In my last essay, I talked about why I chose to run for the US House of Representatives in 2008, in general terms. Today let’s get a bit more into the weeds on the mechanics of how you actually run for office. I offer this for two reasons – first, it is, I think, interesting to understand the process of how people actually end up on the ballots we see every other November. Secondly, perhaps there is someone reading this that feels the itch to run and wonders how to get started. Mr. Lincoln, when asked about running for the White House in 1860, replied “The taste is in my mouth a little…” So, if you are like I was in 2008, and you have a bit of the taste in your mouth a little, what is the next step? How do you actually run for office? How do you declare your intention to pursue a seat in Congress? Hint – you don’t stand on a street corner and shout “I declare for Congress.” It is a bit more complex than that. But once you formally become a candidate, there are a variety of rules you must follow, both literal and figurative, to avoid big problems such as fines, embarrassments, and oh yes, going to jail.
The first thing to know is that there are different rules for campaigns at different levels of public office. If you want to run for the State House or Senate, then you need to make sure you follow the rules of that particular state. For Colorado, our Secretary of State’s office runs things. They have a 138 page manual to follow to ensure you stay on the right side of campaign and finance requirements.
But if you want to run for a national-level office (presumably the Senate or House, but this would also apply to the potential presidential candidates out there), the Federal Election Commission should be your first stop at fec.gov. There you can find out what you have to do to become, in the eyes of the FEC at least, a candidate. For the curious, you can also find out who donated what and to whom. They even do webinars on how to run for Congress without violating the law. They don’t get you on the ballot and they don’t interact much with your campaign, but you will absolutely need to make sure you stay on the right side of the FEC. You will file regular reports with the FEC and those reports get more numerous and more detailed as Election Day approaches. By law, only two people can actually end up in jail for campaign finance issues – the candidate and the campaign’s treasurer. So pick wisely.
You don’t need to bother with an FEC number if you raise less than $5000, however, because until you cross that threshold, you are not actually a candidate, at least in the FEC’s eyes. Why is there this limit? That’s because you can be one of two types of candidates – serious and symbolic. So which shall you be?
A serious candidate is one who actually is trying as hard as he or she can to win the election. A symbolic candidate is one who is willing to be a placeholder on the ballot for his or her party, but isn’t really going to try to run and win. Symbolic candidates often stand against people, such as Paul Ryan on the GOP side and Nancy Pelosi on the Democratic side. No Dem is going to beat the Speaker in Wisconsin and no Republican is going to beat Pelosi in San Francisco. So much for symbolic candidates.
So you are going to be a serious candidate, and you want to win? I’ll give you the advice I got in 2008 from smart people about elections. While we all condemn it, and we all say we want to do something about it, in today’s electoral world, money is the most vital part of any election. That is because you need to get the word out on your campaign. You must effectively introduce yourself to the voters in your district or state. Once you have won an election or two, it gets simpler (note I didn’t say “easier.” Raising money always, always sucks at the soul of every candidate). But especially in your first campaign, raising money and spending money will be the core of your existence for months.
Why is money so important at the national level? Well, you simply can’t knock on enough doors to introduce yourself directly to the number of voters you must persuade. If you knocked on 50 doors per night (a very high total) for 365 days straight, you’d reach about 200,000 people, give or take. The average congressional district has 711,000 people. And that door knocking leaves no time for everything else. Ultimately, if you want to win, you need to be on TV and radio, as well as all over social media. How do you get there? You buy the time. With what? (I bet you see where this is going.)
So you now understand that you have to raise lots and lots of money to be a serious candidate. Why is that? Well, the big donors out there (we sometimes call this group the “professional” donors) – the rich folks who write checks in the thousands of dollars—pick their candidates carefully. They are looking for someone they can support on the issues who actually has a shot at winning. So, how do they decide? Broadly speaking, they are looking for three things:
- Has the candidate quit his/her job and is now running for office full time?
- This is the metric used to determine commitment
- Has the campaign hired professional support?
- This usually means hiring a PAID staff that includes, at a minimum, a money person, a PR team, and a pollster
- And now the hard one – and I admit this varies a tad – has the candidate already raised enough money that he or she is showing a real shot at winning? This varies by district. Here in CD – 5, I needed to raise $100,000 in the first quarter of my campaign. We did it, by the skin of our teeth, on the last day before the first required FEC report. This generated what we call “earned media” which simply means getting press coverage without cost to the campaign. We used to call this “free media” but it isn’t free. You really have to work to get the media to cover you.
You may have noticed by this time that I haven’t mentioned political parties and their role yet. That is because – stand by for a shocker – the political parties will be little more than very nice people cheerleading for you. They may help with some phone banking and they may help out with the all-important GOTV (which is the Holy Grail for campaigns – the Get Out The Vote effort on election day). But you won’t get money or much in the way of direct support. The party may well have played a part in recruiting you to run, but once you start that campaign, for the most part the party doesn’t do too much for you directly.
Except – remember before how I said the FEC doesn’t get you on the ballot? It is your state party that usually takes care of that paperwork. In my case, at the Colorado State Democratic Convention, one of my duties was to head over to the paperwork office and sign the forms needed to get your name on the ballot itself. And here’s a twist – within reason, you get to pick your ballot name. My legal name is Harold, but for the past few decades, I’ve gone by Hal. So I got to pick my name for the ballot as Hal Bidlack. You can’t have any titles or rank and such, but you get to pick your name. (And, as yet another aside, it is a rather surreal experience to open your mail-in ballot and find your own name on it.)
So now you know how to get started. You know to go to the FEC to get your money started on the right foot, and you know how to get your name on the ballot. You understand that, at least for the US House and Senate, you aren’t going to spend too much time knocking on doors.
So, what’s next? Raising money. If you are like me, you enjoy the interaction with voters – the chatting at social events, the talks to groups of interested voters. But all that takes place in the evening. To get there, first you are going to spend all day, most days, on the phone.You are going to start calling people and asking them for donations. You are going to spend hundreds of hours on the phone and you will hear every possible type of witty voicemail message. But all that phone stuff can wait for the next installment, which is the part of a campaign that unites all candidates from all political points of view in a cycle of shame and loathing – dialing for dollars. Meet me back here in a week, and bring some aspirin. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.