When you’re a candidate running for the state legislature in Iowa, your campaign budget is always tight. There’s only so many places you can raise money from, the districts are relatively small and your official campaign team may mostly be volunteers. If you’re a “targeted” race, you get more help from the state party, but they also have a lot of districts to cover.
Fortunately for two dozen Democratic candidates in Iowa this year, a unique national organization helped them even the playing field with their better-funded Republican opponents. The One Vote At A Time organization came to Iowa back in July to shoot a series of professional video ads for a wide range of House and Senate contenders.
That produced pieces like this:
“Our goal is to serve candidates who need our help, rather than the people who have the money to hire a group,” filmmaker Sarah Ullman, co-founder of One Vote At A Time told Starting Line.
Ullman formed her organization shortly after the Pulse Nightclub shooting, which drove her to get further involved in politics and campaigns. A film director starting out in Los Angeles at the time, Ullman decided to transfer her skills that she was using making documentaries, a Netflix film and a Zooey Deschanel web series over to the political realm.
“I was so mad, and I wanted to do something to get more people elected who believe in gun safety,” she explained.
So, Ullman formed a PAC that allowed her to shoot and produce campaign videos for Democratic candidates at no cost to them. After doing some work with a Nevada gun background checks initiative in 2016, One Vote At A Time got involved in the 2017 Virginia races, then moved on to candidates in ten states in 2018. Iowa was one of those.
“There was a huge opportunity to make a big impact in Iowa because of the number of quality candidates,” Ullman said. “We thought that there was some good opportunities to win some seats in the state legislature.”
Several members of One Vote At A Time, which is a project run and staffed completely by women, traveled out to Iowa in July to sit down with candidates, interview them and shoot footage around the state. They chose their candidates based on their own research and some advice from the party; several of the candidates referred them to other fellow Democrats running.
“Even though our focus is on gun safety legislation, we don’t obligate our candidates to talk about that,” Ullman explained. “When we’re talking to them and listening to them, what we’re looking for is a personal connection to an issue that will motivate their voters … If someone says everyone at the door is talking about healthcare, that’s what we focus their questions on.”
They then packaged those conversations and Iowa footage into video ads between one and two minutes long. Since then, those candidates have used parts or all of those videos in their digital and TV ads.
“They let me talk about what was important for us. For our campaign and our family, the biggest thing is healthcare access,” said Eric Gjerde, a House candidate in suburban Cedar Rapids who has struggled to get healthcare coverage for his twin daughters’ speech therapy.
Gjerde’s race is one of several that could end up determining control of the Iowa House. He used some of the still shots from the shoot in his direct mail pieces, ran the full videos on a large digital ad buy and put parts of it in his first TV ad.
“The shot we’re using on TV is directly from One Vote At A Time, so we didn’t have to go through another shoot for the video, which saved us a ton of money and time,” Gjerde said. “It is a tremendous organization, and the amount of time the women put in with us was great. They’re extremely professional and they do an amazing job.”
One of Ullman’s favorite videos they produced was with Zach Wahls, a state senate candidate from Coralville that is one of the party’s young rising stars.
“Digital is so important in these elections,” Wahls told Starting Line. “And video is where a lot of that starts. Having professional staff who have professional equipment and can provide these videos free of charge to campaigns that would not otherwise have access to that is huge, even for us.”
Wahls was the only one of the two dozen Democrats who has a relatively easy race in November, so they instead focused on a turnout message with his piece that should help the entire ticket:
Democrats have far more of their legislative candidates up on TV this year, thanks both to outstanding fundraising totals from many first-time candidates and One Vote At A Time’s free services that kept the campaigns’ costs low.
But even for the Democrats who didn’t end up airing TV ads, the videos helped in many other ways. One Vote At A Time’s videos were also used to introduce candidates at fundraisers and played at national donor events.
“The production value alone shows you that they’re taking this seriously,” Ullman said. “It reinforces that this candidate is a serious, professional person who is serious about this candidacy and cares a lot about their community.”
And Ullman had one reason in continuing this work around the country: to show Democrats that they can produce more creative, engaging video ads without getting gouged by high-priced political consultants.
“Part of our mission is saying that we don’t think that video needs to cost $30,000, $40,000. I’ve heard of campaigns being charge, 20, 30, 40-grand for what we’re able to produce for them at a low amount of money,” Ullman said. “I think with our political consulting class, I think there’s an ethical component to it that needs to be reexamined. That’s part of what we’re doing, showing candidates you don’t have to rely on these people who are charging highway robbery prices for a product that is important. You should be spending your money on field.”
Here is the full list of Iowa candidates that One Vote At A Time helped. You can view all of their videos in this playlist.
Jackie Smith – SD 7
Vicky Brenner – SD 13
Amber Gustafson – SD 19
Amanda Ragan – SD 27
Zach Wahls – SD 37
Mary Stewart – SD 41
Marie Gleason – SD 47
Megan Srinivas – HD 9
Kent Balduchi – HD 30
Heather Matson – HD 38
Karin Derry – HD 39
Jennifer Konfrst – HD 43
Kristin Sunde – HD 42
Kenan Judge – HD 44
Tim Knutson – HD 51
Lori Egan – HD 56
David Williams – HD 60
David Weaver – HD 47
Kayla Koether – HD 55
Eric Gjerde – HD 67
Molly Donahue – HD 68
Jodi Clemens – HD 73
Laura Liegois – HD 91
Jean Simpson – HD 92
Joan Marttila – HD 94
by Pat Rynard