Pérez win? Yes, she can. And this, in detail, is how. What did you identify? What was in that plan?
[00:15:13] Phil Gardner: Yeah. So I wrote that back in August when it was - there were sort of two camps that happened right after the primary. There was a bunch of people who were like, Oh my gosh, this is obviously competitive. We have to jump at this. Let's do this. And then there are others who were like, We've got no shot. This just is not going to happen. And so I said, Okay, then I guess we need to explain to people who I don't think should have needed explanation, but did, that this is how we're going to win this race and just show beyond a doubt that we could. And so there are three components to it. The first is making sure that every Democrat knows who Joe Kent is and turns out in votes. And not just partisan Democrats, but progressives, working class folks, everybody who lives in Vancouver and Clark County - which is the most Democratic area - just very mobilize your base. This is stuff that Democrats, when they're on their game, know how to do - and devoting the resources and the attention to making sure that was going to happen.
The second was in the rural areas - the six counties outside of Clark County - which run from where Marie lives in the Columbia River Gorge, all the way out to the Pacific coast, and then all the way up into Thurston County, nearly to the State Capitol. There are some cities in there that we knew we could maybe win, but - and then Pacific County, we thought we could win and we did win. But broadly speaking, we knew in those rural areas - we're probably not going to win a lot of these communities. But it makes a huge difference if we are getting 35% of the vote there versus getting 30% of the vote there. And I think that is something that Democrats have all too often written off about rural areas is - it's sort of, Well, we're going to lose those areas by a lot, so we shouldn't even try. And losing them by 10 points less than you lost them is a bunch of votes that could be your winning margin, depending on the sort of nature of the district or the state. So we wanted to take that really seriously. And we knew that Marie was a really great candidate to connect with those folks.
And then the third aspect of it was - and these folks lived in all kinds of geographies - but making this very direct appeal to Republicans and Independents, who - anyone who supported Jaime Herrera Beutler, and just really could not stomach Joe Kent. And that was one of the most apparent things coming out of the primary. And the initial sort of looking at - who can Marie win - started with - who cannot stomach Joe Kent. And that is a very long list of people because Joe Kent often seems like he is intentionally trying to exclude and ostracize. And in fact, he is very intentionally trying to do that much of the time. But people can actually hear what he has to say and don't like the things he's saying. And I still don't think he's really ever caught on to that. But we knew that there were a bunch of people who supported Jaime Herrera Beutler, who maybe voted for Mitt Romney, but really didn't like Trump and the sort of direction the party was going under that. But these were not people who would typically vote for a Democrat, or really even consider a Democrat, unless you went out and made this very specific case to them and made it - not try to trick them, just be very honest, which was that - Look, Joe Kent is terrible. Here's all the terrible things in case you weren't aware. I'm Marie, I'm not a Republican, but I believe in democracy. I am going to listen to you. I'm going to hold town halls. I'm not going to embarrass you on the national stage. And asking those Republicans and those conservatives even to - again, not necessarily become Democrats, but just lend us your vote in this election against this guy, so we can beat him. That's basically what it said on paper. And then of course, the challenge is doing all of that all at once, and raising the money as you're spending it and etc, etc. But yeah, but that was the core. And we stuck with that through the end.
[00:19:11] Crystal Fincher: And so that is really interesting. An experience that I went through - you talked about letting people know who Joe Kent is - it is actually hard to do justice to how bad and scary he is by just explaining. And was in a number of situations with - did the KIRO election coverage, right? So talking to people there in the newsroom, another Republican consultant, right? It's just - trying to explain how just problematic he is. And they're just like, Well, maybe well, I heard it was moderating in the general election and he's moving that direction. And I'm like, No, you don't understand. And I had watched a number of his video clips, just researching going into there. It's just like - Okay, I just need you - sit down, watch this. And they watched a clip of him just - it's like he was not in the same reality as other people. Just conspiracy theories - denied - like January 6th was some CIA conspiracy, just all these things. And one, just - my goodness, Marie Gluesenkamp Pérez also sitting there next to him and having to debate someone who's not making sense in the same kind of reality that you are, but also trying to explain things. But after watching him directly, they're just like, Oh, okay, I get it. It was so alarming. Even Republicans there were alarmed. And so there absolutely was an opportunity to mobilize people and to get votes from people who traditionally didn't vote for Democrats. Now with that, how did you negotiate and how did you move forward and talk through - Marie is a Democrat, she has Democratic values - making that appeal to Republicans. How do you broaden a base while maintaining consistency with your values?
