My Political Hiatus and Our Party Problems (Part 3)

January 29, 2013

In this third installment, I will discuss fundraising and some of the problems and misconceptions that hold us back in this area. Anyone who missed the first two posts can read Part 1 here or Part 2 here.

The Joy of Campaigning?

Would you like to spend countless hours working hard without compensation or any guarantee of future compensation or position, take time away from your friends and family, experience difficulty juggling all your responsibilities, and receive less support than you need to run a credible campaign from those you are trying to represent? If you answered yes, you might enjoy running as a Democrat in Kansas.

Running for office is no treat. Oddly, some people seem to think it is a glorious and glamorous experience to run for office. It’s not. It is a lot of hard work, which is often under-appreciated. Granted, there are very rewarding moments at times but there are also many barriers, disappointments, and struggles. Of all the struggles, fundraising is always one of the biggest hurdles for candidates.

I have become very frustrated by the attitude displayed by some folks discussing fundraising and donations who talk about candidates “proving themselves” and noting that they shouldn’t have a “free ride”. First of all, there is no “ride” for most candidates. Many are crawling or walking at best. I agree that we shouldn’t shower donations on someone who isn’t running a campaign. However, most candidates are making an earnest effort and want to succeed. They have been brave enough to put themselves on the public stage by filing for office. They have agreed to step up and do what so many are unwilling to do. They want to make a positive difference and need help to do it.

Candidates put in long hours and tremendous amounts of time and energy. They sacrifice time with friends and family. They do not get paid for any of their work. And, they do this for you. They put in this effort and make these sacrifices so that you can have someone decent to vote for on election day. Be a little grateful. We should be giving our candidates respect, admiration, and support not scowls and skepticism.

Priority Woes

There are a limited number of Kansas Democrats who consistently donate substantial amounts to various candidates. These big donors get calls from everyone but tend to be choosy about which candidates they feel are the “best investments” and/or end up donating to those who are part of the royal family. So, only a limited number of candidates will receive support from these higher profile donors.

Moreover, the party prioritizes races and these priority levels influence the willingness of donors and PAC groups to support a particular candidate. Although I learned a great deal in my 2010 run for office, I was surprised in 2012 to learn the extent to which party priorities are considered by non-party PAC groups. One sitting Kansas Senator asked me if “Anthony Hensley was getting me any labor money”. This person went on to note that candidates can write all the letters they like or make phone calls all day long but if Hensley hasn’t given you a thumbs up on the list that he shares, you won’t see much if any money. So, you can’t even make your own case as a candidate – you must be anointed by the gatekeeper for your respective race.

Additionally, demographics of the district also play a big role in a candidate’s ability to raise funds. If your mathematical chances of winning are extremely low based on party registration figures, your priority level will be at a very low level. So, you can be a fantastic candidate who is doing all the right things but, if you don’t live in a favorable district, your quality as a candidate and the effort you put in are irrelevant….unless you miraculously are close to winning (according to polls you pay for yourself) – then you might receive some support. Maybe.

As a result of these factors, many Democratic candidates in Kansas are unpleasantly surprised to learn that after filing and making the effort to run they are figuratively in siberia when it comes to fundraising. There have been many who experienced a rude awakening when moving from party activist to candidate. They have good relationships with many Democrats. Many within the party give them significant verbal encouragement to run for office. However, after campaign fundraising begins, the supporters suddenly have lots of reasons they can’t donate. What no one is told is that the deck is already stacked at the outset of the fundraising cycle. I don’t care how compelling you are as a candidate, who encouraged you to run, or who you know in the party, if your race isn’t prioritized you will not raise decent money – period. Then when you aren’t able to raise much money, individuals and PAC groups will sometimes tell you they won’t donate because you haven’t raised enough money. This is tantamount to shaming the candidate for being a victim of the system.

Moreover, most people are also not aware that some candidates receive a reception similar to a lone animal approaching a pack of hungry wild animals devouring the carcass of a recent kill. This is especially true if a new candidate in a non-prioritized race is seen as having the potential to draw attention or donors. The philosophy of many Kansas Democrats is that we have such limited resources that those chosen to be in the “pack” (i.e., prioritized races/candidates) should be the primary target for all donor activity and those who are not prioritized are simply wasting and diverting valuable resources when they receive donations. In my opinion, this is one of the reasons for our coordinated campaign, which sounds good on the surface but ends up being a redistribution mechanism for many candidates hard-earned donations. (This will be covered in detail in Part 4.)

While most would argue that we should use our limited resources wisely (and I agree with this in part), this strategy has the unfortunate consequence of dooming most of our candidates to be defeated and makes the party look like a disorganized joke across the state as the vast majority of our candidates do not have the resources to put forward a credible and competitive campaign.

Excuses, Excuses

As a candidate, you hear a lot of reasons and explanations about why an individual can’t donate. Sometimes these are accurate and other times they are things people say to avoid telling you no. Here are some of the most common excuses:

“You have a primary and I want to make sure you win before I donate.”

(After you win the primary) “Since we’ve talked, I’ve already donated to these other candidates and I just don’t have the resources left to give you anything.”

“You don’t have a primary and I need to support the candidates who have to get through their primary.”

“There are some other candidates in more competitive districts that are going to have really tough races and I need to support them.”

“You are a good candidate but I don’t think you will be able to win against your opponent and/or given your district demographics. Call back if you have a poll that says you are winning.”

“I have to make a budget because so many people are asking me for support – call back later.”

“Send me something in the mail and then call me back.”

(Upon calling back) “Oh, I didn’t get anything from you. It didn’t reach me. Can you send it again?”

