When Scott Brown won his race for Massachusetts Senate this past winter, it was the first sign that the Democratic Party might be in trouble come November. But Brown's real legacy, which has blossomed over this election season, is the starring role old cars and trucks have been playing in campaigns.
Republicans and Democrats alike have cut ads that begin just as Brown's did: the candidate introduces himself, then his truck. "This is my truck." These trucks (or occasionally, sedans) tend to have more than 100,000 miles on them—Brown's had 199,467 at the time he made his ad—and to be at least five years old. Most often, the candidate is touring his district, connecting with his constituents. Watching some of these ads, or reading about listening tours on campaign Web sites, voters might imagine that members of Congress do nothing more than spend their time on the open road, in dusty old beaters, seeking out the average American.
One of the advantages that campaign strategists have is that most Americans don't pay much attention to races outside their own domains. So while these candidates' attachment to their trucks is uncannily similar to Brown's, their campaigns claim they haven't heard voters draw comparisons. Watching the ads side by side, however, it's hard to believe that the candidates and their staff didn't notice they were riffing on a winning strategy.
Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer based in New York.
Matt Doheny may have made millions on Wall Street, but he is still very attached to his black 1994 Ford Explorer, which he has dubbed "Bessie." The truck started the campaign season with just over 100,000 miles on it; according to his campaign, Doheny has racked up another 77,000 since January, driving the thing around the rather large upstate New York congressional district in which he's competing, and it's been in the shop for more than a couple of oil changes. His campaign Web site also has a "Bessie ticker" that tracks its mileage and features a cartoon of the truck with an American flag flapping on its antenna. In real life, as well, Doheny had attached a small American flag to the truck's antenna; he's on his second flag now. The first was worn down to tatters, and his campaign staff had to retire it in a small ceremony. "The car is kind of like our pet," said Alison Power, Doheny's spokeswoman.
Near the beginning of Scott Walker's campaign for Wisconsin governor, his staff sat down with his wife, Tonette, to talk about his defining characteristics. One theme that emerged: Walker, a Republican, is a thrifty guy. He packs the same brown-bag lunch every day. His kids had to buy him new sneakers because the pair he had was so old. And his car, a 1998 Saturn, has more than 100,000 miles on it.
These discussions happened well before Brown burst onto the national stage, said Jill Bader, Walker's communications director. Bader herself originally hails from Tennessee, and associates truck ads with a different politician, Fred Thompson, who, during his first campaign for the Senate in 1994, leased a red 1990 Chevrolet truck, began driving it around the state, and featured it in an ad campaign. And Walker's running mate, Rebecca Kleefisch, independently decided in her primary race for lieutenant governor to use her own vehicle to define herself as a "Mom with a minivan."
After Scott Brown's truck earned so much attention over the winter, some candidates didn't even have to highlight their truck-driving habits for the media to pick up on them. Rep. Tom Perriello is a case in point. The Virginia congressman owned a truck during the 2008 campaign, too, but this season, reporters from the local media, as well as national outlets (Politico, NPR, The New Yorker, Mother Jones, and now NEWSWEEK, to name a few), have made sure to mention that he's been tooling around in his dented white Ford pickup.
Rep. Jerry Moran doesn't drive a truck, so his campaign cut an ad featuring the candidate driving around his Kansas district in a dusty sedan. Moran, a Republican, has touted the annual listening tour he conducts in his 55,000-square-mile district, and the ad claims, "If there's a road in Kansas, chances are Jerry Moran's been on it." Even though Moran is driving a Chrysler 300, the ad manages to feature plenty of trucks: on his journey, Moran is seen chatting with the drivers of a tractor, a truck with a sizable hay bale in the back, and a red Chevy pickup, before his sedan heads off down a country road, as the sun sets.
Hanna, a Republican running for Congress in upstate New York, owns a blue Chevrolet pickup that he's trotted out for local parades and for pictures featured on his campaign's Facebook page. This truck, however, is not just old; it's a classic from 1950. Hanna is also a licensed pilot who bought and refurbished a local airfield. Compared with Scott Brown, however, who was a lawyer and a local politician before he ran for the Senate, Hanna has less of a need to burnish his everyman credentials. He's lived in his district for his entire life and made his money from a construction company he started in 1978.
To Massachusetts voters, putting 200,000 miles on a truck must have seemed like an accomplishment, but Tennessee Democrat Roy Herron was not impressed. "Scott Brown bragged about having 200,000 miles on his truck," he said at one campaign event. "I remember having a new truck like that." Herron's own truck, a red Ford that has appeared in more than one ad this campaign season, currently has more than 400,000 miles on it. In one ad, Herron drives the truck down an empty country road, talking about its manual transmission and its lack of power windows. In another, the truck sits in the background of the shot, as Herron declares, "I'm a truck-driving, shotgun-shooting, Bible-reading, crime-fighting, family-loving country boy."
He bought the truck in 1998 and likes to joke that his family buys a new truck only every 22 years. (His grandfather bought one in 1954, and his father followed suit in 1976.) It even has a dramatic dent on the driver's side from an encounter with a deer. For Herron's congressional campaign, the truck has been a perfect symbol of his fiscally conservative values and his steadfastness. In one ad, he promises voters, "I'll be as reliable as my old truck."
Tommy Sowers, a Missouri Democrat, has featured not only his truck in his campaign, but an actual load of dung. In one ad, he says of his opponent, "I'm Tommy Sowers. This is my truck. And this is a ton of horse manure that has been dumped on me by Joanne Emerson." (The ad goes on to associate the manure with Emerson's negative campaigning, funded with special-interest money, or as his campaign manager put it in the ad's press release, "The ads that Congresswoman Emerson has been running are horse manure.")
Sowers says he bought the Dodge Ram in 2004 in North Carolina, where he was finishing an Army Special Forces course at Fort Bragg. When he decided to run for office, he wrapped it, "NASCAR style," with his campaign logo, and drove it around his rural district. It appears in two of Sowers's other ads. In both, he stands in a field with the green truck parked directly behind him. The manure ad was particularly popular, though. "Now, everywhere I go, people ask, 'Where's the manure?'" Sowers said.