Paul Wellstone was a liberal bordering on socialist. A liberal political science professor and community organizer, Wellstone was the opposite of what any conservative would aspire to be. When he ran for United States Senate in Minnesota in 1990, the DFL (Democratic Famer Labor Party of Minnesota) basically wrote him off. The incumbent Republican, Senator Rudy Boschwitz, was sitting on a $6 million war chest and no one seemed to be up to challenge the entrenched Senator.
Boschwitz, despite his millions, was the quintessential-wine-and-cheese-establishment IR (Independent Republican of Minnesota). He was moderate, dull and boring. When his campaign would dress-up a nerdy Boschwitz in a red-flannel shirt, it was as if he was trying too hard to be a working man of the people.
Wellstone, however, capitalized on this and ran a populist campaign as a man of the people. He worked hard on his campaign. He had to as he had little money – and who would give to him? Nobody thought he could win. Wellstone acquired a beat-up old school bus, painted it the colors of his campaign (green and white) and drove the wheels off of it – travelling all over the state. He had a strong student and youth following which significantly helped his door-to-door and city-to-city campaign.
It was a David-versus-Goliath campaign. Wellstone, a former college wrestler, was short. Boschwitz, a tall, lanky man, towered over him. Boschwitz was seen as shoe-in to win re-election and Wellstone was the DFL’s lamb for the slaughter.
To use the old adage, Paul Wellstone “took lemons and made lemonade.” He used Boschwitz’s war-chest against him in probably the most ingenious political advertisement in history, his first political advertisement by North Woods Advertising, entitled “Fast Paced Paul”:
The advertisement is somewhat humorous but effectively gets his message across. It even begins with “Hi, I’m Paul Wellstone and I’m running for the United States Senate from Minnesota. Unlike my opponent, I don’t have $6 million, so I’m going to have to talk fast.” Wellstone, in a thirty-second advertisement, is seen running from scene to scene, introducing his family, showing his childhood home and speaking about his main campaign issues in different venues.
The “Fast Paced Paul” advertisement made him likeable, an everyman, even “one of us.” Despite his liberal and socialistic leanings (he would be later nicknamed the “Senator form the Left”), he seemed like a regular guy people could find commonality.
Boschwitz hardly campaigned and when he did it was cold and pathetic. Senator Boschwitz stayed in Washington, D.C. during much of the campaign season, which he claimed during a debate was due to Senate business. Nevertheless, Wellstone was campaigning all over Minnesota and Boschwitz was in D.C.
Wellstone took advantage of this as well with his next political advertisement (again by North Woods Advertising) entitled “Searching for Rudy”:. “Searching for Rudy” was again somewhat humorous, but hammered Wellstone’s message across. He traveled to different locations, even Senator Boschitz’s campaign office, looking for Rudy (who is nowhere to be found), asking everyone he can if they have seen him because he would like to schedule a debate and cannot get in touch with him. He speaks with citizens who all agree a Senatorial debate would be a good idea and something they would ordinarily expect. Wellstone even gives his home phone number to Boschwitz’s U.S. Senate state office staff (mobile phones were scarce back then). The advertisement painted Boschwitz as out of touch and not caring. It also forced Boschwitz into debates with Wellstone.
The counting of the ballots went into the wee hours of the morning and Wellstone won a narrow and miraculous victory. David had beaten Goliath. Boschwitz was the only incumbent United States Senator to lose that year.
Conservatives could learn a valuable lesson from the populist campaign of Paul Wellstone. He was likeable, worked extremely hard and was seen as a man of the people versus a Washington insider with megabucks. He used Boshwitz’s strengths (such as money and popularity) as a weapon against him. Wellstone welcomed and inspired young people and those who would not ordinarily get involved in politics to help his campaign, including racial minorities.
Unfortunately, bad incumbents are often protected., Republican or Democrat. A recent example is RNC Chairman Reince Priebus’ endorsement of Senator Mitch McConnell over conservative-grassroots favorite, Matt Bevin, who is supported by Former Senator Jim DeMint of the Heritage Foundation and other popular conservatives.
Perhaps Bevin and other conservatives campaigning for office should take a page out of the 1990 populist campaign of late Senator Paul Wellstone and use Goliath’s strengths against him.