Signs, cash, puppies: competing strategies in state’s most expensive primary

Jeff Landfield has used limited funds to garner "earned media," aiming to recruit untapped primary voters. (Photo: taken from Landfield for State Senate)
Jeff Landfield has used limited funds to garner “earned media,” aiming to recruit untapped primary voters. (Photo: taken from Landfield for State Senate)

One of the most closely watched races in next Tuesday’s primary election is Anchorage’s Senate District L, stretching from a commercial patch of Midtown to some of the most conservative corners of South Anchorage. The seat is currently held by Republican Lesil McGuire, who is stepping down, and competition to take her place is fierce.

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As the Republican candidates vie for just a few thousand votes, three very different strategies are emerging in the state’s most expensive primary race.

Even if you don’t to live anywhere near the Senate L district, you’ve probably spotted Jeff Landfield’s signature red hats that read “Make Alaska Great Again.” Or perhaps you’ve seen his satirical, almost irreverent ads pop up in your social media feeds.

One features the candidate inside a helicopter, with music and alternating shots citing an iconic scene from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.

“Hi this is Jeff Landfield, coming to our from above the Senate District L — the greatest district, in the greatest state, in the greatest country in the world,” Landfield shouts as the rotor whirs above Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.”

For months now, Landfield has cast himself as a mischievous outsider, making fun of establishment politics. And to some extent, that’s working well: he’s received a lot of what’s called ‘earned media,’ which is when news stories buzz about a candidate because they’ve done something to earn the attention.

And that is no accident.

“If we think it’s funny and we say ‘there’s no way that someone could do that,’ then we tweak the idea until it’s something that could be broadcast on social media,” said Cale Green, Landfield’s campaign consultant and owner of Sockeye Red Services. “People want to discuss it, because it’s not what they’re used to.”

The style of the ads complements the substance of Landfield’s main argument: that the status quo in Juneau isn’t working. The videos are relatively inexpensive — some are shot just on an iPhone, requiring only a few hours to edit. They are meant to get shares and likes on social media, not hold eyeballs or ears on TV or radio. In one, former Republican legislator Andrew Halcro addresses an attack ad made against Landfield in a mailer while the candidate stands nearby petting a puppy, silently.

“You have to have a message that has never been done before,” Green said over the phone.

His intent is to interrupt expectations around political ads, and in so doing reach potential voters who don’t usually show up for primary elections.

“The reason that those people have been tuning out is because that message hadn’t appealed to them, and there are far more people who aren’t voting than are.”

Green is right about that.

Four years ago, this district’s Republican primary contest (then Senate K) saw just 16.4 percent of eligible voters turned out, casting 4,031. McGuire beat Landfield that year by just 475 votes.

Given that the three candidates have raised $248,523 as their latest filings with the Alaska Public Offices Commision, should turnout hold around 2012 levels, they will have spent $59 per vote. Green anticipates a slightly more eligible voters to show up given that there’s a national senate race also in play — but not too many.

Small turnouts make elections very unpredictable, because just a few votes could determine the outcome. How a candidate cuts through all the noise to reach that small slice of committed primary voters is crucial.

While Landfield has turned to new media to recruit new voters, Representative Craig Johnson is putting his faith in an old fashioned approach: giant signs.

“This is the first time I’ve had 4-by-8 signs,” Johnson said, “largely because it’s a bigger district now, and I have name ID I need to get out on the other side of the district.”

Johnson says that with limited time to campaign since the end of the last special session, and given comparably modest funds with which to do so, the signs are an efficient way to his name in front of voters.

Johnson gave up his seat in the state House to run for Senate. And because it’s a new office for him, he doesn’t see himself as an incumbent. But in many ways he’s acting like one. Many of his campaign donations are from Political Action Committees close to Republican causes, as well as legislative staffers and consultants. His record on conservative issues is earning him endorsements. And he has a solid template for how to run a race: He is his own campaign manager to cut down on costs, and instead of hiring a media company to handle his ads he went straight to the local NBC affiliate, Channel 2. Which is a shrewd move, not only because it is less expensive, but because that’s where a lot of people are watching the Olympics right now.

He views his experience as an asset, allowing him to spend on actual ads rather than “paying people how to tell me to run ads.”

That’s a dig at the race’s third Republican candidate, Natasha Von Imhof, who has raised, by far, the most money of any primary candidate in the state: $147,421. Many of those funds came through fundraisers and donations from prominent members of the business community.

Simultaneously, Von Imhof has spent the most of any candidate, with a huge share of it going to consultants and services at Bright Media, a subsidiary of the Brilliant Media advertising agency. This is in line with the strategy one needs to unseat an incumbent, according to Willis Lyford, Von Imhof’s campaign adviser at Bright Media.

“From the outset we looked at this campaign as one where we’d likely face an incumbent, or a virtual incumbent, in Representative Johnson,” Lyford explained, “so we knew that resources going in would be very important.”

Adding consulting fees, mailers, ad buys on TV and radio, production, and graphic design work, Von Imhof has paid more than $75,461 to the company for services. Even with all that spending, Von Imhof’s message hasn’t been spread as broadly as one might expect. Mailers criticizing Landfield and Johnson are targeted at likely primary voters. Facebook ads are aimed at residents within the district, which Lyford said is a more economical approach to social media than a general appeal.  And the candidate’s TV ads tend toward a more traditional political style.

“Rudy and I both love to cook,” Von Imhof says in one ad introducing herself, her husband and her family. “I make a delicious moose chili, and in the summer, Rudy take care of grilling the fish.”

The scripted, rehearsed, and highly produced look these kinds of ads can seem generic compared to Landfield’s helicopter and puppy gags. But Lyford is confident in explaining that the goal of this sort of message is reaching a narrow, targeted segment of the electorate.

“Let’s be real: we’re talking about a Republican primary in South Anchorage. The voters there tend to be older, a little more male. The message there doesn’t have to be ‘look at me I’m in a helicopter.'”

Political observers are unusually hesitant making forecasts on who will win the primary in this district, given the strong campaigns in a threeway competition with a small pool of votes. All three campaigns are convinced they have a good shot.

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Zachariah Hughes reports on city & state politics, arts & culture, drugs, and military affairs in Anchorage and South Central Alaska. @ZachHughesAK About Zachariah

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