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"It's About Alaska": A Story of Earthquakes, Norwegians and Neckties

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A grumpy Norwegian fishing boat captain, a Hulk necktie and nonstop rain in a small Alaskan village with not a single road leading out of town... if you had told me on August 23, 2010 that all of this was in my immediate future, I would have wondered what odd dream you had just woken up from.

The next day, it all began to fall into place.

Tuesday, August 24th was the day that Tea Party extremist Joe Miller defeated U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski in the Alaskan Republican primary. His victory was yet another in a series of victories for Tea Party candidates over incumbent Republican senators in their party's nominating contests. But what was different with Joe Miller's victory was the reaction seen in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

Within hours, progressives across the country went into action to help the unknown Democrat in the race - Scott McAdams. Miller's nomination created an opportunity to win a U.S. senate seat that, until then, national Democrats had written off as unwinnable. And the effects were immediately felt.

Within three days, I was asked to join the campaign team of the unknown mayor from Sitka, Alaska in his suddenly very-serious and very-real campaign for the U.S. Senate. Contributions were flowing in from across the country at a furious pace, the political establishment was beginning to notice and the mainstream media began to cover the developing campaign as yet another example of how unusual and unpredictable Alaskan politics can be.

But they were missing the real story.

Yes, Alaskan politics are different. But ever since the Dawn of Sarah, when the Alaskan governor was plucked out of relative obscurity to be John McCain's running mate, this had become a tired and oft-repeated routine of "Look how quirky those Alaskans are." Meanwhile, the story that no one was reporting was how progressives across the country were empowering a Democrat and putting him into real contention in what would ultimately be a three-way contest.

Over the next ten weeks, Scott McAdams would become the latest example of how the Internet has changed the way campaigns are run. In this volatile political environment, the energy and speed of thousands of political activists nationwide can quickly bolster insurgent campaigns when an opportunity arises. And this is a development that crosses party lines (witness Scott Brown).

It is easy to over-read this development -- it is a particular mix of factors that will cause a race to jump onto the radar of activists. It is most often seen in U.S Senate contests where there are national implications to every seat up for grabs, in congressional special elections when the political world often looks for national trends, and, of course, in presidential politics.

But of particular note is how, in low-cost states like Alaska, this surge of Internet-based activism can put a candidate into contention in a race where, at the outset, no one expects them to win.

So, this is the story of how Scott McAdams found himself at the center of a political earthquake with an army of supporters that he could never have imagined when he first entered the campaign.

But first, a little background -- because, yes, Alaskan politics are indeed different. And I had seen all of this before.

I was born in Anchorage, Alaska exactly seven days before the Great Alaskan Earthquake of 1964. On that day when the earth turned upside down and a tsunami pulled an entire Alaskan city out to sea, I rode out the quake blissfully asleep in my crib - with my father riding on top of the crib's rails as it careened from one side of the bedroom to the other, using his body to block falling debris from striking me, while he held on for dear life with a white-knuckle grip.

Had I woken up, it would have been an early lesson that Alaska has a way of taking you on a wild ride when you least expect it.

Growing up in Alaska, I was very aware of our state's interesting, and sometimes, tragic politics. I remember well -- as an 8-year-old in 1972-- when our congressman Nick Begich and House Majority Leader Hale Boggs were lost in a small plane somewhere in the clouds between Anchorage and Juneau, never to be found. Every morning for 39 days I asked my mother if they had found the airplane yet. On the fortieth day, she told me they had stopped looking.

I was in high school when a banker named Frank Murkowski rode Ronald Reagan's coattails and won the seat of then-senator Mike Gravel (later of rock-into-lake fame) in a 1980 rout.

And I graduated from high school on the very same day that, a few miles down the road in Wasilla, a little-known basketball player named Sarah Heath was also graduating - before heading off to her first of five colleges and an eventual place in Saturday Night Live history.

But this story really isn't about me. The point of all of this is that my upbringing in the last frontier gave me a unique insight into the rough and tumble world of Alaskan politics and a landscape of great beauty, vast isolation and occasional death by Grizzly bear mauling. And I had traveled much of the state during my lifetime - Ketchikan, Juneau, Fairbanks, Chicken, Tok, Coldfoot, Deadhorse, Prudoe Bay, Barrow, Homer and, of course, our own little place called Hope. But I had never been to Sitka. And I had never met Scott McAdams.

Two years earlier, in 2008, I had helped Mark Begich defeat the legendary Ted Stevens - a man who, 28 years earlier, had turned me down for a three-week high school summer internship, even after I had mustered up my courage and politely introduced myself on an airplane flight and told him how much I hoped I could be of service. I was a 17-year-old kid, but my parents were teachers, not Republican contributors, and I didn't merit much more than a grunt from the senator in first class.

So I waited in the tall grass for nearly three decades to help the son of the lost congressman in his quest to be the first Democratic senator from Alaska in 34 years. And we won.

In Alaska, all things and all people seem to be connected.

Now here it was, 2010, and I was talking long distance to Scott McAdams, the mayor of Sitka, about why he wanted to be a U.S. Senator. And it was a remarkable conversation.

