Political communications is half art, half science, and half knowing how to exploit the vulnerabilities of your opponent, while not inadvertently exploiting your own in the process. There is a reason why political communications are seemingly so boring and formulaic. It takes a certain kind of person to run for elected politics (not a compliment) and the communications template people usually interact with prevents candidates from delving into their worst excesses.
Political communications is a gazillion dollar business for a reason. Unfortunately, Democrat Dan Helmer, who is running in Virginia’s 10th Congressional District race against Republican Barbara Comstock, missed the memo on all those points.
In fairness, Helmer seems like a decent enough candidate. He is, after all, a multiple-tour Iraq and Afghanistan veteran – a fact he makes sure viewers are aware of by sporting a shirt that simply reads ‘VETERAN’ throughout his entire video. Yet it is his expropriation of Kenny Loggins’ seminal masterpiece “Highway to the Danger Zone” set against the genteel backdrop of the Commonwealth’s politics that really stands out. More so because someone in Helmer’s campaign thought that commandeering a movie schtick from 1986’s Top Gun would really speak to the complexity of what voters are feeling in 2017.
Nonetheless, Helmer is on full display in this tour-de-force campaign ad from the moment the music kicks in. He pulls up to the bar on his red motorcycle and slyly removes his aviators – clearly he knows something we don’t. At this point, the tension in this political thriller becomes palpable. He soon sidles up to a waiting woman at the bar who gives viewers the big reveal.
“Hey Dan, isn’t that Congresswoman Comstock back there at the bar?” He coyly replies, “Sure is.” She looks on skeptically, “Bet you can’t get her to hold a town-hall.”
At this point all pandemonium is about to break loose. Because if there is one thing voters in Virginia’s 10th District care about, it is town halls (not the traffic in northern Virginia preventing them from getting to those town halls). So much so that Helmer is forced to pick up a microphone and serenade everyone with, his special version of “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling.”
Soon the whole bar is joining him in a melodious political chorus of, “But Barbara… Barbara you know it… you’ve lost that centrist feeling.”
Fade to black. Where does one even begin?
Running as a centrist in northern Virginia is not a particularly bad move in a primary race where there are eight contenders. But the messaging is wrong and speaks to the same failures the Democratic Party keeps experiencing by isolating a progressive base that is trending farther left. In a political age where the centrist wings of both parties differ in name only, messaging and optics are needed which speaks to this trend. Resting on ‘centrist’ laurels will only isolate the new base of the Democratic Party further.
Progressive voters want to hear about single payer health care, protecting voter access, criminal justice reform, a regulatory environment that encourages economic and social mobility, and an end to subsidies for outdated methods of energy production like oil and gas. No amount of cheeky campaign ads will change this, and attempts at re-branding the Democratic Party without speaking to these core issues are disingenuous at best and only serve to further isolate the party from its base at worst.
This race will be one of the bellwethers for Commonwealth politics in 2018, and fortunately by that time most will have forgotten about this campaign ad, unlike the volleyball scene in Top Gun.