In 3rd District race, candidates employ flash mobs, dueling ads -- and Bigfoot

Dean Phillips and Erik Paulsen debate at the UBS Forum at MPR on Oct. 5.
Rep. Erik Paulsen talks as DFL candidate Dean Phillips listens at their debate at the UBS Forum at Minnesota Public Radio on Friday.
Tony Saunders | MPR News

On a gloomy fall Wednesday in suburban Minnesota, Bowzer was hitting all the right notes.

Jon "Bowzer" Bauman, the former member of 50s-style rock group Sha Na Na, was playing the 1953 song, "Goodnite, sweetheart, goodnite" on his keyboard. But instead of sweetheart, Bowzer subbed in the name of the local congressman, Republican Erik Paulsen.

"Don't hate to leave you, but we really must say, goodnight Erik Paulsen, goodnight," Bowzer sang, leading a small crowd gathered in Excelsior, Minn. This was moments after Bowzer endorsed Democrat Dean Phillips' campaign for Congress with his jaw agape and an enthusiastic single-arm flex, his signature move.

It's not exactly a typical campaign endorsement — but it is just another day on the campaign trail in Minnesota's 3rd District.

The western suburban congressional seat, stretching from Brooklyn Park all the way down to Bloomington, has been home to one of the most-watched — and eccentric — races in the nation. Bowzer was just the latest entertainment in a race that has already featured dueling television ads, flash mobs, pontoon rides — even a viral Bigfoot ad.

Theater has always been the cheapest tool in the campaign toolkit, but the must-watch debates, packed stadium rallies and constant twists of the 2016 presidential race has brought the political popcorn factor to a new level.

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Nowhere in Minnesota is that playing out more than the 3rd District, where five-term incumbent Paulsen is facing a challenge from Phillips, the heir to a Minnesota liquor fortune who now owns Penny's Coffee in Minneapolis.

"It used to be that these battles were usually fought on TV because TV was the only big common denominator where people could use their eyes," said Bill Hillsman, a longtime advertising executive responsible for memorable campaign spots for Paul Wellstone and Jesse Ventura. "Now it's being fought online and on a voter-to-voter basis. You are looking for any little thing that you can use to give you an edge."

Creating a 'level playing' field

Dean Phillips talks to voters in his Government Repair Shack.
Dean Phillips talks to voters in his "government repair" shack on the State Capitol grounds on April 19, 2018.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News file

Most of the theatrics are being employed by the Phillips campaign, which isn't exactly surprising. Challengers generally have to work harder than incumbents to get attention.

But Phillips has taken his devotion to a campaign slogan to a whole new level. The "everyone's invited" theme has already inspired a district-wide picnic, tours around the suburbs in a vintage coffee truck and pontoon rides across the area's many lakes. When those lakes froze, he invited residents to his "government repair" ice shack.

That ethos has also applied to Phillps' campaign strategy, where volunteers have been invited to think up PR pitches. On their own, volunteers staged and filmed flash mobs in shopping malls and community events around the district, and one volunteer came up with the idea for a television ad starring Bigfoot.

The ad, a mockumentary-style spot where Bigfoot tries to find Paulsen in the lobby of a pharmaceutical company, was initially just one of a handful of ideas a volunteer had to get some attention online. They ran with it and produced the video, and much to Phillips' surprise, it went viral.

It's thrifty: the digital ad got plenty of its own promotion in write-ups in Ad Age, Ad Week and Forbes, and it eventually made its way to TV screens.

Outside groups battling for control of the House have already spent millions on a finite number of ad slots in the district between now and election day. But the Bigfoot ad was a rare example of a candidate-sourced message getting more attention, Phillips said.

"The beauty of the internet in this day and age is it creates a level playing field," Phillips said. "I've always been mindful of the fact that, if you provide great content, the best distributors of it are fans and supporters." He added that he's also trying to inject humor into an "industry that is archaic, divisive and mean-spirited."

Using humor is a rare tactic in campaigns: roughly 4 percent of advertisements in the last midterm election used humor or cracked a joke, said Matt Motta, an expert in political advertising who has done research with the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Minnesota.

"We know that humorous messages tend to be quite memorable and they can increase positivity toward the person putting out the ad," Motta said.

A 'straightforward' strategy

U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen makes a public break with Pres. Trump in his TV ad.
Rep. Paulsen, a suburban Republican fighting an electoral headwind, broke with President Trump in his first television spot.
YouTube

But it cuts both ways, Motta added: a candidate also runs the risk of voters not taking them seriously if they run silly ads.

That's certainly been the message of team Paulsen.

"We're trying to run a straightforward campaign, and we look at the Phillips campaign and we see a lot of gimmicks and we don't see a lot of substance out of his campaign," said Paulsen campaign manager John-Paul Yates.

Yates said they joke that they're running against a "real life Bobby Newport," a wealthy heir and recurring character in the sitcom "Parks and Rec" who runs for city council and expects the race to be handed to him.

Yates said their strategy is simple: pointing out Paulsen's record working across the aisle on issues while also pointing out the "hypocrisy" of Phillips on issues like health care and taxes.

One of the other most talked about ads in the race is one from Paulsen claiming Phillips didn't provide health insurance to his coffee shop employees (the ad has been fact-checked to note that he provided insurance to all full-time employees, but not part-time).

Phillips responded to the ad with his own ad, looking directly into the camera and saying the other ad is not true.

But Paulsen's team has also tried to get creative this cycle.

The response ad was filmed inside Penny's Coffee, owned by Phillips, so Yates sent the campaign a request. He asked Phillips if they could use his coffee shop to film their own ad.

"We are more than willing to pay whatever fee was charged of other political campaigns to shoot at Penny's Coffee shop," he wrote.

Phillips responded: "We would be happy to host you at Penny's to film your commercial for congressman Paulsen free of charge. I'll also commit to being onsite to ensure the experience exceeds your expectations."

Yates said they still might film an ad at the coffee shop.