[00:21:13] Phil Gardner: Yeah. And it was a daily balance and a sort of figuring it out as we went. A lot of it was based on - well, it was mostly Marie's instincts. That's another - she did a lot of press during the election and afterwards. And as a communications professional who has prepped a lot of candidates for interviews, she does not require much at all. We chat about sort of the points she may want to make and if there's sort of one way she's explaining something and I'm like that may be misinterpreted, but by and large, she just knows what - she can smell what's good and what's off. And I think she knew what the media in her district was going to be. So using her as a guidepost - you know, she - right to repair, which is this issue that she talks about a lot, which is this sort of basic concept of if you own a piece of mechanical equipment or electronic equipment, you should be able to repair it. And there's home medical devices, tractors, iPhones, there's this long litany of things. And I will admit when I first heard her talking about this, I was like, This is, I don't, this is not a top of mind issue for voters. And it isn't - yet. I think it's becoming, partly because she is talking about it more and more in national media. But what was so interesting about it is people took it seriously. And it was very different from what they'd heard, not just a Democrat, but any sort of candidate talk about. And it did feel, the more they thought about it, more relevant to their day-to-day life than Joe Kent's latest vaccine gene therapy conspiracy or something.
She also talked a lot about the dangers of microplastics, which is something that there's a bunch of research that - there's just more and more presence of these almost-permanent plastics in very small quantities in placentas and fish and just anything you can measure. And what better way to replace all that plastic packaging than with paper and cardboard products grown in Washington's Third Congressional District. She took this very, again, not something that was in the headlines or a lot of people were talking about, but managed to connect it right back into voters lived experiences and daily lives, and talk about in a way that was different from Democrats. So she wasn't trying to sound like a Republican. She was just trying to sound and be like a different Democrat. And it is working,
[00:23:44] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, no. And I did notice that - the first thing I noticed was in the broader conversation about how Democrats, how the country sometimes is becoming more polarized - that bluer places are becoming bluer, redder places are becoming redder, and a number of Democrats are not performing well in rural areas. And to your point earlier, lots of times Democrats are not trying to compete in rural areas - thinking, Man, I just saw the margin in these other races when someone else tried to run, there's no way I'm gonna win there. So what's the point? But you saw the point. Hey, if you improve performance and you win in other areas, that's a win altogether. And one, her being a rural resident period and understanding the different context of life in rural areas, which is different. And I think a lot of people who do not live in rural areas, are not familiar with, or haven't spent a lot of time in rural areas - underappreciate just how different day-to-day life can look and be. It can be very, very different. And some of the things that you talk about in a metropolitan context, just there is no context for that thing out there. So talking about it just does not connect. It's not relevant. And I feel like, especially with a lot of Democrats not showing up in rural areas, that they are hearing lots of things from Democrats that they just don't see in their daily lives or that address their specific challenges. And Marie was able to directly speak to that, based on her own experience and really caring about making it better.
And showing up and the campaign showing up - showing up is - you can't win without it. You got to do that. You did it well. You got the message out. But also trying to pull together a campaign, a Congressional-sized campaign, without a lot of external help was a challenge you had to deal with. There was lots of coverage about the national party not helping as much as they did in some other close races - whether it's because they didn't consider this being close enough to engage with or not - not receiving the kind of support that you, seeing it as a competitive race, probably hoped for. What was that experience like and how did you manage your way through that?
[00:26:31] Phil Gardner: Yeah, it was excruciating at points. It was very frustrating, because we had an internal poll that we released publicly as far back as late August that showed Marie ahead by two. And this was at a time in national politics when the generic ballot was a little bit better for Democrats. And then there was this sort of whole freak out during the fall. And then I guess it turned out to be not quite that bad. But we had polling done by a very reputable pollster - I know people are trained to be skeptical of internal polling, but we hired a very reputable firm that everybody back in D.C. knew. And -
[00:27:08] Crystal Fincher: By the way, most campaigns do.
[00:27:11] Phil Gardner: Yeah. Like the campaigns - one, they're not going to spend all this money on research that's bunk. But it was, I think, two things. One was this knowledge that this district was - I don't think you'll find this in writing anywhere, somebody will say it on the record - but the district was drawn to elect a Republican. It's part of how our redistricting system works - is there's an incumbent protection that goes on. And this was Jaime Herrera Beutler's district. And in order to forge an agreement, they agreed to keep the incumbent safe. So with that knowledge that this district was drawn to elect a Republican, the notion that it could flip to a Democrat in a midterm with a Democrat in the White House, just - I think no matter what sort of facts you tried to put in front of people, they just could never get past that. But I think also that - I think people didn't - if Marie had been some, a man with a nice haircut - I just think there was something about who she was, and the fact that she was a young mom, and had never run for federal office before that people just thought, Well, surely she can't be putting together a campaign that could actually win. This is a novelty that's happening out there. And that was frustrating.
