A Republican underdog looking to pull off an upset in a Massachusetts House race is hoping that a guerilla social media campaign can trump massive out-of-state donations, mainstream media bias, and dynastic power.
Republican Sean Bielat faces off against Democrat Joseph P. Kennedy III in Massachusetts’ 4th Congressional District in November. Kennedy has received an extraordinary amount of out-of-state fundraising and favorable coverage from liberal mainstream media outlets more focused on his last name than his district.
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Kennedy, 31, held a fundraiser last Thursday at his family’s Hyannis Port compound. The event was co-hosted by his grandmother Ethel and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Massachusetts Democratic congressmen Barney Frank, Bill Keating, Ed Markey, Richard Neal, John Tierney, and Niki Tsongas were in attendance. A ticket for four to the event, with access to a photo line, cost $35,800.
The Hyannis Port fundraiser was no outlier.
"His fundraising is just ridiculous, both in quantity and by virtue of the fact that he's started a leadership PAC. How many first-time candidates start leadership PACs because they're raising so much money?" Bielat, a former Marine Corps officer and Barney Frank's Republican challenger in the district in 2010, told the Free Beacon.
"If you look at his FEC report, you have to go 5 or 6 pages before you find a donation below $1,000," said Massachusetts political consultant Brad Marston. "It’s all these family connections that have been set up over six decades."
Bielat’s campaign has utilized social media and humor to combat Kennedy’s connections. An August 24 item on the Bielat campaign blog criticized Kennedy’s fundraiser and used it as the inspiration for a tongue-in-cheek fundraising appeal.
"That's $35,800 for dinner and a photo-op with a 31-year-old candidate with virtually no professional experience," the Bielat campaign wrote in its fundraising appeal, which asked supporters for a $35.80 donation—one-thousandth the cost of a Kennedy ticket.
Kennedy has also benefited from favorable media attention at both the local and national level.
The liberal Boston Globe has run a handful of profiles of Kennedy, focusing on topics such as his teetotaling, his new dog, and his upcoming marriage. Little has been said about his massive war chest or reliance on out-of-state fundraising, however.
"I found it almost unbelievable that he would have a fundraiser like the one he had in Hyannis Port, and the Boston Globe didn’t even mention it," said Marston. "Obviously I don’t know what their motivation is, but I just found it curious that they chose not to report on something that would have gone against the Kennedy storyline that, ‘I’m just your average Joe, man-of-the-people kind of guy.’"
"The national media is gaga for the guy, and it's absolutely just because of his name. The Kennedy brand is about bigger government, higher taxes. So, the New York Times will do a puff piece on him, or even the Boston Globe here in town," said Bielat.
Bielat, meanwhile, is combating his funding and media challenges with a social media campaign to "Keep Congress Kennedy-Free." His campaign tactics speak to his background in consulting and his current work as the CEO of a social-media startup.
Bielat launched the website JoeKennedyGiftRegistry.com in late July, following news that the Kennedy campaign—despite having raised $2.6 million by that point—sent out a fundraising e-mail asking supporters to help buy office supplies.
Bielat’s stunt earned wide coverage in local media outlets and conservative national outlets such as the Daily Caller and the Michelle Malkin-founded tweet-aggregating site Twitchy.
"Social media plays a huge role in the campaign," Marston said. "Even without buying Google Ads, which we’re launching on Monday or Tuesday, social media is an inexpensive way for Sean to get his message out and energize and interact with his supporters. Social media was huge for Sean in 2010 in nationalizing the race."
Team Bielat uses Twitter to personally thank, by name, every contributor to the Bielat campaign, as well as to broaden Bielat’s support among anti-Kennedy types across the country. That strategy helped Bielat in 2010 because "there are people all over the country that hate Barney Frank," Marston noted.
Bielat believes it is absolutely imperative for Republican candidates to bypass the mainstream media in their messaging strategies.
"I don’t have to rely on the local media to get my message out," he said. "Social media makes that possible. It makes things much more democratic, and it creates a much more level playing field. I think Kennedy will have a much more difficult time utilizing it. Social media is more suited to messages not being expressed elsewhere. It's more about the underdog story."
"The same guy, John LaRossa, who is advising the Bielat campaign on social media is the guy who created the ‘41st vote’ hashtag in the Scott Brown special election," Marston said, referring to the 2010 meme based around Brown’s vote to block Obamacare.
"That created the value proposition for someone in Alabama or Illinois or anywhere in the country to get involved in the race and donate to Scott Brown," Marston added.
If the election came down to social media prowess, Bielat would win: His campaign Facebook page has more than 10,800 "Likes" while Kennedy’s has less than 6,700. Bielat has more than 7,100 Twitter followers. Kennedy has less than 4,300.
"We’re constantly monitoring Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and we’re already seeing candidates replicate our model," Marston said.