Anyone who has done much “call time” knows how depressing and frustrating it can be. There were some folks that I had to call almost 10 times to finally get them to come through with a donation. I know others have had similar experiences. Frankly, this is stupid. This “playing hard to get” game on the part of donors wastes everyone’s time and hurts every candidate who has to do this. As a donor, if you are not going to give, simply find a way to politely say no the first time you are contacted. And, if you are going to donate, give the candidate a rough idea of when you intend to send out checks. Our democracy does not exist just so donors can get an ego boost by having people suck up to them. Donate because you believe in making a positive difference not because you need to puff up your ego by wielding the promise of your checkbook.

Also, don’t be a deadbeat or a jerk. If you make a pledge to donate, follow through on it. During my last campaign, I followed up 6 times with someone who had pledged to donate before I wrote them off as a deadbeat. I will never take them seriously again. Moreover, keep in mind that many candidates look at the campaign finance reports and will see what you gave to other candidates. The big donors in the party are well aware of this and are usually very even-handed in giving those they are supporting who are running for the same level of office the same or similar contributions. Unfortunately, less savvy party members make some major faux pas that may contribute to some candidates disengaging or becoming angry. For example, if a donor gives $25 to the candidate in their own district and $500 to another candidate in a different district pursuing the same level race, this can make the donor look like a jerk to the first candidate since it will be obvious that the individual had the resources to give much more. It can feel more like an insult than a contribution. The feelings one experiences in this situation are reminiscent of a story I heard about a server in a restaurant who received a small pile of spare coins as the tip on a three figure bill. The server took the change and threw it at the patrons in the parking lot. The only difference in politics is that you keep the $25 because you know you may need it.

The Myth of National Support

There are many false assumptions held by rank and file Democrats that need to be dispelled. For example, when I ran for U.S. Senate in 2010, I found many people who mistakenly believed that there was a giant pool of money waiting for me after I won the primary. Clearly, this is not the case as the DNC, DSCC, and DCCC focus on races that are polling close in key states. Candidates in Kansas are typically not considered for national support. And, even when the DCCC or DSCC promise support to certain candidates they frequently pull the rug out from under them later in the election cycle. Stephene Moore who ran for the 3rd Congressional District in 2010 is a recent case in point as the DCCC failed to follow through on their promise for money late in the election cycle.

Much in the same way that big donors make decisions about the best investments, national groups assess the states and races that they feel are the best investments. Sadly, until we become a swing state or have a candidate who is winning or nearly winning on their own, we are highly unlikely to receive any national support. So much for the 50 state approach that we are supposed to have as a party.

Strength in Numbers

Democrats around the state need to understand that if they want to see more Democrats elected they need to donate. Too many people have the attitude that financial support is someone else’s responsibility. We don’t have magic money coming from the national groups and big donors’ pockets aren’t deep enough to support every candidate.

We also need to understand the power of strength in numbers even as the minority party. With roughly 400,000 Democrats statewide, if every Democrat contributed just $1 a month, we would raise just shy of $5 million per year ($4,800,000). Over a two-year cycle, this $9,600,000 would allow us to provide significant operating resources for every candidate as well as the KDP, Senate, and House committees. Here are two examples of how these resources could have been distributed in the 2010 and 2012 election cycles:

Governor $1,000,000
Secretary of State, Attorney General, State Treasurer $500,000 per candidate ($1,500,000 total)
1st & 2nd Congressional District $250,000 per candidate ($500,000 total)
3rd & 4th Congressional District $500,000 per candidate ($1,000,000 total)
U.S. Senate $250,000
86 Democratic Candidates for Kansas House $40,000 per candidate ($3,440,000 total)
2 State Board of Education Candidates $100,000 per candidate ($200,000 total)
KDP, Senate, & House committees $1,000,000
County Central Committees $710,000
1st Congressional District No candidate
2nd Congressional District $500,000
3rd Congressional District No candidate
4th Congressional District $250,000
92 Democratic Candidates for Kansas House $40,000 per candidate ($3,680,000 total)
31 Democratic Candidates for Kansas Senate $100,000 per candidate ($3,100,000 total)
3 State Board of Education Candidates $100,000 per candidate ($300,000 total)
KDP, Senate, & House committees $1,000,000
County Central Committees $770,000

Imagine giving our candidates the initial resources they need to run a credible campaign and allowing them to spend their time actually campaigning rather than spending hours on the phone with affluent Democrats trying to get them to donate. This approach could produce the proverbial “pot of gold” at the end of the primary election rainbow and could give many candidates an excellent chance to win.

Of course, we are not likely to get 100% compliance from Democrats for a contribution program of this type. But, if we could persuade a significant number to commit to small recurring donations, it would make a huge impact. Participation could build over time as success tends to breed success. Our relatively small pool of big donors can only do so much to support candidates in each cycle. Asking more of them is not the answer. Wishing on a star for national money is not the answer. The solution lies in educating rank and file Democrats around the state about the critical nature of regular small donations and developing a strong county-by-county network of Democrats who are not only committed to donating but also to voting in every election.

If we want to make progress in this state, we need our candidates to be able to devote their time during their campaign to meeting and persuading Unaffiliated and Republican voters rather than spending most of their time talking to Democrats about donating and scrabbling around to put together some minimal resources on which to run a campaign.

Many of us talk a great deal about how we want change and would like to see more Democrats in office. If we want this to become a reality and to see Kansas turn a little less red (hopefully purple or light blue), then we have to put our money and effort where our mouths are and ensure those across the state are doing the same. Progress requires investment – plain and simple. If you do nothing different, you’ll get nothing different.

Next Time in Part 4 (the most provocative of the series): I will take a no holds barred look at the leadership and organizational issues that are holding us back.