‘You can’t win if you don’t play’ (apologies to the Lotto folks)*.
Why don’t greater numbers of conservatives get elected in a country that self-identifies as mostly conservative?
I’ve listened to and read learned people’s opinion on why conservatives don’t win more elections. All of those pundits and followers of things politic have rational and solid reasons for more conservative candidates not prevailing in the arena of ideas. Maybe they are all correct, at some level. I won’t pretend to know who amongst them has the best answers.
One thing I haven’t read, yet am beginning to believe, is that maybe we simply have to work harder… that’s something few want to hear and it doesn’t make for an easy-to-accept solution. One thing I do know for sure is that no one succeeds alone, regardless of party or value system. Let me tell you a story about what wasn’t, but could have been…. The story I am about to tell is true, at least to the best of my recollection.
Several election cycles ago, I joked with a good friend of mine (we’ll refer to him in this blog as Walter Elias) that he should run for office. As a pastor he had years of experience of public speaking, preparing and delivering well-thought remarks. Walter is a conservative evangelical, a family man of considerable character who was more than qualified to make a ‘family values’ campaign work. The ‘joke’ turned into serious consideration for him, which then turned into action – on the last day available to file, Walt took himself to the county recorder and filed his application (and fees) to run for a state-level office; house representative of a district in the not-so-conservative town of Las Vegas, NV. It was a district that had been counted as a lock for the Democrat party for years.
After Walt filed he called to tell me what he had done and then asked me to help him manage his campaign. I have no political experience but said yes to his request - I was willing to stand with him to see if we could make a difference in our community. I promptly recruited a mom (and bookkeeping wizard) to keep the campaign checkbook and learn the rules of appropriately raising and spending money raised by the campaign. We knew that the district has been held for the last 12 years by the opposition and while the Democrat incumbent was leaving due to term limits, his party had hand-picked his successor. Walt had no illusions, but felt that it was the best time in the last decade to make a run. So here was my friend Walt - an intelligent and thoughtful conservative candidate who had little money, working full-time to support his family, no political reputation and a campaign manager whose experience managing political campaigns was zero. Walt simply showed up on the GOP radar after he filed. All of us being optimists, we went “forward”, as Mr. Obama might say.
While we worked on issues and positions, Walt was contacted by the state level GOP apparatus and invited to the Las Vegas office. We were warmly received by the party liaison and scheduled for an orientation. She told us that this was the first election in her memory that the party had candidates for every office in the state of Nevada (a surprise to me for sure). We were offered the use of some of the office space and phones as we could schedule it, and were assured that we would be invited to any functions that were appropriate. We got a day of ‘training and orientation’ sponsored by the State-level party, which turned out to be slightly more than a sales pitch from a series of political and media consultants – still, we took away valuable advice from ‘those in the know’. We rubbed shoulders with the other candidates at ‘getting to know you’ orientations. Some of these were incumbents with reputations. One guy we met was a ‘Stepford’ candidate – perfect image, cash to spend, a traceable pedigree and was getting attention from the party apparatus. The party thought he had a chance.
Many of the candidates, especially the new unknowns, got nothing much more from the Party. Our party liaison was absolutely wonderful, but she was only one person, with no authority to direct resources. I think she was the one who helped arrange what little help the party did contribute to Walt’s campaign, and we were most grateful. We showed up so late in the process, we had no reasonable expectation of much assistance.
I discovered some truths about (local) politics that season:
- Unless you have a national presence (star quality) or are completely outrageous, you won’t stand a chance of getting any local news exposure. If you are completely outrageous, your press will all be negative. Good candidates are never outrageous.
- I learned that while you may develop well-reasoned positions on a variety of issues, you may not get a chance to advocate for them since few may ever hear you in a state level race, other than the occasional folks who will answer their door bells and give you a couple of minutes on a hot Saturday.
- I started out worrying about our team sounding weak on some issues because we didn’t have latest good intelligence / data – I wound up worrying that no one would ever ask us about any issues.
- I learned that yard signs don’t make that much of a statement.
- Campaign donors are mostly a figment of your imagination. My candidate found one and was blessed by the support he received. The donor had the courage to help my friend make a run, against all of the odds.
- I learned that in the current state of political affairs, winning is as much about your connections in the community as it is about your values and positions. Hate to say it, hate even more to admit it, can’t prove it, but certainly can’t disprove it either…. It as much about whom you know vs. what you know…. a pointed lesson in personal networking.
- Any help you get on a campaign is never enough.
- I learned that starting your campaign too early is just as bad as starting too late.
- Running for office at any level takes an enormous amount of time and money. If you are a family person, like my friend Walt, considerable sacrifice from you, your partner and children will be required. Running for any office is hard – period. It takes guts. It takes dedication.
- I learned that ‘no one else is coming’. If you or your team doesn’t do it, it won’t get done. Don’t wait on a Party committee or apparatus to do something – no one else is going to take care of it….. Inversely, more hands do make lighter work!
- I learned that anyone who gets elected most likely has a seasoned and experienced campaign manager.
- I learned that no one wins without the support of a lot of family, friends, like-minded citizens – in short, the considered support of those who believe in their candidate.
Walt didn’t win on that Election Day. He got a respectable 34% (or so) of the votes cast in that highly Democrat district. Since the number of GOP registrants wasn’t that high, some of those votes had to be Independents and maybe a few registered Democrats, too. His opponent took out billboard advertising to bolster name recognition. I saw the opponent’s yard signs on every corner and his banners on many fences. I believe Walt’s candidacy drove his opponent to spend that kind of money.
I am proud of my friend Walter and of his efforts. I wish all Republican Party candidates (at any level), had his character and sensibility. While I didn’t personally know the opponent, I am sure he worked just as hard and suffered some of the same doubts as we had. He was, after all, in the arena, too. Biggest surprise – the GOP ‘Stepford candidate’ didn’t win his district either – an outcome that really shocked me and started me to wonder about all of the factors it takes to win.
Not every one of the GOP hopefuls who showed up to run was the kind of candidate you may want to back. In that light, another one of the things I found surprising was what appeared to be the absence of a recruiting process, however causal, for conservative candidates. Should there be a process to identify and recruit conservative candidates – with a school to prep them for the electoral process? Not so implausible when you consider it — there seems to be schools for everything else in this life.
My small and brief glimpse into local politics was interesting, if not somewhat discouraging. Yet as difficult as it seemed, if we are to have a country whose elected officials are people of conservative character with conservative values, then good conservative people simply must run. And if they are to run, they need to be surrounded by other people who care for them and their family, encourage them, support them and will sacrifice some of their time and treasure to help them succeed. I am convinced it won’t happen any other way. This isn’t (obviously) the only answer to electing conservatives, but it certainly is at the core of success for anyone who steps onto the field.
If you know a conservative person who is genuine in their philosophy, thoughtful, ‘walks their talk’ and shows an interest in politics, talk to them about running for office. Our country needs good men and women to aspire to local, state and federal offices. If they don’t want to run, ask them to join YOU in finding a candidate who does represent your values – then help that candidate as much as you BOTH are able. Every bit of time, money and encouragement given to a candidate is important. Start looking for those persons now – the next cycle is right around the corner, mere months away. ‘You can’t win if you don’t play’.
*Title borrowed from an old Lottery jingle.