Having run two campaigns for federal office, one in the 2012 and the second in 2014, I regularly receive emails and other communications from prospective candidates asking me for advice on how to get a congressional campaign started.
I am always humbled that true American patriots looking to make a difference seek out my advice, but I am always straightforward and crystal clear with them. I preface these conversations by telling them that I am extremely proud of what my senate and congressional campaign teams accomplished but, the hard fact is, we came up short. And there are no silver medals in politics. Thankfully, it doesn’t take an Election Day victory to be able to assist others by providing some guidance based on personal campaign experiences and helping them to avoid common campaign pitfalls. If you are one of those American patriots out there thinking of running for office, this article is for you. It’s the good, the bad, and the ugly, of running for congress.
First, the good: Running for congress will present you with numerous opportunities to meet a network of grassroots activists and committed volunteers who are the real bedrock of the conservative movement and who will show you the positive side of politics rarely seen by others.
These are the people who are disregarded by many on the inside of the D.C. “bubble” because they don’t have the financial ability to buy influence but, the welcomed truth is, these are the people who, when they passionately believe in you, can work miracles (see Dave Brat in 2014, Ted Cruz in 2012, and Marco Rubio and Scott Brown in 2010). Grassroots volunteers knock on doors, march with you in parades, hand out your campaign literature at fairs, and fill your emotional gas tank when the political attacks begin to take their toll.
Misguided, cynical D.C. insiders will downplay the influence of the grassroots and cite numerous grassroots candidates that have come up short on Election Day, but this is silly. The establishment class has all of the built-in advantages when running their candidates and, the fact that in nearly every election cycle, grassroots candidates, with little money, second-rate access to media, shunned by influential elites, pull off miraculous upsets against all odds should be a clue to the insider class. If you are a principled, articulate, passionate candidate, these grassroots game-changers will never forget you, whether you win or lose your campaign. These people are some of the most loyal, dedicated and loving human beings you will ever have the privilege of meeting and will make your campaign experience one of the most memorable of your life.
On my campaigns, I had Dave, who was diagnosed with a deadly disease, and lost a loved-one during the election cycle, but never missed a door-knocking opportunity with me, even in the 90-plus degree Maryland summer heat. I had Jan, who had no political experience in campaigning, but through sheer will and determination taught herself how to organize walk-lists, parade and fair appearances, and fundraising events, and did it with such success that she probably could have run herself for office and given my opponent a run for his money. And I had Sharon and Maria, my incredible campaign management team, who simply refused to believe the numerous press reports that our race for congress was uncompetitive. They both left everything on the table to make it not only “competitive,” but one of the last congressional races in the country to be decided. These are just a few of the many loyal supporters I met running for office who I still consider close personal, not political, friends, and I will never forget what they did for me, and neither will you when you meet your Dave, Jan, Maria and Sharon.
Here’s the bad: Campaigns for congress are no longer simply local elections. Gerrymandering, an expanded media universe due to a 24-hour news cycle, the Internet, and social media have turned the few competitive congressional districts left in the country into national elections. And although door knocking and retail politics are an absolutely invaluable component of a congressional campaign, they are simply not enough anymore to win an election. To prevail you are going to need the “big three”: money, media, and infrastructure. It’s not good enough to have just one of these three components, you must have all.
Before you make the decision to declare yourself a candidate for congress you need to ask yourself if you are capable of producing the money, media, and infrastructure necessary to win. Can you raise the roughly one to five million dollars or more you will need to purchase advertising space on television, radio, the Internet, music streaming sites such as Pandora, social media and more? Can you raise the money to pay a campaign staff which will ensure that the appropriate FEC reports are filled out properly and that the “trains run on time”? Can you convince 100,000 people to donate $10 to your campaign, or 1,000 people to donate $1,000? Can you generate local and possibly national media interest in your campaign?
Do you have the contact information for local reporters and radio and television bookers who may be interested in your campaign? Are you reaching out to local bloggers who may have a loyal audience themselves? And have you thought through the campaign infrastructure needs this is going to take to win? You are going to need a top-notch mail vendor for campaign fundraising mailers and possibly another mail company for issues-based mailers. You are going to need an updated and easy-to-use voter database with a voter scoring system which will enable you to target voters for issue-specific outreach. You are also going to need a creative marketing team which can design and film outstanding political ads that tell your story as well as you can tell it, which is no small task.
Finally, here’s the ugly: Politics is an ugly business that no article or book can prepare you for when your name goes on the campaign sign. Power absolutely corrupts, and the sinner in all of us takes on a louder voice in that ever-present internal debate between doing the right thing and the easy thing that we all deal with—amplified, I can promise, by the possibility of occupying a congressional office staring you in the face.
The first time you are in a situation where your conservative principles come into conflict with winning over a block of voters, it will be a harbinger of your future. Once you sell out the first time, and let the evil in, you have made the decision to do the easy thing and not the right thing. Once you choose this path, you own it, and it owns you. I know many of you reading this are convinced that you would make the right decision in this scenario, and I believe many of you would, but it is not as easy as it appears given our human failings. I have no regrets at all about running a conservative campaign in a heavily Democratic district, and nearly pulling off an incredible upset, although many pleaded with me to do otherwise. Principles matter to the people that matter, and this is all that matters in the fight for our constitutional republic.
EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared in the Conservative Review. The featured image is by Patrick Semansky | AP Photo.