Scott was not your usual senate candidate. The son of a single mom, he had grown up in Petersburg, Alaska, a small fishing village that I hadn't yet visited. He had worked as a deckhand in the Bering Sea and on a long-line fishing boat out of Kodiak. He coached high school football. He had been a teacher, a school board president, a later-than-usual college graduate and a relatively new mayor of Sitka. He had increased school funding, saved a hospital, and created jobs. And, as he liked to say about his wife Romee, "I married up."

Scott had decided to run against Lisa Murkowski purely because he thought that he could raise some important issues in the debates. He knew he was likely to lose in a landslide. But we have a lot of those in the mountains of Alaska.

In other words, Scott was real. And he was also very, very bright. I liked him immensely from the start.

So we had eight weeks to build a campaign from scratch and attempt an "impossible" win. We had the Netroots behind us, but we needed to build a campaign on the ground and on the air.

Our team was a crew of Alaskan political veterans -- manager Susanne Fleek, field general Leslie Ridle, advisors Tom Begich and Charles Wohlforth, pollsters Celinda Lake, David Mermin and Daniel Spicer, direct mail consultant Joe Hansen, press secretary Heather Handyside and me, the media consultant. Assisting from the DSCC were Teresa Vilmain and Martha McKenna.

At this point in time, Lisa Murkowski had not yet declared her intention to run as a write-in candidate. Early polling showed Scott trailing Joe Miller by 11 points (43% to 32%), but Miller was well below 50 percent. We could win this thing. But if Lisa jumped in, the race was Miller 36%, Murkowski 31%, McAdams 21%. If that happened, it would not be easy.

But, as noted earlier, the Netroots groundswell was already quickly building and it was clear that, because Alaska was an affordable state, we would have a well-funded campaign. Not only could we run TV advertising through Election Day, we could run radio, a direct mail campaign and a credible ground game.

As quickly as possible, we completed our own polling to help guide the TV and radio script development and the overall campaign strategy. While our poll was "in the field," Lisa announced her decision to run as a write-in. We anticipated this could happen, so our polling was testing two-way and three-way dynamics, and the message was clear - with Lisa in the race, too many Democrats were supporting her because they saw her as the best hope to beat Joe Miller. And no one knew who Scott McAdams was.

Our job was to introduce Scott, tell his story, try to pull some of those Democrats off of Lisa and position him for the hoped-for and likely event that Lisa and Joe would start annihilating each other. In the short time left (we could afford five weeks of television), our best hope was to "come up the middle" and be the candidate whose only focus was delivering for Alaska in a place that valued pork, earmarks and government jobs.

In fact, even before we completed our polling, we settled on a slogan that fit the campaign and character of our candidate. For Joe Miller, his campaign was about an extreme view that most federal spending was unconstitutional. For Lisa Murkowski, it was about her status in Washington and her many go-along-to-get-along votes with the Republican leadership, even when it meant voting against Alaskan projects. For Scott, as we said over and over again, "It's about Alaska." And that was the touchstone for the entire campaign.

I wrote three scripts in one short afternoon and a few days later I was on a flight out of Washington National Airport (I've never gotten the hang of calling it Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport) through Denver, Seattle, Juneau and finally to Sitka -- a somewhat typical 16-hour odyssey to remote Alaska.

My advanceman, Rob Grossman, had been scouring the town for locations and he reported that the weather had been beautiful. For six straight days. According to the locals, it was a veritable drought the likes of which you never saw in Sitka. Of course, tomorrow the rains were to return. Just in time for our shoot.

Our goal was to capture Scott's personality, the unique flavor and character of Southeast Alaska, and each ad would showcase Sitka -- a place that, even among Alaskans, had a special character and romantic ideal. The first ad would focus on Scott's life story, starting with his years as a deckhand. And a small line in a news clipping had caught my attention -- Scott had spoken of not being afraid of Republicans in Washington because, as he put it, "I've been cursed at in Norwegian." It seemed, in one colorful remark, to sum up Scott's character and how he would be a dogged fighter for Alaska.

The day the ad was released, it was featured on Rachel Maddow and led to a spike in Internet contributions. Then, as the ad made its way around the blogosphere, it drove our Internet fundraising even higher.

A second ad featured Scott trying on a series of neckties, in pursuit of the perfect tie to look more "senatorial," while talking about the battles he would fight as Alaska's senator. Some observers thought that Scott had settled on a bolo tie in a nod to the state's lone congressman, Republican Don Young. Actually, I had forgotten that Congressman Young liked the bolo -- I just thought it would be a good departure from the standard Washington look.

The kicker was the ending. Senator Stevens had been famous in Alaska for wearing a "Hulk tie" on the floor of the senate whenever he was in a fighting mood -- most often when he felt Alaska had been wronged. So I wrote an ending to the ad that was meant to be a sign of respect for the senator -- with Scott gently touching, but not wearing, a Hulk tie that was identical to the one Senator Stevens used to wear. In the ad, Scott leaves the tie in the tie rack -- a salute to his legacy and an acknowledgment that he wasn't yet ready to wear the tie.

