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Where politics and faith dance in the shadow of the windmill.

What Should Dems Look For?

With the retirement of Vern Ehlers from the Third District Congressional seat, Democrats will face a decision: what kind of candidate should they be putting forward?  Glenn Barkan offered some ideas earlier today, and they’re good, but really don’t explore some of the real variables. Even in a seat with supposedly no chances, prospective candidates still face  choices about the scope and intensity of the campaign.  This decision in turn will affect  fund-raising,volunteer recruiting and commitment,  as well as basic time commitments.

Of course in West Michigan, Democrats have had plenty of experience in running these up-hill races.  Understanding the choices available to the candidate and his or her campaign help the party make better choices regarding its resources, it also helps the campaign better define for itself what the victory conditions are.  How do we run and not be weary?

We can think of these choices under four headings. The following models of campaigns are not just for  the Third District race, but can be found in a number of levels.  And dare we say it, this template is also good when the Republican runs uphill, as well, say in MI-76 (Schmidt).

  1. The Token. Most often, this is the race one gets at the Congresssional level, or perhaps in a completely unwinnable city slot (e.g. Republicans challenging in CC-17).  Covering three counties, the district is large enough to require a significant media buy — far out of the reach of a minimally funded campaign (typically <$10k).   With no perceived chance of winning, the decision is to be a team player on the Democratic ticket, show up at functions and parades.  Walk in the City and call it good.  With a token campaign, the message is kept to a minimum.  These campaigns are inevitably low funded  (<$10k), and often suffer from a lack of credibility.  Small wonder that when  November comes around,  the results invariably define “base”.  Dems vote, because they appreciate the effort.
  2. The Voice. Even in a sure-loss seat a campaign can still have an impact through articulating opposing or alternate views.  Indeed, this may be the one time when voters in a district hear an alternative view to the majority (Republican) position.   Such campaigns will generally be active and visible.  Goal is to articulate a Dem perspective; broadly in this case (2010) to support the President — in times past, it has offered the opportunity to criticize or to push against a Republican legislative agenda .  The key to success lies in the credibility of the candidate’s  background and/or the ability to speak knowledgeably. Fund-raising requirements are moderate; such a campaign will have budgets in the $10-$50k range.   The drawback to such a campaign is apparent: generally, those who have the capacity to be articulate also have the sorts of jobs that prevent them from taking up a run. Candidates are best who are at beginning or end of career.  Examples of this campaign would be John Ferguson (98) who  ran a civic education campaign, and Kate Lynnes (02) who was an enivornmental activist.  This year,  Paul Mayhue appears to be taking up this model.   He is already out in front with a very forthright stance regarding the social welfare issues in Washington.
  3. The Pre-Position. Like the Voice campaign with its emphasis on articulation of positions, but with a strategy  that thinks of the campaign as a two-parter: this cycle and next.  The emphasis in the first cycle is on publicity and networks.  Fundraising will be significant, but the real heavy lifting would be in the second run.  As a practical matter, this can be very prudent.  With a Congressional race or even some state races (e.g. SS-29) the learning curve is so steep that it may take a cycle  to master.  A Pre-Positioning campaign differs from the Voice (2) by emphasizing more policy stances as opposed to the more combative side.  Policy statements will be broader and more centrist than the Voice campaigns.  As the campaign seeks to be taken credibly, even in the first cycle, there is a significant price tag — for the Congressional race $100k would be the minimum for such a run  but a full campaign will require a significantly larger budget. .Examples or such campaigns would be Fred Johnson 08 (2nd Congressional), LaGrand 06 (SS-29).  This strategy may be the most successful for Dems.  Should the Dems keep the State government, next year’s redistricting will likely make the 3rd a much more friendly seat.  A candidate with name recognition in a presidential year would have at the least a fighting chance.  All the more if the opponent is from the wing of the GOP, as say Justin Amash.  The leading contender for such a race appears to be local attorney Pat Miles Jr.
  4. The Whole Enchilada. This is the campaign that aims  to win.  The candidate and/or the team is experienced in political warfare, and runs a serious media campaign.  Budget on order of $100k+. For a successful Third District run, the figure is likely to run to the seven figures if it catches fire.  Such a race requires boldness and lots of ego.  Even with this commitment,  victory chances  will vary with the top of the ticket.  For Dems in Kent County, this means a strong gubernatorial (or presidential) lead in.  Such a campaign is also best done with an open seat — incumbent fundraising can othewise make the race near impossible.  sometimes such an all out race is entered, not because of victory possibilities, but because of how it helps the Party test the opposition and build a name for itself.  Here, the classic model may be Hawley (08).For the 3rd District,  Dems have looked over to Mike Sak and his $200k.  Away from the Congressional level, a similar sort of campaign is underway with LaGrand ’10 for State Senate 29.   The time line for the race is punishingly short,  so short that unless one has  a war chest now there may be little one can do to compete.  As Barkan said, the time to decide is now.

For those campaigns in safe seats (the reverse of the usual Democratic experience), there is a fifth model for campaign organization:

  1. Family and Friends. Many relatively uncontested campaigns adopt this structure.  The campaign raises sufficient money for the media buy, but at the heart, it is not about volunteers, but a network of friends.  Ehlers’ campaigns have generally been of this sort.  These campaigns look beguilingly lax from the outside, but pushed and they have the ability to rally a significant network (and significant extra money) to claim the center and so hold the seat.  Of course, if a campaign over-estimates its appeal, or ends up too far out on a wing for the district, there may not be enough friends to hold off the challenger.  This was the case in the upsets in 2008 for the Kent County Commission.

As a cautionary note to candidates: even if one starts out as a “Token” the energy of campaigning, the narrative is such that it invites bigger dreams, more engagement.  Rare is the campaign that keeps itself so in control that the candidate does not end up over committing.

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Filed under: Democratic Party, Elections, , , , , , , , ,

2 Responses

  1. Bill Vis says:

    Thanks, Bill. Loved the clarity of the options as you presented them, and see the applicability for both parties. Well done!

  2. Kirk Vanhouten says:

    Any chance LaGrand might run for the congressional seat instead of State Senate? Seems like he’d have the best shot of any Dem in Kent County.

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