But I could also see, as we were trying to convince people of our credibility, that our fundraising was going extremely well, especially online. We've - driven by a lot of that media coverage, but then also the long list of people who are horrified by Joe Kent. In the end - third quarter, the third fundraising quarter - Marie raised $2.2 million in the third quarter, which was more than any other Democrat challenging for an open seat or against a Republican incumbent, except for the guy running against Marjorie Taylor Greene. But Marie outraised Democratic incumbents in frontline districts. And I thought at that point, surely they will now see that this is not some fly-by-night scam we're running out here - it looks non-traditional because it must be, but surely now. And even at that point - no, Marie was never named one of the DCCC's Red to Blue candidates. And we asked for that - we knew that there was, it was unlikely that we were going to get air support that we can't legally coordinate, but we just wanted the designation so that when we called donors in other states, they would know we were - because there's a lot of these donors who, if you don't, if you're not Red to Blue, they don't think you're a serious candidate. And that would have cost the DCCC nothing and they wouldn't give it to us. And, of course now it's - they're apologetic and such, but I don't know - I try not to dwell on it and be bitter about it because in the end, we won.
And I do think there's a silver lining in that because it wasn't on the DCCC's radar, the national Republicans also did not really get it on their radar. The national Republicans never spent anything for Joe Kent, which - we had always anticipated that as soon as we had our big fundraising quarter and started running our ads, they would come in with all these negative ads to slime Marie, and it just never came. And I don't know whether that was because the Republicans never really believed it was competitive, or because they just really didn't actually want Joe Kent in their caucus. And their attitude was - Well, if he doesn't make it, it's not our fault. It's his fault. And we've got a lot of other people who aren't so difficult that we're going to spend on. So I don't know, but it was - and he himself had a terrible, he was basically unable to raise any significant amount of money after the primary. Because I think once he had defeated Jaime Herrera Beutler, there was just not a lot of energy. And he was going around telling people that he had this under control - it was a safe Trump seat. And by the time he tried to pivot, it was too late to get his donors to notice or care.
So that is one thing - I actually, I think Joe Kent ran a terrible campaign in the primary. He just had Trump's endorsement and that was enough. And then they continued that terrible campaign into the general and it finally caught up with them. But, yeah, it was still on the inside - it was, and if you were on the ground there, anybody who was able to come - it felt very competitive. We could see that obviously we had all of the Democrats - anyone who voted for Joe Biden was behind us. And we were picking off these - elected Republicans were willing to appear in TV ads to support Marie. And it's - well, surely there's some amount of people who are coming along with this because we can see them. It was just not clear whether it'd be quite enough. But the notion that on Election Night, it leaned Republican - I think if the rankers who had put it in that category been on the ground, I think they would have felt very differently. Because it was not a surprise that it was competitive to folks who were in the picture.
[00:32:09] Crystal Fincher: Right. It was absolutely competitive - I think, just looking from the outside, it was - Hey, this is going to be close. Is she going to get enough? But especially in that situation, I think part of my personal frustration with some of the national establishment is that we also have to be willing to fight, and that we can't only engage when we feel like it's a sure thing. And if anything was worth fighting for, surely it was worth fighting - even if you hadn't yet engaged with how good of a candidate Marie was, you certainly could see how terrifying the prospect of having Joe Kent as a Congressperson is and was just unacceptable. And he was so far outside of what so many people consider acceptable or moral or decent. And we certainly have seen Republicans as a whole become more extreme, but he was like tip-of-the-spear extreme and proud of it and resistant to any kind of advice to do anything else. And so I am so thankful that you saw that opportunity, that we don't have Joe Kent as a representative.
But also hope that the things that you talked about, the reasons why maybe they didn't support Marie - create a lot of people a lot of reflection - and people who do have the ability to influence the people and the ability to influence where resources are spent locally and nationally, starting from just who an ideal candidate is. We've talked before on this show looking, hearing - Oh man, they're a great candidate. And a lot of times that's code for a guy who's a military veteran, a guy who is a business owner. And really it's code for this person has a profile that could be a Republican, but they're a Democrat. And reality is so much broader than that. The community is so much broader than that. And the things that people are struggling with today just throughout everyday life are felt by so many more people. Even who is considered the working class a lot of times is coded as just white people. And it's so many people. And so having a young mom who is running - family running an auto shop, living in rural Skamania County - was someone who was absolutely relatable. And I hope we learned those lessons - certainly at the legislative level, candidates who look more, who are like Marie, or who are candidates of color or LGBTQ candidates are actually outperforming and increasing turnout to greater degrees than candidates in majority communities are. So I really do hope we take out the filter that sometimes prevents us from seeing the people who are the most connected within their communities and who do understand them the most.
