TikTok styled Wade Herring as 'chillest man in America.' Is that enough to win U.S. House seat?

Wade Herring

Wade Herring has taken to calling himself “the chillest man in America.”

The first-time political candidate and 1st Congressional District challenger to incumbent Rep. Buddy Carter has been commanding attention within Democratic circles since he first announced his run in 2021, largely in part to his hearty list of individual campaign contributions. And recently, the TikTok algorithm has picked up on his popularity, and perhaps even elevated it.

In a video on the platform with over a million views, a popular TikTok audio dubbed him with his new favorite moniker. And while he’s serious about his ambitions to replace Carter as the district rep, he says he’s not opposed to having a little fun with it in the process.

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With this being Herring’s first run, it means it’s also his first time feeling the crunch of the last few weeks of a political campaign. But amidst the pressure and obligations, he says most days he’s feeling good, saying he is “as pumped up and comfortable in this new role I've taken on as I've been since it all started last July.”

But will it be enough to defeat Carter, an incumbent congressional mainstay who has never lost an election in the last 28 years?

Fangs bared on campaign trail

Herring’s a new kind of opponent for Carter. He’s got more money in his campaign wallet than any of the congressman’s challengers in recent memory, and if individual campaign contributions are a metric for popularity, it’s safe to say he’s well-liked by folks with money to give.

And Carter is taking him seriously, noting that the only two ways to run for office are “unopposed and scared.”

As Election Day creeps closer, the typically mild-mannered lawyer and the typically mild-mannered retired pharmacist are trading campaign barbs.

Carter mentioned Herring by name in a campaign email last week, where Carter, — who has hundreds of thousands of dollars more in his campaign wallet than Herring — says Herring is using his money to spread lies about Carter.

“I am proud to be endorsed by Donald Trump, but because I am one of the [resident’s top surrogates in Georgia, donations are flooding in to defeat me,” Carter’s email read.

And Herring, asked how chill he believes Carter is, was unafraid to speak his mind.

“I think he's unchill," Herring said. "I've known him a long time. I think he got lost. I think he got up to Washington, and he got inside that beltway bubble, and I think he got lost. And I think he's still lost. But as I said before, what that means is, he's not representing the people of the First District.”

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Financials favor Carter

From the day Herring informally launched his campaign in June 2021, he's enjoyed a constant flow of individual campaign contributions. He’s received $862,521, from individual donations alone, according to the most recent Federal Election Commission filing from June 30.

It’s the lion’s share of his funding, with the $52,000 he’s received in contributions from other candidates at a distant second.

Those numbers don't include fundraising from the third quarter, which closed Sept. 30 and have not yet been released.

Herring acknowledges a notable lack of funding from Democratic organizations, which typically help candidates pay for run-up-to-election-day media marketing. As of June 30, Herring’s finance sheet showed only $220 coming in from party and nothing from political action committee donors. He hinted that money from those sources haven't picked up since.

“I think the [Democratic] party is very concerned about their incumbents. And I know they want to hold the line on their incumbents,” Herring said. “But we're in communications with the candidates at the state and federal level, and we're in good communication with the state party and the national party.”

Herring says he’s known from the start: if it’s gonna happen, it will be because he and his team made it happen. An “it’s up to us” approach.

“I always understood that it was going to be up to the people of the First District. And to me, and quite frankly, that's consistent with the tradition of Savannah and the rest of the district," he said. "Don't get me wrong, I don't want to be an isolationist, but on the other hand, here in Savannah, and on the coast, we've always kind of done our own thing. And from the very beginning, I knew that we would, in large part be responsible for doing our own thing. So I have no expectations to the contrary.”

By comparison, as of June 30, Carter’s $1.4 million campaign wallet was split close to the middle: $741,010 in individual donations, and $734,040 in donations from political action committees.

Jonathan Krasno, a political science professor at Binghamton University in New York, says if party contributions are coming to Herring, be they directly from the Democratic Party or from left-leaning PACs, they would’ve already been there by now.

But, Krasno says, there’s another avenue for fundraising nowadays, especially for Democrats.

“What's different on the Democratic side is: you've got these younger, more tech-savvy donors, and then you've got these more educated, more tech-savvy donors,” Krasno said. “You can go viral and you can put up a YouTube video or something, and you can raise a ton of money. They can go outside that lane and raise money beyond those traditional means.”

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TikTok helps Herring build brand

Herring says he has found success with TikTok, and he believes it’s a great way to reach voters across the district — and even beyond it. Plenty of comments on his videos are people from outside the First District lamenting that they won’t get the chance to vote for him.

As far as donations go, Herring says TikTok hasn’t really brought in a lot of money. But for garnering support, name recognition and engaging with the typically hard-to-reach younger audience, it’s a political goldmine.

Herring said over the summer, a group of high school and college volunteers came to help out with the campaign, and Herring says he didn't even have to recruit them.

"They recruited me," Herring said. "Because of what they had seen on TikTok. Yes, We've received some donations, and yeah, it's great that a million people think I'm the 'chillest man in America,' but it's more complicated than just that.”

Herring said it’s about reaching the younger audience, promoting engagement in a typically uninspired voting block.

“We're having fun with it. And we're communicating with people and we're reaching out to young people. Yes. But I'm very, very serious about we need to make a change. But the change is based on the optimism that I have, and the promise of what America can be. And the promise of this evolving experiment that we call America.”

Will Peebles is the City Council and County Commission reporter for Savannah Morning News, covering local Savannah and Chatham County decisions. He can be reached at wpeebles@savannahnow.com or on Twitter @willpeeblesSMN

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Democrat Wade Herring leverages TikTok in U.S. House race vs Buddy Carter