The 2018 Elections Were Packed With Memorable Ads. So Which Candidates Won?

A look back at the storytelling that drew national attention

MJ Hegar, candidate for Texas' 31st Congressional District, got national attention with her longform campaign ad, 'Doors.' MJ Hegar for Texas

There was something decidedly different about this year’s wave of political ads. Traditional methods made way for compelling, breakthrough work that used digital storytelling to strong effect. First-time and underdog candidates especially disrupted not only the campaigning machine but how candidates connect with the public through their advertising.

Longer-form spots with more of a documentary feel were more frequent and allowed voters to authentically peek into the real lives and core beliefs of candidates. Even the venerable 30-second ad had some new life breathed into it on both sides of the aisle. Though there were a few questionable attempts, candidates understood that every vote counted more than ever—and did whatever they could in that half-minute to convince people they were worth their vote.

Here’s a look back at the candidates who cut through the clutter, and how their elections netted out:

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Ad title: “The Courage to Change”
Why the ad got attention: Simply put, Ocasio-Cortez’s story is the same as many in New York’s 14th Congressional District. Her DIY ad effort, written by Ocasio-Cortez and filmed with help from Detroit’s Means of Production for under $10,000, felt more like a documentary than an ad, managing to tell the story of her working-class roots while also tapping into her community’s discontent—specifically with the 10-term incumbent, a fellow Democrat who her noted “doesn’t live here, doesn’t send his kids to our schools, doesn’t drink our water or breathe our air.”

How the election went down: Ocasio-Cortez’s real battle was in the primary, where she shocked the political world by handily defeating incumbent Joseph Crowley. In the Nov. 6 general election, she took a whopping 78 percent of the vote to become the youngest woman elected to Congress. In the time between elections—and the days since—she has proven to be a vocal advocate for change, not just in Congress but within her own party.

David Brill

Ad titles: “Paul Gosar Is Not Working For You,” “A Family Defends Its Honor”
Why the ads got attention: Let’s just say that when your siblings pile on to say you’re not a good candidate, that’s a pretty big red flag. That was the approach Democrat David Brill took in attacking U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, whose brothers and sisters absolutely skewered Gosar in a series of ads. In one spot, one of Gosar’s brothers said: “None of this is pleasant for any of us. We had to stand up for our good name.” It was a brutal ad that shows the fissures between red and blue nationally and, apparently, in the Gosar family.

How the election went down: The ad supporting Brill, Gosar’s opponent in Arizona’s 4th Congressional District, didn’t seem to have much of an effect. Gosar ran away with the district (where he was heavily favored to dominate) winning over 69 percent of the vote. We’re guessing Thanksgiving in the Gosar household is still going to be all kinds of awkward.

Beto O’Rourke

Ad titles: “Is Ted Cruz Tough As Texas?”, “Ted Cruz Loves White Castle”
Why the ad got attention: Texas’ favorite filmmaking son, Richard Linklater, is a draw—as is actor Sonny Carl Davis who exhibited a combination of restrained anger and bemusement—in the two ads from the “Fire Ted Cruz” super PAC. The Whataburger vs. White Castle theme in the second ad was hilarious. Plus, Davis may have created a new catchphrase: “C’mon, Ted!” The ad wasn’t authorized by Democratic hopeful Beto O’Rourke (who eschewed PAC money) and never even mentioned him, but the message to voters still came across clearly.

How the election went down: Democrat O’Rourke got close to taking Texas’ Senate seat, picking up just over 48 percent of the vote in a traditionally red state (that is becoming more purple), but he failed to unseat Cruz. And we could see him again in 2020 if you believe the hype.

Ron DeSantis

Ad title: “Casey”
Why the ad got attention: While many Republican candidates in the 2018 elections embraced Donald Trump and basked in his often-hyperbolic praise, few were more effusive in their allegiance than Ron DeSantis, a former U.S. Congress member running to be governor of Florida. His campaign ad featuring his wife, Casey, highlighted his over-the-top loyalty to the president by showing him building a wall with his children and reading Trump’s autobiography as a bedtime story. Democrats found it rather tasteless, but Trump’s base loved it.

@zanger Doug Zanger is a senior editor, agencies at Adweek, focusing on creativity and agencies.