Going in and just how you went about defining who Joe Kent was and how you went about defining who Marie Gluesenkamp Pérez was - to people who maybe they realize an election is happening when they get the ballot in the mail, they were not tuned in throughout the months prior in the campaign, and you've got to reach them somehow, maybe not in person. How did you go about doing that? And what was your strategy there?
[00:35:41] Phil Gardner: Yeah. In running against Joe Kent, this was one of the challenging things because as you alluded - well, you had said earlier - it's hard to understand how bad he is unless you sit down and really take the time to - Oh my God, he really - he really thinks that. And of course, we don't have the luxury of voters actually mostly having the time or interest to do that. So it was a real - what are the worst things of the terrible things he's said and done that we're going to be able to bring up? And we had some polling to help with this, but we also just used some intuition behind what was easy to explain and what was really going to click. And so we narrowed around a top five hits on Joe Kent because we would spice it up a little.
But one is his national ban on abortion with no exceptions, which was his stated stance. Another was he told the New York Times that he wanted to put Anthony Fauci, they wanted Fauci arrested for murder. And there was one part in a Rotary that never got reported because it was a private event - but I was there - and someone stood up and said, Do you really believe this - that Anthony Fauci should be indicted for murder? And Joe Kent's response was, Well, he'll get a trial. This is what this man actually believes.
[00:36:52] Crystal Fincher: Geez. Yeah.
[00:36:54] Phil Gardner: Then there was the election denial, January 6th stuff - I guess that was actually - we mostly talked about that for the framework of Joe Kent wanting to abolish vote-by-mail. We found that was something that polled very terribly because - and I was a little skeptical to use it because I thought it would just be so unfathomable to people at this point that they wouldn't really believe anybody could or would do that. But it really did click. I'm glad we leaned into that.
He wanted to ban immigration for 20 years to establish a white majority. And that's a conversation stopper in a lot of rooms. And what was interesting is that is the one that more than anything else, Joe Kent would react very emotionally negative to. The other stuff, he wouldn't really try to dispute it. But that one he would. I don't know exactly why that is. I think on a certain level, he may know how messed up and horrific and toxic - and he may just know that he definitely doesn't want his brand to actually be associated with the people sort of spending every day of their lives pushing for that policy, which are people who exist in white nationalist circles that Joe hangs out in - but yeah, it was -
Oh, and then the fifth one, which he started talking about in the campaign - and he went to the right - was this whole defunding the FBI. Which, as a Democrat running in a Trump district, obviously we thought a lot about how was she going to talk about law enforcement because it's a top issue in any district, but especially when you're trying to win Republicans. And then Joe Kent just comes in and says, I think we should get rid of the FBI. And bunch of moms in Longview and Centralia, if you tell them - Are you going to sleep better at night with the FBI gone? - that's just not something that resonates with a lot of people in the communities that we needed to win over from the Republicans.
So that was the sort of cornucopia of awful-Joe Kent. But there was even terrible stuff that doesn't even make that list. He wanted to legalize machine guns. He doesn't believe people should watch professional sports because it's emasculating to watch other men. Yeah, no, this is an actual thing.
[00:38:51] Crystal Fincher: I didn't even know this one. Oh my gosh.
[00:38:53] Phil Gardner: Yeah. His tweets are just - there's just so many, there's just so much - but a lot of it, it's can we really turn this into a mail piece or a TV ad? Probably not. But it is just so weird.
And then with Marie, it was a lot of biography, but then basically just doing the counterpoint to a lot of what Joe was doing. She supports abortion rights. She believes in voting rights. She is not focused on these bizarre cultural conspiracies. And Joe said and did horrible, horrible mailers and statements regarding healthcare for trans people. And there was a debate in Longview where there was an audience participation point and they clearly organized to have his people come up and try to bait Marie on all these sort of cultural things about sports and bathroom. And this part never aired, I think, because the host realized that he had completely lost control of the room. But Marie would not yield an inch on any of those issues, and doesn't on any LGBTQ issues, and doesn't on any core rights issues - because that's who she is and what she believes. And that authenticity is what really matters and not engaging on these things that are so clearly just meant to divide. It was both mirroring him and just not swinging at the pitches that she didn't want to swing at.
