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With Enthusiasm High, Democrats School Potential Candidates on Realities of Running

The party is seeing unprecedented early interest in running for Congress

Amid the high interest, many first-time candidates may not be aware of what it takes to run for Congress. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Amid the high interest, many first-time candidates may not be aware of what it takes to run for Congress. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

All around the country, Democrats interested in running for office are crawling out of the woodwork. But how many of these potential candidates will turn into serious congressional candidates? 

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has already talked to 275 people in 68 districts wanting to run — 20 people in one Illinois district alone.

Groups interested in more than just congressional races have received even more knocks on the door. Since the election, more than 10,000 women have reached out to EMILY’s List about running for all levels of office. (By contrast, 1,000 women contacted the group during the two-year 2016 cycle.) 

Democrats say they’ve never seen this level of interest from this many potential candidates this early in the off-year of a midterm election cycle. Many chalk it up to the surprise election of President Donald Trump. 

For a party that took a beating at the ballot box last fall, the emergence of fresh blood, much of it in red House districts, is both salve for last year’s wounds and a source of inspiration for 2018. 

Harnessing that enthusiasm is the job of lawmakers and political consultants. In many cases, the appeal of these potential candidates is that they haven’t run for office before or don’t have much political experience. But that also means the wake-up calls about what it really takes to run a competitive congressional campaign will be more shocking.

Breaking it to them 

“I’m very candid about it,” said Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos, who’d made 10 recruitment calls the previous weekend to people all around the country interested in running. 

The former vice chairwoman of recruitment for the DCCC, Bustos has piloted a boot camp to train Democrats in her district to run for office that the DCCC is now trying to replicate across the country. 

“The worst thing you can do is to have someone make a decision to run, and then all the sudden, they’re like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know I had to spend this kind of time making phone calls to make sure I have resources to win this race,’” said the three-term congresswoman, who’s made female recruitment her passion.

Other members have their own priorities. Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton, for example, is deeply involved with recruiting veterans. On Tuesday of this week alone, three veterans announced their campaigns for Congress in three different districts. There’s also an increased effort to recruit small business owners and scientists

Potential candidates, even if they haven’t run before, know 2018 could be a good year for Democrats, who need to gain 24 seats to retake the House. They’ve heard the statistics about the party out of the White House making gains in midterms.

“And Trump adds a whole new level,” said North Carolina Democratic consultant Morgan Jackson. “They’re fired up.”

That’s not enough, though. “It’s easy to get excited about running for Congress. Anybody can make a decision with that info to do it,” Jackson said.

But then a consultant like Jackson has to tell them about the hours of time they’ll have to invest in making fundraising calls. 

“Show them the hard part and then if the excitement is still there, you’re good to move forward,” he said. 

Fundraising is a significant and daunting part of running.

“No one is expected to be able to map out how they’re going to raise $1.5 million,” said Pennsylvania-based consultant J.J. Balaban. But if they can’t at least chart a rough course to six-figures, Congress might not be the right office for them. 

EMILY’s List knows that many of the 10,000 women who have approached them this winter won’t run for Congress — or even for any office this cycle. But the abortion rights group is excited about building a bench for the future.

And with redistricting at play soon, some liberals believe it’s even more important to channel Democratic enthusiasm toward the state level. 

A good omen for 2018?

Even if people interested in running for Congress drop down to running for lower office, Democrats think there’s enough enthusiasm from enough people to portend a strong recruitment year for the 2018 House map. 

Three Democrats, two of whom teach at the same law school, are already in the race against California Rep. Mimi Walters, a Republican who won re-election by 17 points last fall. 

That kind of early campaign launch is changing the political dynamic on the Democratic side.

For one thing, it’s keeping consultants busier. 

“I have a lot more miles on my American Airlines card so far this year,” said Democratic consultant Achim Bergmann.

With multiple candidates in the same districts, consultants are having to vet potential clients the same way the campaign committees would evaluate them as prospective candidates. 

That’s a trend Republicans are familiar with.

“Business is usually better after a bad year,” one North Carolina GOP consultant said, suggesting Democrats are smart to field candidates in red districts in case there’s a midterm wave.

In North Carolina alone, Democrats expect to field competitive challengers to Republican Reps. Robert Pittenger, Ted Budd, George Holding, Richard Hudson and Walter B. Jones. Trump carried those districts by anywhere from 9 to 24 points.  

Jackson, the Democratic consultant, remembers seeing the same phenomenon — only in reverse — in the 1994 cycle, when Republicans ran for offices that Democrats had had on lockdown. Suddenly, even Democrats who had run unopposed in 1992 had serious challengers.

Ugly primaries?

If there’s a downside for Democrats from the heightened interest in running, it’s that there’ll be more primaries. 

Bustos and her colleagues in the Illinois delegation gathered for dinner earlier this month to discuss how, with so many potential candidates, they’d land the best candidates in tough districts. They’ve decided to take a wait-and-see approach to watch who puts in the time and surrounds themselves with good teams.

“Clearing the field is going to be a more difficult endeavor,” said Balaban, the Pennsylvania consultant.

Primaries can help strengthen a candidate before a general election fight, but they can also drain money, and depending on how nasty they are, can even damage a candidate’s reputation.

But that’s why Democrats are impressed that some of these strong, first-time candidates are getting in so early. 

“Even though maybe the bio of the newcomer could make a better general election candidate, they often don’t succeed in the primary because they get in too late,” Jackson said. 

He’s hoping that won’t be an issue this cycle. 

“I’ve really been surprised by the number of people who are seriously talking about raising money more than a year before primary,” he said. 

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