The Democrats had a strong midterm election, but the victory parade was not led by those who over the course of the campaign became progressive rock stars. The candidates who pulled off the most impressive wins on Republican turf, such as Kendra Horn in Oklahoma’s 5th District, Joe Cunningham in South Carolina’s 1st District and Lauren Underwood in Illinois’ 14th District, didn’t have glitzy viral videos that raked in small donor cash and made other candidates the toast of the left.
The candidates that did star in those videos? They all lost.
Randy Bryce, from the same Wisconsin district as Speaker Paul Ryan, became the first breakout star of the 2018 midterm cycle. He had been just a union activist and previously failed candidate. Yet his introductory two-minute video melded several dramatic elements that made progressives swoon. Bryce, a longtime ironworker, was portrayed as the quintessential working-class hero. His ailing mother was juxtaposed with a smug Ryan pushing repeal of the Affordable Care Act. The video ended with an audacious demand by Bryce: “Let’s trade places. Paul Ryan, you can come work the iron, and I’ll go to D.C.” (Ryan would later announce his retirement.)
The video racked up over 1.5 million views on Facebook and YouTube, and sparked a $6 million online fundraising boom, giving him an overwhelming advantage over his primary opponent, Janesville School Board member Cathy Myers.
The legion of progressive small donors buoyed Bryce before the candidate was fully vetted. So they didn’t know that Bryce had an arrest record that included delinquent child support payments. Myers tried to warn voters the rap sheet would be political poison in the general election, but her voice was drowned out by Bryce’s massive war chest.
Republicans not only used Bryce’s past arrests against him, as Myers predicted, they successfully recruited Bryce’s own brother to twist the knife and accuse the Democrat of wielding dangerous “cop-hating rhetoric.” Bryce lost by 12 points.
Amy McGrath’s video announcing her bid to represent Kentucky’s 6th District was so powerful, Politico immediately declared that it represented “[w]hat House Democrats want 2018 to look like.” She was a political novice. But her recounting of how she busted the glass ceiling for female fighter pilots, told on a tarmac while wearing a bomber jacket, led to 2 million YouTube views and just as many campaign dollars. She faced a proven vote-getter in the primary, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, who ran for Senate in 2016 and outperformed Sen. Rand Paul in the district. But McGrath’s newfound star power was too much for him.
McGrath didn’t have a skeleton in her closet. But she was a political amateur not used to tightly controlling her words. The campaign of her Republican opponent, Rep. Andy Barr, managed to get audio from a Massachusetts fundraiser in which McGrath declared, “I am further left, I am more progressive, than anybody in the state of Kentucky”—it became the signature at the end of several of Barr’s attack ads. And McGrath’s assessment of Donald Trump’s proposed border wall as “stupid” was too blunt for the district, and also became an attack ad staple. (More successful Democratic candidates steered clear of such controversial statements in order to keep attention on health care.)
Gray was not as flashy a candidate as McGrath. While openly gay, he didn’t talk about breaking barriers in his ads, instead showing off his ability to utter hackneyed folksy sayings. But as a practiced politician, he might not have replicated McGrath’s mistakes, and might not have lost by three points.
Another viral video bust was from M.J. Hegar, who contested Texas’ 31st District. The cinematic general election ad “Doors” was filmed, according to the entertainment site IndieWire, “using a steadicam, whip pans, and transitions [to make it look] like it was one long shot.” Like McGrath’s video, it told a story of a female military veteran breaking barriers, but also had Hegar sharing how she got shot in Afghanistan and how her mother left her abusive father. The video scored a whopping 6 million views on Facebook and YouTube, and brought in enough money to outspend her Republican opponent.
But the 31st is a very conservative district that voted for Donald Trump and Mitt Romney by double digits; it’d be uphill for any Democrat. Hegar lost by a respectable three points, but that’s not because of the ad; the more humdrum Democrats who ran in Texas’ similarly conservative 10th, 21st and 24th districts also lost by two to four points. (Shockingly, the Democrats in the 10th and 24th had barely any money at all.)
Hegar’s case is not one in which a viral video impacted the primary and deprived Democrats of a potentially superior nominee. But the lessons of Hegar, McGrath and Bryce all strongly suggest that in the future, small donors should not so easily succumb to “Love at First Viral Video Sight.” A slick video may seduce you into steering money into extraordinarily difficult districts while overlooking blander candidates in more winnable races. And though a strong ad can portray a candidate in the best light possible, it won’t tell you about the worst light.