[00:40:09] Crystal Fincher: And that's so important. One, I think people in rural and even suburban situations that I've been in - there are people who understand that they may disagree with you on some things. But they want to be able to trust you. They want to know that you're going to stand by your word and that what you see is what you get. And so her having the courage to stand by her convictions, I think helped - even with people who - Hey, I'm a Republican, you're a Democrat, but I can see that you seem to want to help, that you seem to understand the challenges that we're facing, and you get things done. Am I going to agree with you a hundred percent? No. But do I think that you understand how to help me? I do. I think you can help. I think that makes a big difference. And just the campaign not taking the bait is a good thing and not engaging earnestly with bad-faith tactics and calling out the bad-faith tactics, instead of trying to fact check or engage in all the minutiae and all that was a smart decision. And one I hope other people see how you handle it, see how others handle it, and do the same thing.
So now, we're at the point of the election. You have done a good job communicating who Joe Kent is, which - I really don't think people understand how challenging that is - even, some people think, Well, he's horrible. It must be really easy to run against him. It's hard to convince people - people who are horrible in a special way, impressively horrible, unusually horrible. It's hard to make people believe that someone actually is that horrible. People's first thought - Surely he doesn't believe that, man, this is a misstatement. This is an exaggeration. So you did that very well. Going through, turning out the votes, turning out the base, how did you approach just getting everyone to get their ballot in?
[00:41:59] Phil Gardner: Yeah, well, we tried to work the mobilization messaging into those same persuasion messaging that we were doing, like the vote-by-mail. We would say, Hey, not only are we reminding you to get your ballot in and that your ballots coming in the mail, but you should be aware the other guy, Joe Kent - he wants to get rid of this whole system. He wants us to go back to standing in line at polling stations. So if you'd ever like to vote in another election by mail again, we would really appreciate your support for Marie.
But it was a mix of very traditional mobilization operations. I guess with the voter mobilization, this was one of the challenges coming in after the primary was - to really do a lot of voter mobilization programs well, it requires money and investment and time. It's always put to the side by a lot of campaigns so they try to start it in July or something. To really have it really effective, you really need to have it in place starting pretty early in the year, depending on the size of the race. That just wasn't really present as much. There was a Coordinated Campaign presence from the State Party because Patty Murray was on the ballot, but there was nothing at the scale that we would have liked or would have been considered proper. But I thought that there was - the only option that – well, another thing is we couldn't really hire staff at this point from other place because any sort of top-field talent is generally already on a campaign at this point.
But there was a lot of energy from volunteers, and we noticed that. And so we tried this – it goes by a lot of names – the snowflake model, where you're really taking volunteers and giving them job duties and responsibilities that in a lot of campaigns would really be paid staff - and I think ideally should be paid staff, or at least people should be compensated for work that they're doing that they're not volunteering on. But it's a complicated model because if people just lose interest or don't have the enthusiasm, it doesn't really gel together. But there was enough, I think, both positive enthusiasm for Marie and antipathy for Joe Kent that - our field director had never worked in politics before. He'd never worked on any campaign before. He was a friend of Marie's from college, who had just run a restaurant for five years that had gone under because of some supply chain issues. But he was very, very organized and very good at logistics. We hooked him up with a brilliant strategist in Oregon named Hannah Love, who knows all sorts of field and mobilization stuff, and she transferred knowledge. Eventually, we had 500 people coming out to canvasses. So it was a lot of traditional stuff like that, but in a sort of non-traditional way - mixed with our messaging.
And then there were very specific communities who we wanted to go and talk to and make sure that they understood who Joe Kent was. One was the Ukrainian community, which is quite large in the Portland metro area, including on the Vancouver side. A lot of the members of the Ukrainian community here in the Pacific Northwest - it originated with folks who were fleeing the Soviet Union because they were evangelical Christians or Baptists and were being persecuted for their religious beliefs. Not everybody who's come over here since then is also a pastor or something, but they have family or friends - and so it's a very religiously conservative community. But they knew what Joe Kent's stance was on support for Ukraine, which is - Joe Kent doesn't think there should be any. In fact, he thinks it's all sort of a conspiracy theory to start World War III that Biden and Obama are all-in on and such. They didn't agree with Marie on a lot of things, but they knew that. Marie came and showed up and talked to them and looked them in the eye and said, I'm not going to abandon you and your family. And I think that really resonated.
And then also up in Pacific County, the Chinook Indian Nation, which has lived in the mouth of Columbia since time immemorial - they have been seeking federal recognition for many, many decades. There's no real question that they have all the necessary paperwork, and people should look into this online if they want to learn more about it, but it really is a travesty that they've not yet been federally recognized. Marie met with the Chairman and learned about this and heard - and we put out a statement making very clear that she supports recognition and would fight for it in Congress. I know that the Chairman and members of the Chinook indian Nation made sure that everybody who lives in the district knew that. It's a lot of this very targeted outreach that - the cookie cutter appeals and mass appeals are necessary and good - but we knew we were going to have to squeeze every - look under every rock or every mountain, whatever metaphor you want to use. It's not just one thing, but it was a mix of things.