If you lived in the "Lower 48," you probably didn't get the ending. If you lived in Alaska, you did. Despite my own personal history with Ted Stevens, I thought it was important for Scott to show that he understood what Ted Stevens had meant to the state. The senator had just perished on the side of a mountain in yet another Alaskan plane crash, and there was a palpable sense of "who can ever fill his shoes?"

Now, getting that tie was not an easy matter. We could not locate one for sale anywhere. I had found online the name of a collector who owned the tie, but tracking him down took some effort. Justin Murphy, one of my producers, scoured superhero chat rooms until he found the collector posting comments, not just about the Incredible Hulk, but also where he mentioned his home town. Not an easy thing to find. That allowed us to track down his phone number. After repeated phone messages, we finally connected with him and rented the tie for a few weeks. As I was traveling to Sitka, I double-checked my carry on so frequently that one would think I was carrying the gold briefcase in Pulp Fiction.

Now, some progressives think that there is nothing good that can be said about Senator Stevens -- but part of our shot at winning the campaign was to demonstrate that Scott McAdams understood the uniqueness of Alaskan politics and that even though he might disagree with Stevens on many issues, in the end, he would fight for Alaska just as hard as Stevens had. It was a necessary nod of respect if we wanted to win over hard-to-get moderates and independent voters. Without them, we would never rise into contention.

Our third spot, "Sitka" was the most comparative of the initial batch of scripts, and also attempted to capture the unflappable, indomitable spirit of Alaskans. "We're not much for carrying on, even when it rains" was a last minute addition to the script during the shoot. With the near constant rain that was drenching our candidate and video crew, it was my attempt to make lemonade out of lemons.

The principal point of "Sitka" was driven by our polling, which showed that Lisa's votes to cut Medicare and privatize Social Security were weak spots we could exploit IF voters were inclined to listen to us. The most difficult aspect of the campaign was trying to poll a three-way race with one of the candidates running as a write-in. There was no guidebook to show us the way. And every pollster was coming up with a different result - sometimes Joe Miller was ahead, sometimes Lisa, sometimes Scott closing the gap quickly. The consistent trend seemed to be Scott moving upward, with Joe and Lisa locked in a seesaw race. The candidate on top usually depended upon who was polling and the pollster's methodology of choice.

In the final days of the campaign, we decided to take our hardest shot at Lisa. We were concerned about tarnishing the un-politician brand we were building for Scott, but polling indicated that Lisa was strong and was still attracting Democratic women and Democratic-leaning independents. We didn't need all of them to win, but we certainly needed more of them.

We had been running some pretty tough radio ads targeted at women voters, laying out the case of how Lisa had been voting against Alaskan projects on the Appropriations Committee "where the votes are more hidden." We focused on votes against specific Alaskan projects, such as health care facilities and domestic violence prevention programs, and we tailored the scripts to the audiences in different media markets. One script for the Bush (the interior of Alaska) went into great detail about Lisa's votes "against erosion protection in Bethel, hydro power in Dillingham and early childhood learning in Toksook Bay."

Our final TV ad echoed these attacks, and we ran this in rotation with "Sitka" -- so voters would not lose their feel for Scott, his personality and his focus on doing what's right for Alaskans.

But in the end, it wasn't enough.

Not enough time, not enough ads, and not enough moderate voters who could be convinced, as Scott often put it, to "vote their values and not their fears." The irony is that Lisa Murkowski ended up becoming the underdog in a race against an increasingly discredited, yet still in contention, Joe Miller. Joe had had railed against public assistance, despite his own personal history of accepting government aid, and the release of employment records showed that he had a checkered past of lying to his government employer about political activities on the job.

As of this writing, Joe Miller is still contesting the election, despite being thousands of votes behind Lisa Murkowski. He's hoping that something will turn the results upside down. He just can't accept that his earthquake already happened back in August, when he won the Republican primary. Ever since, he's been riding a careening campaign on a rolling floor with a white-knuckle grip.

And Scott McAdams? Well, Scott's loss is not to say that all was lost. He now has one of the highest positive ratings of any public figure in Alaska, he is well positioned for a future run for public office, has a network of support that extends far beyond the edges of the last frontier and has the benefit of time to decide how he can best help the state that he loves.

For Scott McAdams, as always, it's about Alaska.

For progressives, it's about finding more candidates who can win. And sometimes, quite suddenly, you find them where you would least expect.

** Please share your thoughts in the comments section below about the McAdams campaign, what makes a good (or bad) television campaign, and whether or not you think Lisa Murkowski's winning write-in campaign was an aberration or a sign of things to come now that Tea Party activists are winning Republican primaries. **

Mark Putnam is a Democratic media consultant and founder of Putnam Partners, LLC. He is known for creating some of this decade's most memorable political advertising, including Barack Obama's 2008 thirty-minute television special, John Hickenlooper's "Shower" ad, Bill Richardson's "Job Interview" ads and "Western"ad, and Tom Udall's "Humbled" ad, among many others. You can read about his new firm at PutnamPartners.net.