Case Studies

Matt Cartwright PA CD-17

Winning The “Unwinnable” Election

MattCartwright_SnrLady-1024x576Defeating an incumbent congressman is a daunting task when one is running against a member of the opposite party. It is even harder when you are trying to defeat an incumbent in a primary. This is because the incumbent almost always has the entire party apparatus supporting him or her. First-time candidate Matt Cartwright found himself in this position when he decided to challenge 10-term incumbent Congressman Tim Holden in the Pennsylvania Democratic primary for the 17th congressional district. Cartwright began the race trailing Holden by double digits. Polling by Thirty-Ninth Street Strategies found that voters were not happy, and believed that corporations and wealthy Americans seemed to be controlling what happened in Washington, D.C. There was clearly an “economic populist” view running through the Democratic primary electorate. This played right into Cartwright’s positions: he wanted to repeal the Bush tax cuts and make wealthy Americans pay their fair share, give middle and working class families’ tax cuts for child care and home elderly care, strengthen the health care reform law, and protect Northeast Pennsylvania’s environment.

Using the information from the benchmark poll, Thirty-Ninth Street Strategies honed the campaign’s message. The campaign’s paid communications highlighted Cartwright’s work as a trial attorney, helping individuals take on big corporations in federal and state court, and how he would stand up to corporate greed as a Member of Congress. A mere three weeks after Cartwright began communicating with voters, he had erased Holden’s lead and led by six points.

A 10-term incumbent is not going to give up without fight. Holden immediately began attacking Cartwright on television, but the Cartwright campaign was ready. We had tested potential attacks against Cartwright and knew exactly what to expect and how to respond. We also tested messaging on Holden’s record in Congress, and knew where the fault lines were. Holden was especially vulnerable as one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress and his votes against President Obama’s health care reform law, as well as legislation that would have strengthened the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act created opportunities with a new electorate. Making matters worse for Holden was that he had taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from banks and financial institutions, the health care industry, and oil and gas companies – the very same industries and companies that Cartwright had been taking on in court for 25 years. The most surprising result from the poll was that Holden’s vote against health care reform did not anger Democratic primary voters the most. Rather, Holden’s vote to create the “Halliburton loophole,” which allowed oil and gas companies to engage in hydraulic fracturing without having to disclose what chemicals and toxins they use, did not sit well with Democratic primary voters. In fact, 47% of Democratic primary voters favored fracking in Pennsylvania while only 36% opposed it, a nearly universal 91% opposed the Halliburton loophole.

The Cartwright campaign immediately fired back with this line of attack, discussing Holden’s vote to create the loophole. While the campaign made sure to highlight Holden’s vote against health care reform, it only supported the communications involving the Halliburton loophole. Over the course of the campaign, Thirty-Ninth Street Strategies polled four times for the Cartwright campaign: a benchmark poll, a trend poll, and two tracking polls. Based on these polls, Thirty-Ninth Street Strategies was able to tweak and make sure the paid communications stayed close to the message that polling showed would work. On primary day, Cartwright scored an impressive upset over Holden, winning by 14 points, making him only the second Congressional challenger in 2012 to defeat an incumbent in a primary.

In The News

The Times Tribune – Cartwright topples incumbent Tim Holden:

Scranton attorney Matt Cartwright toppled 10-term incumbent U.S. Rep. Tim Holden Tuesday night, capturing the Democratic nomination in the sharply redrawn 17th Congressional District. Read more

Cartwright Talks Thirty-Ninth Street Strategies on 103.1 WILK:

Hear Matt Cartwright talk about Marc Silverman and Thirty-Ninth Street Strategies on WILK

Thirty Ninth Street Strategies