[00:46:17] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, and you did a great job. So now we're to Election Night. What did it feel like when you got the results?
[00:46:25] Phil Gardner: It felt really good. I guess we all lived through this, but how I was looking at it is - because our results didn't come until 8pm and I think the results from the East Coast were not looking quite as bad for Democrats as I think we had feared. And so I was like, Oh, okay, well, maybe we could do this. Because for all that we did, just so much of this is just national tides that you ultimately don't have first-hand control over, but -
[00:46:52] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, and I should mention - going up to the results on the East Coast, that there was a lot of talk about races narrowing in the final weeks. There were a lot of internal polls that showed races narrowing in the final weeks of the campaign. So there was a big question about - are things falling out of our grip democratically? And so there was cause for a little bit of relief at least. And especially as we got further from the East Coast, further West - things were looking pretty good. And then 8 o'clock hits.
[00:47:20] Phil Gardner: Yes. So we're there in the Hilton - at the Clark County Democrats, their Election Night party usually is. And we knew that what we got on Election Night was going to be the highest that we were going to get. It was going to be our high-water mark - because Joe Kent, one of his conspiracy theories was that everybody should return their ballot on Election Day so then they know, they can't figure out how many fake ballots they need to create if we vote late. It's just bonkers stuff. But as a consequence of that, we knew that he was going to gain in these later counts. So I said, If we're not ahead on election night, then that's probably ballgame, folks. But even so, we needed to be ahead by a big margin. We needed to be ahead in Clark County by more than 10 points. And it came in, and I think we're ahead by 12, 12 and a half. And it's a little more exciting in these districts with multiple counties because there's some suspense where it's - Oh, okay, but what are we going to get in Lewis and what are we going to get in Pacific? And they just kept coming in, and they kept coming in and hitting those marks. And I was just like, Marie was just - we always knew that it could happen, but then for it actually to be happening - it just felt very surreal and out-of-body. And she was just overjoyed. And of course, very quickly composed herself to go get the speech done, and do - I think she did 9 or 10 interviews that night. But it was, it felt really good.
But at the same time, we also didn't feel like we could truly celebrate because we did know it was going to narrow. And so the race ended up getting called - Saturday night after the election was when all the media outlets came out. But I personally felt confident that I no longer had worry bugs crawling around my head that we were going to win - I felt that way on Wednesday night. And that was when I knew how many ballots had come in and I could see what the margins were. And I could also see - using these analytic models on the back end, I could essentially see the uncounted ballots - what those were probably going to be like. Because the ballots are roughly counted in the order they're received. So at that point, we know that there's this whole big batch of Election Day votes for Joe Kent, and I knew they would be better for him - but you look at the partisan modeling and I'm like - that's really not going to be quite enough for him. But there's one thing to know that and one thing to actually say it publicly, because you want to respect the process and that tiny chance you could get egg on your face. But that was, that was almost, that was excruciating in a sense. I mean, it was nice to have that internal confidence that we knew, but it was still maddening to go that many days after - but much better than obviously the alternative outcome. And they called that race Saturday night. And Sunday morning we were on a plane to DC. So she got to new member orientation just in time, but - not a day too late.
[00:49:58] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, I saw that. I was like, that was quick.
[00:50:01] Phil Gardner: Yep, it was interesting. They had invited Joe Kent, but they had not invited Marie at first.
[00:50:07] Crystal Fincher: Interesting.
[00:50:08] Phil Gardner: Yes. And then what they do in a lot of these races that are close, they invite both of them. And so then we were both invited and then Joe Kent was uninvited. But the materials for him were still lying around - I was at one point accidentally handed Joe Kent's parking pass for Capitol Hill. And I was - I'm sorry, this is actually not the person who won that election. And they were very apologetic and I get their - so it was just odd, almost - seeing the physical artifacts of this alternative reality that could have happened.
[00:50:37] Crystal Fincher: I'm glad we are not in that timeline - that would be a very bad timeline. We have more than enough challenges in this timeline that we do have, but that was such an exciting and uplifting race.
So now, because no one can ever rest and because Congressional campaigns start as soon as they end - now there's talk about, Okay, so can she hold the district? Can she get re-elected? It's one thing to have an aberration like Joe Kent on the ballot, but maybe that doesn't happen next time. How do you think she should be approaching these next couple of years? How can she hold a seat?
