Mai-Khanh Tran needed only a two-minute video to tell a unique story for a Democratic congressional candidate. Aided by a montage of old photos and tear-jerking interviews, she explained how she once invited a seriously wounded U.S. military veteran to stay in her home —permanently.
It was a compelling story. And for Tran, it was also a political necessity: She’s running against four other serious Democratic House candidates in her Los Angeles-area congressional district — exactly the kind of competitive primary expected to be commonplace for the party next year.
With so many Democrats running in next year’s midterm elections, Democratic consultants are scrambling to make their candidates’ first impression the most durable. It has launched "the announcement video arms race,” one consultant quipped.
But it’s no joke. This election cycle, Democratic candidates are worked diligently to grab attention with campaigns announcement videos, reflecting the large number of candidates who have decided to run for office in the wake of President Donald Trump’s election, which has fueled a glut of Democratic primaries across the electoral map.
Now, the opening video announcement is seen as one of the only ways to stand out from the 2018 crowd — and it could make the difference between besting multiple rivals and failing to even become competitive.
"You want to be able to tell a story others can’t," said Ken Snyder, Tran’s media consultant. "Campaigns are about marketing distinctions, and this is a really nice personal entry into her personal story that no one else has."
Announcement videos are far from new, but they’ve taken on added urgency now as candidates vie for scare money, staff, and attention from national groups, the kind of resources that are usually essential to a winning campaign. Already this election cycle, two Democratic candidates have already used them to turn themselves from after-thoughts into minor celebrities: Randy Bryce in Wisconsin and Amy McGrath in Kentucky.
Neither is in a district Democratic strategists consider a top target for 2018. But because of the announcement videos — Bryce highlighted his opposition to the Republican health care bill and GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan while McGrath focused on her military career as a fighter-jet pilot — they managed to earn big-time national media attention.
That attention eventually turned into major campaign contributions: The two of them have combined to raise nearly $2 million through the end of September, a gargantuan sum for any House candidate, much less a pair of longshot challengers in heavily Republican districts.
"It’s the exception rather than the rule that these videos work," said Ian Russell, former political director at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "But in this day and age, many candidates are looking for any way to break out of the pack. It starts with announcement video, then it’s the first fundraising quarter, then it’s prominent endorsements."
Democrats have identified as many as 91 GOP-held seats the party plans to target in next year’s House races — and nearly that many have competitive primaries. Democrats need to gain 24 seats to take control of the House majority, a goal party strategists now believe is in reach because of Trump’s unpopularity and the inability of Republican lawmakers to pass popular, big-ticket legislation.
Russell said the challenge for candidates to stand out will change after the initial wave of announcement videos in a way that could potentially complicate the party’s pursuit of congressional majorities. Instead of telling compelling personal stories, Democrats might start taking increasingly divisive positions on sensitive issues such as health care.
"The primary electorate in the country right now is feeling its oats, feeling progressive, and not wanting to cut a lot of deals with Paul Ryan and Donald Trump," he said.
"Everyone is looking for an issue or a tone to set themselves apart," he added. "How strident do they want to be about impeaching Donald Trump? Do they want to go there at all?"
In Tran’s case, she faces at least one Democratic rival, health insurance executive Andy Thorburn, with more cash on hand than she has. Another contender has nearly as much money as she does, while two others have raised at least $150,000.
Snyder said in addition to her Veteran’s Day video, Tran will have another online spot that will more fully explain her biography.
"Virtually every candidate for House and Senate is, at a minimum, producing at least announcement videos because they’re also trying to produce content like everybody else," he said.
"These videos are a great way to have people learn about your candidacy in an ADD world, right?" he added. "Where you want to spend two minutes watching something rather than three minutes reading something."