Welcome back to the weekly Nuts & Bolts Guide to small campaigns. Over the course of more than a decade, I’ve taken time to speak with campaign managers, field directors, communications directors, finance directors, and, of course, been a part of as many campaigns as I could. One question that comes up frequently is whether to primary a sitting elected, or what to do when a Democratic candidate is unopposed in the primary but unlikely to make any inroads in a general election. The candidate running may be an incumbent. Or they may be running against a sitting Republican, but they just can’t catch fire among Democratic voters.
If you have that candidate, one sitting with a fair amount of campaign funds, should you step aside and see how it turns out? If you assume them winning the primary isn’t inevitable, do you believe another campaign would be stronger and more likely to succeed? This week on Nuts & Bolts, I want to talk about stalking horse primaries.
Lumbering under the weight of no opposition
In many races, from local city council to governor and president, the field may include either just one candidate or one assumed candidate that people step aside and assume will be the nominee. If you have an incumbent, this is the expectation; in an open seat, if someone comes in early and has strong fundraising, it also closes the door to primary campaigns. Other candidates can look at the numbers and judge for themselves and simply determine that this is not the right time for them to run for office. Is that always the right option?
The answer is not as simple as just a “yes” or “no.” In many cases, the best answer is that, yes, if a candidate is far along in their race and has raised money enough to put on a campaign and is effectively working the field, then a challenge is often viewed as a waste of resources.
That doesn’t, however, actually mean that it is a waste of resources. Two campaigns can work the exact same district and reach completely different voters with different messages, and their turnout can result in a better look at the demographics and data within that voting area to plan for the future, something that can benefit the party.
A bad candidate is the presumed nominee. When is too late?
Believe it or not, this happens. Candidates can get through a primary unopposed in winnable districts and yet, everyone knows they are not the candidate who can win. I hear about this every week from people here on Daily Kos about past races in their states and on phone calls with campaign teams about why they wish they had run previously. The answers sometimes boil down to, “If we had run anyone except for Candidate A in 2020, we might have won here.”
This isn’t a great answer. If you feel as though the candidate running is simply going to fail in a general election but there are better options, then present the voters with those options while you have a chance. The end goal is to win in the fall and to do that we need the best candidates we can have. The photo above of Cori Bush highlights this example. Missouri’s12nd Congressional district is a bright blue district, and Lacy Clay had held the seat for a generation. His father held it before he ran for office, handing it down through the family. A Democratic elected. Why would Cori Bush challenge? Because she believed there needed to be a better choice. If you believe that, then yes, by all means, run. Now, she’s a strong voice for the progressive caucus and resonates with her district.
This is even more true in an open primary. If you are running against a Republican incumbent, our best bet is to have the strongest possible candidate in the general election. If you are convinced the assumed candidate is not that person, and you want to run, step up and do it! Get your financing in order and start raising money and get out in the field.
Local races are where this can matter the most
Local races are the ones most impacted by this logic. While I’ve used the example of U.S. Congress, far more candidates exist for things like school board, city council, mayor, sheriff, county commissioners, and special districts. In these races, the ability to walk, talk, and communicate with the people has a high priority, and that level of activity expectation—knocking doors, making phone calls, and attending local events really means something.
I have seen this up close, where candidates for down-ballot offices were younger, hungrier, more interested in making phone calls, arranging phone banks, doing door knocking, and building turnout systems in comparison to older, more established candidates with money that lived on the idea of “people know me” or “my story sells itself.”
When primaries ended, several candidates found themselves surprised when hungrier candidates performed better in these elections.
Nothing is inevitable
The worst assumptions about inevitable campaigns, in order:
- We’ve always done it this way
- It is their turn
- They are well established with the community (with whom? With what data?)
- Any primary is a bad primary
- Name alone matters, and we are better with a “blah” candidate in the fall vs. a contested primary
All of these, in my opinion, result in a lack of energy among our own voters. Let me be clear: When Democratic voters vote, we win. When we stay at home, Republicans win. Period. Even in the brightest of red states, there are enough Democratic voters to win seats when we need them and to find locations to win them at the local and state levels. If a race is inevitable, it is because the candidate is so well-loved that the idea of challenging them in a primary doesn’t exist. That is how you make a campaign inevitable. You generate excitement for your candidate.
Campaigns should never, ever say their candidate is “inevitable” due to any factor—whether fundraising, lack of opposition, or enthusiasm—because that simply isn’t the case.
If you talk to a campaign and it is long before the filing date, and the general attitude is that they are the inevitable campaign, you might need to ask yourself why they are so confident. Is it because they have such excitement and energy in their campaign that just attracts everyone involved? Or is it because they are trying to scare off challengers, afraid that they don’t have those elements put together?
Because there is a significant difference between the two positions.
Wait, but we are the inevitable campaign! We don’t want a challenge!
Let’s reverse the tables. Your candidate has been in the race the longest, worked the hardest over a long period of time, generated support and endorsements. Now, someone else is coming into the race or thinking about it. You have several worries. Would the other candidate pull money away from your campaign? Do they take energy away from your campaign? Could they beat you in a primary?
There is nothing wrong with being the inevitable campaign. It is the ideal position to be in. You are the campaign that starts with more resources, has all of the advantages. The one thing you have to keep in mind is that there are five variables that are not influenced by your stature in the party or fundraising. They are:
If you want to be the inevitable candidate, it takes more than money and endorsements. You also have to have the hunger and drive to keep working hard, every day at every level. You have to generate excitement among your volunteers and among donors who want to host you or help you raise money. You have to have a message that resonates with the voters in your district and that gets their votes. Finally, time obeys no other factor. The more effectively you use your time and the time of your staff and volunteers, the more successful you will be.
It is a good place to be when you are the candidate with more endorsements, more funds, and an early start. Don’t for one second think that means inevitable. It just means you have more tools and funds to help get your message across and gain excitement in your campaign. If you don’t work hard, have the right message, or if you just lack the excitement of your own base then there is simply nothing you can do until you sit down with your own campaign and ask real questions of yourself. Not questions sent by the press or a local newspaper editor. Why am I running? What do I want from being elected? What gets me excited about serving in elected office? Am I hungry enough to do the work? Do I like the constituents I will represent? Can I communicate my excitement and message to those constituents so that we can have a mutual, positive relationship that gets me votes?
As always, I try to participate in the comments. If you have questions, or you’ve been part of a challenge campaign or an “inevitable” campaign and you learned something and want to share it here, everyone loves the experiences of other users! I’d love to hear yours!
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