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Members of Congress play campaign pundit all the time. But are they any good at it?

Here’s what it takes to win, according to several swing district lawmakers

In an era where seemingly everything is viewed through partisan lenses, party affiliation didn’t seem to influence anyone's responses.
In an era where seemingly everything is viewed through partisan lenses, party affiliation didn’t seem to influence anyone's responses. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A fundamental question in American politics is how someone can convince some of their neighbors and a whole lot of strangers to vote for them.

So whenever we sat down for our “Take Five” Q&A series this year with a member of Congress who had eked out a narrow win or flipped a seat, we included some version of that basic inquiry in the interviews.

The answers were often predictable — you need a great candidate (“y’know, like me,” implied) — and sometimes surprising, but we wondered: Were they any good?

To find out, Heard on the Hill asked a few campaign professionals.

Several trend lines emerged. In an era where seemingly everything is viewed through partisan lenses, party affiliation didn’t seem to influence anyone’s responses. Most focused on convincing voters they were all on the same side. “I really believe that voters want to hear from candidates who are asking to earn their vote or their trust,” said Sen. Ben Ray Luján, who chaired the DCCC during the 2016 and 2018 elections.

To that end, “the messenger matters,” said Texas Republican Rep. Tony Gonzales, while Georgia Democratic Rep. Nikema Williams emphasized the need for “authentic candidates.”

The campaign operatives agreed. If anything, they said those were the bare prerequisites — necessary, but not sufficient.

“It’s not cliché when candidates, operators, analysts [etc.], say candidates and campaigns matter,” said Zack Roday, a GOP strategist with Ascent Media. “It’s just true.”

“Voters can absolutely see through the BS and tell if candidates are truly authentic or not, particularly if they’re running in a crowded primary with a lot of different options,” said Matt Orr, a vice president at First Tuesday Strategies, a Republican campaign consultancy.

Sometimes the parties screw up by failing to ensure their candidates can speak passionately and sincerely about their values, said Ian Russell, a Democratic strategist at Beacon Media and former national political director at the DCCC. “Where I think where we miss the boat, too, is sometimes the party committees — certainly, I know ours has in past cycles — prioritize people who can bring money to the table, as opposed to people who have a story to tell,” he said.

Democrats and Republicans alike also grappled with overcoming how nationalized politics have become, especially in swing districts.

“A lot of folks will start to focus on national politics, but I think it’s important to stay close to home,” said Rep. David Valadao, a Republican who was swept up in 2018’s blue wave but managed to win back his California district in 2020 even as it backed Joe Biden by 11 points. “I’m always doing my best to help people understand what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and so I spend a lot of time on the ground.”

That’s really good advice, said Russell. “I would always advise clients that it is worth passing on those invitations to CNN, Sunday morning shows or profiles for inside-the-Beltway publications unless they can really help you raise money and raise your profile,” he said.

Rep. Tom O’Halleran of Arizona similarly urged his colleagues to focus on finding pragmatic solutions to local problems, while fellow Democratic Rep. Sean Casten of Illinois pointed to the dozens of town halls he’s held to explain his votes back home. (Editor’s note: CQ Roll Call hasn’t yet published the full interviews with O’Halleran and Casten.) 

The election experts applauded those recommendations, but — unlike the lawmakers — acknowledged there is only so much a candidate’s personal brand can do to counter the national political climate or a district’s lean. Today, only nine House Republicans represent districts that Joe Biden carried in 2020, and just seven Democrats are in districts Donald Trump won. 

“Eighty to 90 percent of House races are decided by people’s opinions about the president, regardless of party,” said one Democratic strategist, who spoke anonymously to offer a frank assessment of how little campaigns can sway the electorate.

“Even with a positively established brand and concrete, strong solutions that meet voters where they are on what they care about, you can still lose depending on the makeup of the district or state [or] given the national atmosphere,” said Roday.

One swing-district Republican, Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska, said to regain control of Congress, his party had to tone down the angry tenor of the “populist far right,” and focus on “the breakfast table issues of education and security” that suburban voters care about. “You can get half your votes on policy, but the other half really comes down to, do they like you as a person,” he said.

Again, the operatives largely agreed with Bacon that, all else equal, voters prefer friendly, personable, approachable candidates. “However, I do think there’s a segment of the population — particularly those who are in the party apparatus, who attend the county party meetings on both sides of the aisle — who really do want to see people that will go to D.C. and fight for their values,” said Orr.

The piece of advice that got the most pushback came from Casten, who successfully unseated a six-term Republican in suburban Chicago’s 6th District in 2018. “The people will respect you if you have a strongly held set of moral convictions, even if they disagree with a conviction,” he said, referring to his votes to impeach Donald Trump.

“I agree with his premise, however, the challenge is you have to communicate it,” said Russell, who worked for another Democrat in the 2018 primary. “There’s a fine line between sticking to your principles and appearing arrogant and elite and aloof and out of touch.”

“Being authentic and having established that as your brand gives you flexibility, but, issue by issue, the calculation matters,” said Roday.

He pointed to voters who just didn’t believe Republicans in 2018 who pledged to protect access to health insurance for people with pre-existing conditions after the party unsuccessfully sought to overturn Obamacare in 2017 without a substitute in place. “That’s where a national conversation can overtake a localized brand,” he said.

While the operatives didn’t think the members got anything egregiously wrong, they did point to a sin of omission: None had mentioned advertising or the money needed to pay for it.

“You need to have resources to carry your message and have conversations with voters where they are,” said Roday, who also emphasized the need for online outreach to complement door-to-door campaigning and advertising.

“The average voter is never going to meet their member of Congress,” said the anonymous Democratic strategist. “They’re going to be vaguely aware that they’re doing town halls, things like that, but it’s local news coverage and paid communication — that’s how people experience a political race.”

Overall, though, the strategists gave the politicians who spoke to Heard on the Hill in 2021 high marks.

“They have a pretty good handle on what can win the trust and the vote of a voter in these mostly tough areas to win,” said Roday.

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