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Dissecting Robin Kelly’s rout: Savvy staff, battle testing, early decisions — and $2.2 million in TV ads

RobKelly with campaign staff outside RichtPark Metrstatiafter thanking voters Wednesday February 27 2013. | Stefano Esposito

Robin Kelly with campaign staff outside the Richton Park Metra station after thanking voters, Wednesday February 27, 2013. | Stefano Esposito

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Updated: April 1, 2013 7:34AM



In a crowded field of 15 candidates and little turnaround time to grow a following, the winner of Tuesday’s special congressional Democratic primary was predicted to barely eke out a victory, getting 20 percent, maybe 25 percent of the vote.

It was Robin Kelly who pulled out the win. But she didn’t do it that way.

Instead, the Matteson resident cleaned up, getting more than 50 percent of the vote in the 2nd Congressional District, positioning herself as the likely successor to the disgraced Jesse Jackson Jr.

How did she do it?

Yes, Kelly had the benefit of a $2.2 million TV ad investment from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Independence USA Super Pac that attacked her top opponent.

But strategists said Bloomberg, who eventually endorsed Kelly and directed money to support Kelly, was only confident of that investment because Kelly had assembled a top-notch, professional organization.

“It was a really good combination of people. Some of the people I knew from other races,” Kelly said on Wednesday.

One of those races was that of Barack Obama when he ran for U.S. Senate. It was then that Kelly met Cheryl Whitaker, who, along with her husband, Eric Whitaker, are close friends with the Obamas.

In her acceptance speech on Tuesday, Kelly called Cheryl Whitaker her “angel.” Kelly explained Wednesday Whitaker helped her with “wisdom” and her relationships (“I’m not talking the one in D.C.,” she says.)

“She’s a thoughtful person, and I feel she brought calm to the campaign,” Kelly said.

What helped establish Kelly as the candidate to back, according to strategists, was a calculated financial investment early on to help position Kelly as the anti-violence champion.

“We kind of gambled early and made an early investment in a campaign communication in the mail. We laid that foundation of Robin Kelly and what she was and what she was fighting for in gun control,” said Mark Bergman, of the Democratic mail firm Mission Control.

It was a gamble, Bergman said: “Because if you spend all your money early, you may not have money at the close.”

That early mailer targeted repeat primary Democratic voters who were almost certain to come out to vote during the primary.

“We knew this turnout was going to be low. So we were trying to communicate early and make the argument to the people who we knew were coming to vote — come blizzard or not,” Bergman said.

With the pool of Democrats agreeing on major issues, the campaign keyed in on what separated Kelly from her two main opponents.

Kelly had a lifetime “F” grade from the NRA. Her top two opponents, Toi Hutchinson and Debbie Halvorson each had A grades. That drew the attention of the popular blog the Daily Kos. Its followers helped build publicity — but even more vital, the followers started donating cash. Ultimately, the Daily Kos community gave her more than $100,000, she said.

All the while, she was able to keep her opponents on their heels.

“As it relates to her opponents, she defined them before they defined her. I don’t think there was one cycle where she was reacting to something someone else said. They were reacting to her,” said John V. Moore, a consultant who handled some of Kelly’s early media relations. “The first press release about guns was pre-Sandy Hook. And so she defined the issue and she defined her two chief opponents on the issue. How many times do you think throughout the campaign were Toi and Debbie driving the discussion?”

Moore added that Kelly was “extremely disciplined” in building friendships and raising money.

Moore said people forget that Kelly mounted a successful primary run for state treasurer in 2010. She ultimately lost in the general election.

“She raised $1 million in 2010. That put her on a different level,” in this race, Moore said.

Momentum built on itself, with candidate Napoleon Harris dropping out and giving Kelly his endorsement. Bloomberg began targeting Hutchinson as well as Halvorson. Members of Congress started backing Kelly.

With nine days left, Hutchinson dropped out of the race, freeing up what could have been a divided African American south suburban vote.

As for Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), he came too late to the party when it came to focusing his message on guns, Bergman argued.

If Beale had made that early investment, he may have been within Bloomberg’s sights.

“He didn’t, and that’s the difference,” Bergman said. “Robin’s campaign made that early investment to define her to be the gun control candidate.”

On election night, Beale accused Bloomberg of buying the election. Earlier, he questioned why the New York billionaire backed Kelly when Beale was the only sitting elected official in the race and he held similar gun control views.

“I spoke about it from my first announcement, I spoke about a diversity of issues and the alderman spoke about jobs, jobs, jobs,” Kelly said on Wednesday. Kelly said she believes her taking a pledge not to take gun lobby money and asking her opponents to do the same, also helped her dictate the terms of the race. She then pestered Hutchinson and Halvorson in news releases to make public their NRA questionnaires they had filled out years earlier.

“I did pass legislation when I was a state rep.,” Kelly said. “I was dealing with straw purchases of guns.”

After the Sandy Hook school massacre in which a gunman tragically took the lives of young children and school personnel, the issue of gun violence became the national — and local — focus. President Barack Obama began pushing gun control initiatives as murder numbers in Chicago continued to soar in January.

From January to February, Kelly went from trailing Halvorson — who had once served in Congress and held name recognition from a previous run against Jackson — to leading by nearly five points, according to an internal poll. Most significantly, Kelly’s numbers were surging; she jumped 11 points, while Halvorson was dropping.

“We just saw our numbers make a massive movement. That really showed that the early investment spawned that later surge,” Bergman said. “There was some television investment included there, but not pro-Robin investment.”

The final push came on election day, more than 300 people scattered through the congressional district for Kelly. They made one, two and even three passes at their targeted voters, said campaign manager Jonathan Blair. Blair said the campaign used metrics to determine who to target and where in the vastly diverse district that stretches from the South Side to Kankakee and Will County. The snow wasn’t an obstacle in their minds — they drove anyone who needed a lift.

Kelly’s work isn’t finished, however. In April, she must win the general election. Unofficial vote totals show the GOP candidate she’s likely to face is Paul McKinley, a Republican with a felony background.

The 54-year-old married father of two, who lists a Bronzeville home address, describes himself as an “ex-offender,” but he’s been arrested at least 13 times in Cook County since 2003, according to Cook County court records. He served prison time from 1985 to 1997 for armed robbery and aggravated battery, plus an additional probationary term, according to Illinois prison officials.

In one online video, McKinley diagrams the flow of money, jobs and contracts through what he calls the Illinois political machine.

“This is you right there — John Q Sucker,” he says. “That’s you right there. You didn’t get anything. You didn’t get a job. Even when you put in for the contract, you didn’t get the contract. When you put in for a grant, you didn’t get the grant.”

On Wednesday, Kelly was still celebrating her own, much more decisive, win.

“I ran for office a number of times before. Other people were neophytes … A certain part of it was my old legislative district, I did very well in the area where I worked before,” Kelly said. She noted one other thing, with a laugh:

“I did work hard.”



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