How to Oust a Congressman: Step One
Republican Congressman Frank Guinta, former mayor of Manchester, New Hampshire, had no expectations of losing his bid for re-election in the summer of 2012.
He was up in the polls against his prospective opponent, Carol Shea-Porter, whom he easily defeated in the GOP wave of 2010. He had a clear edge in fundraising and the support of his district’s media. But by November 6, Guinta’s constituents couldn’t wait to vote him out of office. He ended up losing to Shea-Porter by 4 points after beating her in 2010 by 12 points — a 16-point swing in just two years.
And here is the story of how that effective, negative, campaign-changing attention to unseat an extreme rightist came about:
Between April and November of 2012 in Manchester, a small ragtag group of Occupy activists teamed up with CREDO SuperPAC’s small ragtag organization, with its bare-bones funding and staff, and for seven months used a combination of direct action, narrative control and tried-and-true political organizing techniques to build a movement that turned a once-popular congressman’s name into a toxic brand even his supporters were reluctant to embrace.
In this three-part series, I will explain how we did this and lay out a plan so that others can do this in their local community, to their own congresspeople, in 2014. This model also can work for incumbent state legislators inside their own districts, and even against well-established corporate-funded Democrats in primary races.
It’s important to remember that this is not and should not be understood as “negative” campaigning: it is accountability campaigning. We're not talking about digging up dirt in anyone’s personal lives, interviewing mistresses on TV or spending millions on attack ads. All we want to do is to help build a movement that holds our local congresspeople and state legislators accountable for voting records when those records show overwhelming deference to donors and special interests, rather than the interests of the citizens who elect them.
PART 1: DIRECT ACTION
Your Congressman, as an elected official serving at the federal level, will make news wherever he goes, doing whatever he does. A successful direct action will divert the narrative from the Congressman’s activity to your direct action, turning the narrative against him or her. The best direct actions are a trifecta of spectacle, humor and intelligence, using an overarching theme that ties it all together. An action missing any of these three things will likely be ignored or dismissed by the media you intend to capture.
Anything that catches the eye, that makes people stop what they’re doing and stare, is best. Even if you don't have many people to help carry out the action or a lot of money to spend on props, you need to create enough spectacle that you command attention to your message from anyone in the vicinity.
In August, one Guinta appearance was at a chemical plant in Merrimack, N.H., which is solidly conservative and favorable to Guinta. The event took place during the day, in the middle of the week, so our volunteer participation was limited. The five activists who came brought along a 50-foot sign made out of deer fence that read, “FIRE FRANK GUINTA NOVEMBER 6TH.”
We held the sign on the main road adjacent to the chemical plant. Even with only five volunteers, our sign was extremely visible and got the attention of every car that passed, inciting drivers to react with either a thumbs-up, a honk, or a middle finger. You can see a photo of the action here.
Your spectacle should be lighthearted enough to get support, and hopefully amusement, from neutral passersby while still being memorable and visible with the message. Anyone organizing a direct action needs to recognize the fine line to tread between getting too serious to the point of turning off people who want to listen to you, and having a great time with great props that perhaps don’t communicate your message as effectively as possible.
Your message won’t get through to the people who need to hear it the most unless you communicate it in a humorous way. That’s why so many more people watch Jon Stewart instead of Brian Williams. All of your direct actions should have a humorous theme that lets your volunteers and supporters have fun at your Congressman’s expense.
In one instance, Frank Guinta held a fundraiser at a late July baseball game, which became a staging ground for a day-long direct action. We learned about the event several weeks ahead of time when an organizer received a flyer promoting the fundraiser from one of Guinta's staffers. To prepare, we not only called every volunteer we knew but we gathered props and costumes for our baseball-themed event. I made another deer fence/tyvek sign that read “GUINTA = MOST VILE POLITICIAN.” We were also handing a “Most Vulnerable Politician” award to Guinta, face to face.
There ended up being more than 50 people at our action. We held wiffle ball bats and wore baseball caps and sunglasses, swinging and striking out for passersby, yelling out some of Guinta’s worst votes as we swung. One picture that went viral on social media was a female volunteer holding up a baseball-themed sign that advertised Guinta's atrocious record on women's issues. We even hired a local DJ to play music next to the action, putting a good mood on the day. The result: we informed and amused the crowd before they even went into the game, and gave those who didn’t know Guinta a bad first impression of the Congressman.
Remember: these are really, really bad legislators you’re targeting. They vote consistently against the interests of jobless veterans, women, and even 280,000 kids on school lunch programs, all to preserve low taxes for millionaires. They receive hundreds of thousands in campaign donations from big corporations, then vote on their behalf against the best interests of their constituents. Holding these men and women accountable for their atrocious record is the whole reason for your direct action. Intelligence is defined here as both effective communication of your message, along with acquiring knowledge of your target’s upcoming appearances to stay one step ahead of the game and always be on their tail wherever they go.
Our group learned about another upcoming Guinta fundraiser by chance, when we infiltrated a Seacoast Republican Women forum in Dover, N.H., and gained intel by acting like Republicans and schmoozing with the attendees. We learned Guinta himself wouldn't be there, so we used this information to plant anti-Guinta seeds amongst the attendees just a week before the primary (one of the attendees, the former GOP chairman in N.H., later wrote this disparaging op-ed about Guinta just before the primary). A table inside the event was loaded with flyers, one of which advertised an ice cream social that cost $20 to enter and featured former Republican Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty. Guinta's name wasn't on the bill, but his campaign office was located just a block from the fundraiser so it was safe to assume he would be there. We had three days to act.
We had been creating widely-shared internet memes casting Guinta as the Dos Equis Man, saying unflattering things about his record. In Manchester, a locally-owned bar/restaurant owned by an Occupy supporter had a cardboard cutout of the Dos Equis man, which we borrowed as a prop for the action. We printed out a portrait of Guinta, cut out the face and taped it over the Most Interesting Man’s face. Then we cut out a piece of cardboard that resembled a sack of money and we painted a green dollar sign on it before taping it over the bottle of Dos Equis the cutout was holding. This was intended to symbolize Guinta’s ongoing FEC investigation over $355,000 in unaccounted campaign donations. We then made two word bubbles, one of which said “I DON’T ALWAYS TELL THE FEC ABOUT MY SECRET ACCOUNTS,” and another that said, “BUT WHEN I DO, I DON’T.” We then posed for a picture with our Guinta cutout, shared it on social media, and watched it get shared all over our networks. We ended up with 40 people at our action.
Guinta ended up calling off the fundraiser, as there were more protesters than donors present. The best part was watching his donors and supporters drive up to the location, and telling them all that the event had been cancelled. An Examiner reporter documented the action and our message here.
The next part of this series will discuss how to control the media narrative and overwhelm a district’s political conversation with your message using traditional and social media, putting your opponent on defense in front of the community.