Nuts & Bolts—Inside a Democratic campaign: responsibilities and pitfalls of protecting your seat

Nuts & Bolts—Inside a Democratic campaign: responsibilities and pitfalls of protecting your seat

Welcome back to another entry into the Nuts & Bolts series! Each week I try to document information that comes from campaign managers, field directors, staff, and anyone else involved in campaigns all over the country. With the help of their input as well as our own community I’ve worked to maintain this guide for nearly a decade. It’s amazing as Daily Kos celebrates 20 years, I’m busy remembering thinking about campaigns here and writing sections for groups at the time in that era. What a ride it has been! This series focuses on down ballot campaigns, looking at how to help campaigns build their way to success.

Every election cycle, some members of each elected body need to retire. They can retire due to age, a better job opportunity within an organization, due to health concerns or any number of reasons. For many, they view it as a responsibility to find their replacement. Others see the hand-picking of a replacement as creating a stagnate party that doesn’t allow outsiders to succeed. What if I told you both can be true? What responsibilities does a retiring Democratic official have to their electoral and to the party? This week, let’s cover the process of protecting Democratic standing in local government, state houses, and federal elected positions.

Let’s start local

Local races, from city, county, district attorneys, and state house are the races most directly impacted by the retirement of a Democratic official. Because these offices are small, the recruiting practice for these races takes time and effort. You will have to work to find the right person, get people behind them and do the legwork to help them. Recruiting these candidates often falls on the person retiring because of the fact this recruiting practice takes time and the candidate will need introductions to others in order to succeed. It is hard to be a complete unknown filling the seat of a former incumbent in a race for city council or state house, as example, if you don’t have the former elected vouching for you.

If you are running for some spots, like district attorney or your state senate, support of the prior incumbent will mean an incredible amount, because their ability to help support your campaign by whatever is left in their campaign fund will matter.

When it comes to these races, there is an expectation that the retiring official helps recruit because failure to do so can end up with no candidate, or a bad candidate on the ballot and the seat will stop being held by a Democratic elected official. It’s just that simple.

What about bigger, prominent races or guaranteed races?

Bobby Rush is retiring from Illinois 1st district. He’s been in congress 15 terms, 30 years. He understands his district, is well liked and if he wanted to hold the seat it would be guaranteed he could do it. The district, representing southern Chicago, is a solid Democratic seat. He would like to pick his replacement. There is nothing wrong with him handing out an endorsement or supporting a candidate. Just like anyone who votes or participates, he is free to do exactly that, and has made the choice to do so.

Unlike the local races above, though, there will be no recruiting problem in IL-01, as 19 Democratic candidates are already looking at how to win that district

If the district you are sitting in is so solidly Democratic, you generally don’t have to worry about recruiting. Someone will be there you can bet on it. While Bobby Rush isn’t going to face a lot of recoil for deciding who he may like, if you are in a small district for statehouse or city council that is secured Democratic, how deep you wade into finding your successor will depend a lot on how meaningful it will be to your replacement. Ask whether or not they want an endorsement. 

There is a simple logic to this I that should make sense, in order:

If you are retiring and:

You are in a safe Democratic seat You’re obligation to find your replacement or endorse them is less, endorsements are up to the candidate and the elected
You are in a lean Democratic seat Your endorsement and recruiting may make a difference in helping voters be comfortable continuing to vote Democratic, and to view your replacement as acceptable
Your in a toss-up seat If your seat is for a local race, prepare to spend time recruiting someone to replace you. You will need to endorse them, and likely help them fundraise
Your seat is lean-Republican Whether it happened through redistricting or if you’ve held it while it was always lean-R, recruiting to your seat is going to be difficult as will fundraising.  Your support matters a great deal. Finding a candidate to run will need your knowledge. Last minute surprises of “I’m retiring” will not be received well.
Your seat is solid Republican Are you a Democratic official who held a local office? City council or county or state house in a district that is a solid Trump voting district? Recruiting is going to be incredibly difficult. Unless you find someone, though, you immediately surrender the district. Your guidance as to how you held this district will make a big impact.
Your seat is new Let’s say your state house or county district is now divided, and there is an entirely new district that exists. You may be retiring and needing to assist in helping multiple candidates understand what is happening in your district. Your knowledge of the district, how it has grown, what caused it to split (or shrink) will give them important guidance they need in order to run

The end goal, as always is simple: don’t surrender seats. Try to make sure your seat stays in Democratic hands. Work to help whoever wins the primary. Retirement is your choice and you need to do what is right for you. Finding the right solution can be part of what makes you feel comfortable knowing that you’ve done right by the voters you represented while you served.

Questions? Thoughts? Feel free to ask in the questions, and as always I try to offer responses.

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