What to Expect When You’re Expecting to Run
This is prime time for candidate recruitment, but aspiring politicos might pause to make sure they know what they’re in for before jumping into a competitive congressional race.
In the same vein as the timeless book for new parents, a bipartisan collection of campaign strategists and consultants offered some essential advice before starting along the campaign path. Keep in mind, this advice comes from authentic operatives, not the people who play consultants on cable television.
This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list, but it should give any potential candidate a window into some of the challenges ahead.
Pace yourself. “While we are in an insane 24/7 society, campaigns are a marathon, not a sprint,” said Democratic pollster Fred Yang. “Pace yourself — you need to be nimble, but you also need to take time to think things through.”
Fundraising is a habit, not a choice. Unless you are personally wealthy, fundraising will consume a majority of your time as a candidate. “Think of fundraising as a daily activity. It’s not two events a quarter,” according to Liesl Hickey, senior adviser and former executive director at the National Republican Congressional Committee. “Every day, think about how you are raising money.”
Delete the word “private” from your vocabulary. Candidates stepping onto the campaign trail have entered public life and everything that comes with it. “They give up any semblance of privacy,” said a top Democratic strategist. “Some young person they’ve never met now manages their schedule, which includes everything from dentist appointments, to parent-teacher conferences, to when the in-laws are visiting.”
“The media scrutiny is one thing, but the transparency into their lives from people who are new to their lives is a hard dynamic to get used to,” the operative added.
You will have a tracker. Candidates in a competitive Senate or House contest will have at least one person recording their every public word, so candidates should be prepared. And in premiere races, candidates may have more than one tracker because independent groups can’t coordinate with the campaign committees and need their own footage. “You are not being stalked by a kid claiming to be your child, … that is your tracker,” according to National Republican Senatorial Committee Executive Director Ward Baker.
“Remember, as a political candidate everything you say is fair game, and now with social media something you said in jest can quickly become a news story and then an ad by the next day,” Yang said. “Few first-time candidates, if any, have ever had negative campaign ads made against them for simply saying ‘no comment’ to a question. It’s trying to make up an answer to a question you don’t really understand that gets you in trouble.”
Both parties will dig into your background. Candidates shouldn’t be surprised that the opposition will leave no stone unturned when it comes to research. Although, I remember sitting down with Oregon Senate GOP nominee Monica Wehby in 2014, and she seemed genuinely surprised someone would dig into her past personal relationships, which included police intervention.
But aspiring candidates may not realize operatives from their own party will dig into their background as well. Strategists want to know the best and worst about their candidates in order to prepare for the campaign ahead. Candidates should be prepared to answer tough questions from allies because those friendly operatives don’t like surprises in the critical weeks and months before Election Day.
Fundraising is a habit, not a choice. (Yes, again.) “Your birthday is a failure unless you net $20,000,” Baker said, semi-jokingly. It can’t be overstated that fundraising is an enormous part of being a candidate. Every opportunity will be utilized to raise money including birthdays, anniversaries, baby births and cat funerals. When you’re asking for money every day, you have to get creative.
You will bear the sins of your party. Over the course of a race, candidates often bear the sins of their party. Whether it’s an unpopular president or a random Senate candidate from Missouri, candidates are often forced to respond to people and events outside of their own race.
This is not a desk job. Running for Congress can be just that. “There are the candidates who — in their day jobs before running — actually worked at a desk. Like, sat down and had ‘work time,’” said one Democratic strategist. “That goes away. They have to get used to working while in transit, returning calls while in between meetings, and having a phone tied to their ear at all times. Gone are the days where they actually sit at a desk for a chunk of time and ‘catch up.’”
Another challenge is that candidates have to make critical hires without having any experience with the product. “Who has ever needed to evaluate a pollster or media consultant before running for office?” the source added.
Candidates also have to get over any previous success in other lines of work. “Success in your chosen field doesn’t automatically translate into (immediate) success in politics,” cautioned Yang. “The skills that made you a success in your non-political life may not be relevant to politics.”
No one will pay attention. Candidates pour their heart, soul and personal money into a race, day after day, and often see little day-to-day attention.
“You will have a press conference no one comes to,” warned one GOP operative. There is the possibility that your race, particularly a House race, is covered more closely by reporters in Washington than in your district, because many local media outlets don’t have the staff to devote full attention to your campaign.
But when you get press attention, “You will feel the urge to read all the comments on stories and about you on Facebook and Twitter,” the GOP source cautioned. “Ignore that urge.”
Don’t be afraid of polling. It’s not telling you what to think, it’s telling you what voters think, if done correctly. “Good polling is your campaign’s road map to communicating with the electorate,” according to GOP pollster Justin Wallin of Probolsky Research.
“Good polling gives the strategy team the knowledge of what the voting public is thinking and how best to be responsive to them,” added Wallin, who said to expect at least 10 percent of your budget to go to polling. “There will be countless people telling why you will, or can’t, win. But unless they have numbers that back it up, it’s just their opinion, however experienced they may be.”
After raising all that money, you will spend it all. “You are the CEO of a multimillion-dollar operation that starts now with an empty bank account. You will spend a year seeking investors. You will successfully convince thousands of people from across the country to contribute,” said Democratic media consultant Martha McKenna. “And then you will spend all of the millions in eight weeks to end with an empty bank account again.”
As a candidate, you never want to lose a campaign with money in the bank. That’s almost like throwing to your third-string wide receiver on the 1 yard line with the Super Bowl on the line. Almost.
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