The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Can getting dunked on online win an election?

Long-shot candidates build social media clout, and donor lists, by “running against villains.”

Alex Walker is hoping to use TikTok notoriety to launch a successful congressional campaign. (Courtesy of Alex Walker/TikTok)
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An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Daniel Uhlfelder launched a campaign for attorney general a month after he launched a PAC to defeat Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.). It happened one year later. The article has been corrected.

Alex Walker, a 31-year-old man from Colorado, announced his bid to unseat Rep. Lauren Boebert last month with a YouTube video featuring feces raining from the sky and shooting out of books. A man wearing a bright red “Q” tank top vomits all over a family’s picnic. An actress playing Boebert sprays a slimy substance all over a congressional office. “We are real Coloradans. We deserve a living wage, small government that actually works and freedom of choice,” Walker says. “Instead, we have bulls---.”

Walker, a Democrat, is hoping that any attention he draws, whether people celebrate his message or dunk on him, will help transform him into an Internet phenomenon and defeat a Republican firebrand. He’s following a now tried-and-true playbook of whipping up views on the Internet, then leveraging that attention to build a national audience. Sometimes it can provide a powerful nationwide donor base, but increasingly candidates are recognizing that while an online following is a currency worth amassing, it can be unwieldy.

Walker, a Colorado native, graduated from Stanford in 2013 and worked primarily as an engineer before getting into the race. He said watching members of his town become radicalized by the right motivated him to try his hand at politics. After quitting social media years prior for his mental health, he dove headfirst back into the Internet.

He speaks with a mix of pop culture references, sarcasm and cynicism. His Twitter bio reads: “Smart, hot, humble, running for Congress against Lauren Boebert, obviously.” He follows exactly two accounts on TikTok: MSNBC and the social media influencer Tinx, famous for promoting the notion of living like a “rich mom.”

This week, Walker went viral again for a TikTok where he tells progressive voters to “stop complaining” and vote for him. After Twitter and TikTok users piled on, calling it condescending, he lamented that he was being “canceled by Bernie bros.” His avatar features him giving the middle finger to the camera.

Walker’s platform is staunchly centrist and he repeatedly argues that progressive policies are unpopular among the blue collar, working-class base that makes up his district. But some of his commentary and language online feels reminiscent of language used by the right. In one recent TikTok video Walker says he’s not interested in adopting a platform “designed to placate your over-woke Twitter temper tantrum pipe dream.” His website urges people to watch his launch video “on the corrupt Big Tech platform of your choice!”

His communications strategy has confused and angered many leftists and liberals. “Both [Boebert and Walker] are doing outrage politics centered around the same piece of their constituency. Their platform is both like, these woke Democrats suck,” one confused TikTok commentator noted. “You want to talk down and belittle the people who are supposed to vote for you,” another commenter on TikTok added.

“I hate rude politicians but I especially hate entitled candidates,” said Olivia Julianna, a 19-year-old activist and TikTok creator, before urging Coloradans to vote for Sol Sandoval, another Boebert challenger. “She’s the daughter of immigrants, a social worker, and a community organizer.” Sandoval is also on TikTok and on Thursday she posted a video about launching a campaign against Boebert that has gained nearly 100,000 views in under 24 hours.

Walker said he doesn’t care about the criticism online. “Twitter is the backwater of the Internet, it’s where people go to complain and cancel each other,” he told The Washington Post. “I could easily go on Twitter and tell everyone what they want to hear and raise money and get support from them, but I have something more valuable.”

Boebert has been ensnared in near constant controversy since taking office in January 2021. Within two weeks of holding her position Coloradans were already calling for her to resign. She’s fiercely pro-gun and attempted to bring a Glock with her to Congress. She opposes abortion and suggested that rape victims need guns rather than access to abortion. She has promoted QAnon conspiracy theories and suggested Rep. Ilhan Omar was a terrorist in anti-Muslim remarks. She’s been condemned by LGBTQ lawmakers and organizations, and has mocked trans people. Recently, she said gender and sexuality should be “decided” at age 21.

Boebert beat out incumbent Scott R. Tipton in the 2020 Republican primary with 55 percent of the vote before beating her Democratic challenger. Recent redistricting has given the district an even stronger Republican bent after some bluer counties in the north were subtracted, making the race to unseat her an even bigger uphill battle.

