Walker, a Democrat, hopes all the attention he gets, whether people celebrate his message or dunk him, will help turn him into an internet phenomenon and defeat a Republican firebrand. It follows a now proven playbook of garnering opinions on the internet and then leveraging that attention to build a national following. Sometimes that can provide a powerful nationwide donor base, but more and more candidates are recognizing that while an online following is 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 racing. He said seeing members of his town being radicalized on the right motivated him to try his hand at politics. After quitting social media years before for his sanity, he dove headfirst back into the internet.
He speaks with a mixture of pop culture references, sarcasm and cynicism. His Twitter bio reads, “Smart, hot, humble, congressional candidate against Lauren Boebert, obviously.” He follows exactly two accounts on TikTok: MSNBC and social media influencer Tinx, famous for promoting the idea 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 in calling him condescending, he lamented that he was “cancelled by the Bernie brothers.” His avatar depicts him giving the middle finger to the camera.
Walker’s platform is staunchly centrist, and he repeatedly asserts that progressive policies are unpopular among the blue-collar and working-class base who make up his district. But some of his comments and online language are reminiscent of language used by the right. In a recent TikTok Video Walker says he’s not interested in embracing a platform “designed to assuage your Twitter temper tantrum dream.” Its website urges people to watch its launch video “on any corrupt Big Tech platform of your choice!”
His communication strategy confused and angered many leftists and liberals. “Both [Boebert and Walker] are doing outrage politics centered on the same piece of their constituency. Their platform is both like, these woke Democrats suck,” one confused TikTok commenter noted. “You want to talk and put down the people who are supposed to vote for you,” added another commenter on TikTok.
“I hate rude politicians but I especially hate sworn candidates,” said Olivia Julianna, a 19-year-old activist and creator of TikTok, before urging Coloradans to vote for Sol Sandoval, another Boebert challenger. “She is a 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 which gained nearly 100,000 views in less than 24 hours.
Walker said he doesn’t care about online reviews. “Twitter is the backwater of the internet, it’s where people go to complain and cancel,” he told The Washington Post. “I could easily go on Twitter and tell everyone what they want to hear and raise money and get their support, but I have something more precious.”
Boebert has been mired in near-constant controversy since taking office in January 2021. Within two weeks of taking office, the Coloradans were already calling for him to step down. She is staunchly pro-gun and tried to bring a Glock with her to Congress. She opposes abortion and has suggested that rape victims need guns rather than access to abortion. She promoted QAnon conspiracy theories and suggested Rep. Ilhan Omar was a terrorist in anti-Muslim remarks. She was condemned by lawmakers and LGBTQ organizations and made fun of trans people. Recently, she said gender and sexuality should be “decided” at 21.
Boebert defeated incumbent Scott R. Tipton in the 2020 Republican primary with 55% of the vote before beating his Democratic challenger. The recent redistricting has given the district an even stronger Republican bent after some bluer northern counties were subtracted, making the race to overthrow it an even tougher battle.
In early 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, earning over 150,000 likes and 43,000 retweets for a patriotic announcement video. Six weeks later, Smith dropped out; according to the Federal Election Commission’s campaign filing, he had raised more than $60,000 despite having no political profile in Colorado.
More credible Democrats have also entered the race, including State Sen. Kerry Donovan. But the state redistricting commission changed the seat, increasing Trump’s margin of victory in the district by 6 to 9 points. “There’s no viable path for me to stay in this race,” Donovan said in November, capturing the party’s pessimism about competing on the new map.
Walker was able to get elected in less than a month. He said he’s seen candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez topple incumbents by taking advantage of social media and seek to do the same. “My social strategy helps me hone my message and reach millions of people coast to coast,” he said. “A lot of people feel that the truth is patronizing. I’m not sorry because my candidacy isn’t meant to appease left-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 openly socialist Democrat. He amassed tens of thousands of followers on TikTok and Twitter, with short, blunt, left-wing statements like “we should abolish the CIA” getting thousands of likes.
It raised nearly $250,000 for a campaign that would win less than 1% of the vote – after Collins deleted his accounts, after he moved to a third party and after most of the donations had been spent. He did not return to his public accounts. The fiasco exposed flaws in campaigns that are attracting followers online, but not many in their neighborhoods.
Walker said his online presence was just one aspect of his run, not the heart of it. “There’s a whole behind-the-scenes part of this campaign,” he said. “I’m running an aggressive, impressive ground game in Colorado, but we’re not broadcasting it.” He said his goal on social media is to show young people across the country that gay people, women and other underrepresented groups can have a place in the political system.
Memes, however, have an inherently short lifespan online, and becoming one doesn’t guarantee success. Both parties have seen candidates unlikely to win in November emerge with a bang, raise money and lose heavily.
In 2020, Republican Kim Klacik challenged Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.) in a Baltimore district where Donald Trump won 20% of the vote. She hired a media company that produced a striking video showing a march through the urban scourge in high heels, depicting how Democrats engineered the city’s decline.
The spot garnered millions of views and helped Klacik secure a speaking spot at the Republican National Convention, poised to raise $8.2 million — and a landslide defeat. And nearly half of the money went to advertisers. “Whoever’s over there is doing a murder,” Klacik told the Post last year.
Democrats have been more reluctant to promote candidates with prominent opponents and no chance of success. But they emerged anyway, quickly building online followings and building donor lists from there.
In Georgia, veteran Marcus Flowers has raised over $4.6 million and more than 330,000 Twitter followers, in promote your challenge to Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene. Neither party considers the race competitive, but no other Democratic candidate for state Congress has raised so much money.
“Candidates who run against the bad guys do a lot better,” said Ben Tribbett, a Virginia-based Democratic strategist who has criticized candidates in hard-to-win districts who raise funds through social media. “If you run into a random seat, it doesn’t do much for you. If you run against Marjorie Taylor Greene or Lauren Boebert, your fundraising explodes.
In February, Daniel Uhlfelder, a Florida attorney who gained national attention in 2020 for strolling the state’s open beaches in a “grim reaper” costume, opened a PAC called “Remove Ron,” which he claims would raise funds to defeat Governor Ron. DeSantis. A month later, he changed course and launched a campaign for the post of attorney general, leaving behind the PAC.
“While the work of the reaper might help a little in terms of recognition, that’s not the goal of this campaign,” Uhlfelder said of his launch video, which has over 1 views. 1 million times on Twitter. Raising attention on social media, he explained, was a way to find donors who might not otherwise pay attention to a run-down in Florida. “Twitter is a way for me to deliver real-time information, raise funds, and connect with 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 will be a fun ad, never seen before in a political context,” he said. “In the meantime, I’m sharing information on Twitter.”
“It’s crazy for us to think that the attention economy is temporary,” Walker said. “If we’re going to be competitive, we have to figure out how to win it to our advantage. I’m a passionate politician and civil rights fighter trying to understand social media, not the other way around. The last 48 hours have been put on fireproof from memes, but great things can happen if you can get people’s attention.