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Feinstein’s Former Campaign Manager on How to Defeat a Self-Funded Candidate

In Florida politics, self-funded candidates are faring well in the polls, with the multi-millionaire political neophytes Jeff Greene, running as a Democrat for U.S. Senate, and Rick Scott, running as a Republican for Florida governor, now even with or ahead of their more established primary opponents, Rep. Kendrick Meek and Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum.

Kam Kuwata, former campaign manager for Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), has some advice for Meek and McCollum.

In the 1994 U.S. Senate race in California, Michael Huffington (ex-husband of Arianna Huffington) took the Republican primary by storm to face Feinstein, a one-term incumbent, in the general election. Huffington was largely self-funded — he is the heir to the natural gas/energy company Huffco. He was a relative newcomer to California, moving there only a couple years earlier from Texas. And Huffington saw his ratings shoot up as he spent heavily on his campaign — an estimated $28 million.

“I remember it more clearly than a lot of races that came after it,” Kuwata recalls. “We had a huge lead, like 25 points, going into this.” But they knew to take Huffington seriously. They had seen him spend wildly to win a congressional seat in 1992, then go on to win the Republican Senate primary. “He started advertising during the Winter Olympics for a June primary,” Kuwata marvels. By the time Huffington won the primary, Feinstein’s 25-point lead had dwindled to a dead heat in the polls, Kuwata recalls. Throughout the rest of the summer and fall the polls seesawed.

“I was more than sweating,” Kuwata says. “I wasn’t sleeping. I was eating too much and drinking too much. So yes, it was a nerve-wracking effort.”

The strategy was simple. Start with “message discipline”: Have a simple, easily understood message, and repeat it over and over. “Huffington, the Texas oil millionaire Californians can’t trust,” was the tag Kuwata used. Then Kuwata made sure to identify swing voters. Finally, the campaign had to hold steady and wait till the timing was just right to unleash its paid media blitz.

In Feinstein’s case, Kuwata says, they clearly couldn’t match their opponent’s spending, so they spent the summer reaching out to “earned media” (journalists), trying to make sure they were informed about every questionable thing Huffington had ever done. Then about eight weeks before the election Kuwata unleashed the paid ads. That was the period in which he believed voters were starting to make up their minds and paying the most attention.

Feinstein won the election by less than 2 percentage points — 46.7 percent of the vote to 44.8 percent.

Meek’s challenge is that, unlike Feinstein, he doesn’t have much name recognition outside of Miami. But Meek has not unleashed his paid media campaign yet. His camp is hoping for a surge when he starts appearing on TV.

McCollum, meanwhile, has been criticized for ignoring Scott, whose controversial past running a hospital chain that pleaded guilty to Medicare fraud initially made him an implausible candidate. But Scott’s ads helped turn him into a recognizable figure throughout the state. (McCollum spokesperson Kristy Campbell contends they took Scott seriously right away.) The McCollum camp is also hoping for a surge when it starts its paid campaign.

“We had to really make every bullet count,” Kuwata says. “It was tough.”

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