At the start of 2021, Boebert’s notoriety inspired a few Democrats to run against her — one with a big splash on social media. Veteran Gregg H. Smith announced a challenge to Boebert on Jan. 30, getting more than 150,000 likes and 43,000 retweets for a patriotic announcement video. Six weeks later, Smith dropped out; according to the campaign’s Federal Election Commission filing, he’d raised more than $60,000 despite having no political profile in Colorado.

Democrats with more credibility jumped into the race, too, including state Sen. Kerry Donovan. But the state’s redistricting commission altered the seat, increasing the Trump win margin across the district from 6 points to 9 points. “There is no viable path forward for me to remain in this race,” Donovan said in November, capturing the party’s pessimism about competing on the new map.

Walker was able to get on the ballot in under a month. He said he watched candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez topple incumbents by leveraging social media and seeks to do the same. “My social strategy is helping me hone my message and reach millions of people coast to coast,” he said. “A lot of people feel like the truth is condescending. I’m not sorry because my candidacy isn’t about appeasing left-flank liberals.”

Online attention can be a double-edged sword. In 2020, truck driver Joshua Collins, then 26, entered the race for an open House seat in Washington as an avowedly socialist Democrat. He amassed tens of thousands of followers on both TikTok and Twitter, with short, direct, left-wing statements like “we should abolish the CIA” getting thousands of likes.

That helped raise nearly $250,000 for a campaign that would win less than 1 percent of the vote — after Collins deleted his accounts, after he switched to a third party and after most of the donations were spent. He has not returned to his public accounts. The fiasco revealed the flaws of campaigns that grow followings online, but not much in their districts.

Walker said his online presence is only one side of his run, not the crux of it. “There’s a whole behind-the-scenes of this campaign,” he said. “I’m running an aggressive and impressive ground game in Colorado but we don’t broadcast that.” He said that his goal on social media is to show young people across the nation that gay people, women and other underrepresented groups can have a home in the political system.

Memes, however, have an inherently short life span online and becoming one doesn’t guarantee success. Both parties have watched candidates who have little chance of victory in November emerge with a splash, raise money and lose badly.

In 2020, Republican Kim Klacik challenged Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.) in a Baltimore district where Donald Trump had won 20 percent of the vote. She hired a media firm that produced a striking video that showed walking through urban blight in high heels, describing how Democrats engineered the city’s decline.

The spot got millions of views, and helped Klacik get a speaking slot at the Republican National Convention, on the way to raising $8.2 million — and a landslide defeat. And nearly half of the money went to the ad-makers. “Whoever’s over there is making a killing,” Klacik told The Post last year.

Democrats have been more wary of promoting candidates with high-profile opponents and no chance of success. But they’ve emerged anyway, also building online followings rapidly, and building donor lists from there.

In Georgia, veteran Marcus Flowers has raised more than $4.6 million, and attracted more than 330,000 Twitter followers, by promoting his challenge to Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene. Neither party sees the race as competitive, but no other Democrat running for Congress in the state has raised so much money.

“The candidates running against villains are doing much better,” said Ben Tribbett, a Virginia-based Democratic strategist who’s been critical of candidates in hard-to-win districts who raise money through social media. “If you’re running in a random seat, it doesn’t do much for you. If you’re running against Marjorie Taylor Greene or Lauren Boebert, your fundraising explodes.”

In February, Daniel Uhlfelder, a Florida attorney who gained national attention in 2020 for walking around the state’s open beaches in a “grim reaper” costume, opened a PAC called “Remove Ron,” which he said would raise money to defeat Gov. Ron DeSantis. One year later, he shifted course and launched a campaign for attorney general, leaving the PAC behind.

“While the grim reaper work will maybe help a little in terms of recognition, it’s not what this campaign is about,” Uhlfelder said when asked about his launch video, which has been viewed more than 1.1 million times on Twitter. Getting attention on social media, he explained, was a way to find donors who might not otherwise be paying attention to a down-ballot race in Florida. “Twitter is a way for me to get info out in real time, raise money and communicate to activists across the country.”

Walker said he has big plans for his next YouTube video, which he hopes will show “phase two” of his campaign. “It's going to be a fun, never before seen in a political context, kind of ad,” he said. “In the meantime I'm sharing tidbits on Twitter.”

“It’s foolish for us to think the attention economy is temporary,” Walker said. “If we want to compete we need to figure out how to gain it to our advantage. I’m a policy buff and civil rights fighter trying to figure out social media, not the other way around. The past 48 hours have been trial by meme fire, but great things can happen if you can get people’s attention.”