[00:51:12] Phil Gardner: Yeah, I think the starting point is to understand that she can. There are Democrats who represent districts that are more Republican or voted for Trump by a wider margin. Mary Peltola up in Alaska is the most recent example, but there's also a member from northern Maine named Jared Golden, who has a very timber-friendly, very rural district that shares some similarities to the Third. So we know it can be done, so we're not trying to do something nobody's ever done. But it's going to require her basically doing what she said during the campaign. There's not going to be some giant pivot - it's the same person she's been.
I think without - well, first of all, I think it's quite likely that Joe Kent runs again. I think Joe Kent is her most likely 2024 opponent because Joe Kent was planning on winning and then running again. And we didn't even get into this, but he apparently has no actual job - so he's not busy doing something else during the day other than running for office. So I anticipate he will run again, and I think he may have the name ID to be the Republican nominee again. But even without that, in the eventuality that Marie ends up running against somebody who is less conspiratorial on the Republican side, I think that voters are going to give her a chance. I think a lot of these Republican voters who originally voted for her because they were soured on Joe Kent - I don't think, at least from the conversations I've had with them and then some of the community members who have supported them - they are still with Marie. There will be a Republican. I don't know who it'll be. I don't know exactly how that'll impact how people make their choices down there.
But it's at this point an opportunity for Marie to show that she is that independent voice, that rural Democrat, that Democrat from the trades, working mom - and show people what a sort of different kind of politics and different kind of Democrat is. One of the first decisions Marie has made so far - back in Congress, there are these sort of ideological caucuses. There's a Progressive Caucus, and there's the more conservative one called the Blue Dogs, and then there's one sort of in the middle called the New Dems. And Marie's decided not to join any of them. She's joining the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, who was supportive during the campaign too. But I think she doesn't feel like she fits into a box really well, and her district doesn't really fit into a box well. And she's gonna need to be seen and be different from the sort of Puget Sound-area Democrats in the delegation and figure out exactly what that path is with her district. Because the nice thing is she showed up not owing anybody any favors, because so few people believed in her. So I'm just very excited to see - she's 34. She's born in 1988. It is just so amazing that we have, from our state, this just incredible public servant who really does represent generational change and change in a lot of ways, and is doing it in a seat where we beat a fascist. I'm just so excited and delighted to see what she's able to do.
[00:53:52] Crystal Fincher: I love it. And obviously, you did an incredible job on this campaign. You did great work. What other staffers or volunteers should we be on the lookout for from the campaign who are also superstars?
[00:54:05] Phil Gardner: Great question. So we had at maximum five staff. Tim Gowen, who was our Field Director, is going to be joining Marie's district office. Peter Sandifer, who is our Political Director. Julian Chapin, who read Michelle Goldberg's New York Times article, emailed us and said, I'd love to drive across the country and come work for you - and that's how you get to become a Deputy Field Director on our campaign because that's the kind of world it was. And then Madeleine Newton, who was the staffer before the primary and stayed on as the Deputy Campaign Manager. And then a whole suite of consultants from around the Seattle area and some back in DC.
I'm also just excited to see a lot of these volunteers who were engaged for the first time - what they end up doing. We had a lot of people who said they voted for Jaime Herrera Butler in the primary and then knocked on doors for Marie - it was the first candidate they ever knocked on doors for. It was, there are certain campaigns - they're usually presidential campaigns - but there are certain campaigns that really just leave a lasting impact on the people who were a part of them. And I think for a lot of people in Southwest Washington, this is going to be one of them. And I'm excited to see where that goes.
[00:55:06] Crystal Fincher: I'm so excited about Southwest Washington. It's politically, in my opinion, the most exciting area in the state and the area with the biggest opportunity in the state. Just looking legislatively, there are districts that are so close that have been so close that have been on the other side of 48-52%, 49-51%, 49-50% races over the past couple few cycles. With a Democrat in Congress, new people engaged in the district, people hearing from Democrats and talking to Democrats who maybe just hadn't before - presents so much of an opportunity. What do you see the opportunity being downballot moving forward?
[00:55:47] Phil Gardner: Yeah, well, I do think there - in Clark County especially, which this is the biggest county in the district, 61-63% of the vote where Vancouver is. But then there's a band of suburbs right around Vancouver as well. And Marie won by 10 points there. And it is one of those counties, like the suburbs of Atlanta or the Dallas suburbs, that once Trump came on the scene, there was a lot of moderate suburbanites who were - I don't know about this direction that this party's going. And so in addition to Joe Kent sort of accelerating that and Marie being appealing, there has been this phenomenon over the last six to eight years down there, where those Clark County suburbs are becoming much more friendly towards Democrats. And I think that, like you said, we keep getting real close. We redrew two of them pretty significantly and got up to 48%, 47% in a few of these. But I think it will be interesting and I'm optimistic that - there's almost a tipping point in a lot of these communities, where once the sort of prevailing cultural norms become more progressive, become more open-minded, become more friendly to folks on the Democratic side of the aisle - that that just keeps going. And I don't quite know where it stops. I think it'll take some time for it to happen, but I think it's going to keep going in that direction. And I think that's going to create some real opportunities for Democrats in those - in the 17th and the 18th, especially. But also need to run great candidates - candidates who are going to work hard, who know districts. And I will leave that to the folks working in state politics to figure that out. But I think that candidates who fit profiles that we know voters are going to like, we know this person is compelling, we know there's so much about them that fits in with our messaging, really making the person the message. I think we should look more seriously at those sort of opportunities and maybe not so much at what do we think is always going to be the best sort of candidate based on what's always been done.
[00:57:43] Crystal Fincher: Absolutely. Any parting thoughts that you would leave with people about things that you learned from this campaign or how people should be operating moving forward?
[00:57:53] Phil Gardner: Gosh, I both feel like I've learned so much and had no time to really stop and process at all. But I guess I'll go as big picture as we can get because that was a motivator for me in this, which is that I - sure many people listening to this - have felt very deep fear and concern that we're slipping into a sort of very anti-democratic culture and government. And this creeping fascism that we see all around us in different forms - the trajectory is really, really, really concerning. I believe Joe Kent represents that, and that was a big motivating factor for why I was willing to throw up everything to go and do this. And then it turned out Marie was fantastic as well, and so we get sort of a twofer out of it.
But I think after this election - because Joe Kent lost, because so many of these election deniers around the country lost, I do think we should feel heartened that there is apparently a bottom for a bunch of voters. And there are consequences to saying these things. But I also still feel that history is a long time and this is just one election cycle and we can't rest on our laurels. So as I look forward into 2024 and beyond, I would love love nothing more than to get back to the days where we're just fighting and trying to advance progressive causes on the sort of traditional D versus R axis that we may have known. But I think at least for the time being, there is also this very dark anti-democratic force that is out there and very present - and it's going to require more than I think what is typically thought of as being necessary. The careerists are not going to be able to solve this. It is a problem beyond the people just clocking in to work on campaigns. And we all work very hard and I think there are many brilliant people, but this is a force beyond what we have dealt with before. I spend a lot of time thinking about how we make sure that doesn't grow and doesn't go on. And again, I think we gave it a good bop on the nose this time, but I think it may be back and don't take our eyes off that ball. So that was a little darker than I intended, but I do think it's important.
[00:59:55] Crystal Fincher: But real. I spend quite a bit of time thinking about that. It's real, but there is hope. There is cause for hope.
[01:00:04] Phil Gardner: Yes.
[01:00:05] Crystal Fincher: And I think that in so many circumstances, I needn't look any further than my own family history - that that has been the only thing that has got people through some of those times - engaging, being active, doing what you can, and just holding onto that hope, and continuing to push. So appreciate so much you joining us today to have this conversation. Thank you for saving us from Joe Kent. And for putting Marie Gluesenkamp Pérez on our radar and in our Congress.
Just such a huge win. Such an exciting win. I know some - Election Night - I'm just like, Look at the Third District. People are like, Okay, what were you working on? I'm like, But look at the Third District. And stuff that I was working on turned out really well, I was really excited about that. But this was as exciting, I think, as a result gets because - I'd shared with people before - certainly felt that this race was worth engaging in, and fighting for, and knew it should be close. Didn't know if it could be. So had thought about the reality of Joe Kent and allies having significant control in our country and it was terrifying. So yeah, just so excited to be able to talk about this race with you, and such a great job on both the strategy and execution. And I also love hearing that your Field Director was new to politics and knocked out of the park anyway. And you were just a scrappy bunch who fought through without any - very little establishment support - and just made a way. So really good job, really exciting. And thank you for joining us today.
[01:01:43] Phil Gardner: Thank you. Absolutely. Thanks for having me on.
[01:01:45] Crystal Fincher: Thank you all for listening to Hacks & Wonks. The producer of Hacks & Wonks is Lisl Stadler. Our assistant producer is Shannon Cheng and our Post-Production Assistant is Bryce Cannatelli. You can find Hacks & Wonks on Twitter @HacksWonks and you can follow me @finchfrii, spelled F-I-N-C-H-F-R-I-I. You can catch Hacks & Wonks on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcasts - just type "Hacks and Wonks" into the search bar. Be sure to subscribe to get our Friday almost-live shows and our midweek show delivered right to your podcast feed. If you like us, leave us a review wherever you listen. You can also get a full transcript of this episode and links to the resources referenced in the show at officialhacksandwonks.com and in the episode notes.
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