“I’ve been a political junkie my entire life, “ said Mary Geren, a former candidate for the ruby red congressional seat SC-3, the election having taken place in the mid-terms. Mary, a committed educator, explained that it was the confirmation of Betsy DeVos that motivated her to run for office. “Public education saved my life, “said Geren, “and now it was under attack.”
Jen was familiar to Democratic party influencers in the state and had significant connections. However, SC, due to a lack of Democrats running in the past, had few campaign resources. “My biggest challenge, “said Jen, “was getting my team put together.” Jen initially hired someone she thought would bring considerable expertise to the table, but the two did not click, and the campaign did not move forward.
I see new candidates posting on websites about running for office, asking, “What should I do first? Get a website?” NO. Every new candidate’s first reaction is to create a web presence and include everything they have ever thought about every issue. Fortunately my excellent designer Beth saved me from myself with her extremely sharp editing pen. Candidates give little thought as to who should design their website. I hear things like, “My sister is a graphic designer.” Great. Does she know how to effectively design a website for a political candidate? When interested voters click on your site, this is your first opportunity to convey your most important messages. It is really easy to lose them forever with a poorly laid out, copy heavy website with difficult to read type. Your site will also need to motivate voters to donate and volunteer. A lot rests on its shoulders.
So what is the first thing candidates should do? Plan your strategy. Figure out your messaging. What will you stand for? Women, green, healthcare? Your key messages should influence your choice of colors for your campaign as well as your logo. Our new Congressman, Joe Cunningham, effectively ran on 3 key issues: no ocean drilling for SC (despite Trump), take no PAC money and term limits (he will serve no more than 3 terms). His logo had an ocean theme. In his TV ads, he was treading water in a wetsuit. His website reflected who he was strategically with photos of his wife and dog, Joe at his kitchen table, Joe on ground level with kids, Joe with his new baby. He had never run for office before, and his website communicated “regular guy.” He ran an integrated, smart campaign. All aspects of the campaign stuck to the strategy. And he won.
Candidates make the mistake of overloading their messaging. You want voters to be able to recall at least one of the key things you stand for. If you are running for a state race, why confuse voters with stances on Federal issues you will not be able to affect? Make sure they understand what you will do for them in their state and in your district. That’s what’s important to them.
Help Women Win is a strategic messaging, design and awareness-building firm. That’s what we believe makes an effective campaign. In today’s crowded field, you will even be competing with Democrats, sometimes in a primary. If you win the primary, you will be competing with Democrats state-wide for resources and financial support. You have to come out the gate looking like a winner, not like your long-lost relative volunteered to design your materials and now you are stuck with them. While we know that you will need local workers as well, I have seen inexperienced copy from inexperienced communications directors and feel strongly that Democrats need more seasoned campaign expertise. If you are in New York or DC, there will be loads of good people to choose from, but not so if you are in southern states or areas that have been Republican dominated.
Another mistake I see candidates making is trusting in the old party thinking. Being told you need to raise a million bazillion dollars in your small district in Georgia before you will be taken seriously is a huge downer. You know what. You can win many races without a huge war chest. Democratic pundits also tell candidates, we just want to fly under the radar. We don’t want to alert Republicans to the fact that you are out here running. SC Democrats told me not to put Democrat on my materials. Seriously? Are Republicans blind and deaf? You want people to be aware of your campaign and your stances on the issues. You want some Republicans to come over to your side and support you. And some will.
Candidates in spread out rural areas think they need to be everywhere and go to everything. That’s great if you can but many of us need to continue to work and don’t have
those resources. Technology is your friend. Social media can help you. People are on their phones all the time. You can build relationships with voters via text. There are lots of innovative approaches to campaigning. Help Women Win has relationships with technology companies that are making great strides in awareness-building for candidates. Many of these companies only work with Democrats, and they are very cost efficient.
So the moral of this blog article is, think before you publish or print. It will save you a lot of time and money in the long run and will give your campaign a more effective start.
Tabitha Isner was tired of the fact that every reference to her began with the phrase, “despite being a Democrat.” Sure, being a Democrat in Alabama is not the golden ticket to election, but it’s frustrating that the label got in the way of Isner’s message to voters. Tabitha is an ordained pastor who believes the tenets of her faith are in alignment with the core beliefs of the Democratic party. As a moderate, she was beleaguered by voters who wanted her to be more progressive. Isner stood firm. She won her primary, so that meant voters liked her for who she was. She believes that being true to oneself is key in a campaign. You’ve got to understand your beliefs and the market you are in to win.
Isner decided to run for Congress because her opponent, Martha Roby, was not particularly popular and wasn’t very present in the district. In fact, during the campaign she rarely showed up. Talk about frustrating. This was the case in other elections in the mid-terms where Republicans refused to debate and were so sure of re-election, they didn’t even order yard signs. Isner said that her local paper reported that Roby had won a 5th term when she had only won the primary.
As is typical in the south, there was not a lot of knowledgeable campaign support readily available. I met Tabitha at the Atlanta Emerge Southern Bootcamp for candidates, so she had a skeletal background in what to expect. Her campaign manager was a young friend with no experience but she was a strong individual who was not easily intimidated. They figured out what resources were available to them, used social media broadly, canvassed across the district and built awareness through texting using Relay.
Fundraising was challenging to stay the least. There is not a large donor pool of Democrats in Alabama, and this year, said Isner, “There was a tsunami of great female Democratic candidates running in the state.” In fact, 27 Emerge graduates ran for office in Alabama. Everyone needed to raise money, but no one wanted to cannibalize other candidate’s donations. “We had to figure it out as we went along,” said Isner. Sometimes fundraisers with a large price tag went unattended. It turned out that gatherings outside of Alabama raised more money than those instate.
Resources were hard to come by. Tabitha explains that in these states where Democrats have not run in big numbers before, it’s like a start-up. Donors and volunteers need to be cultivated. Another deficit, noted Isner, was the lack of detailed information on a Congressional run versus state and local races.
The biggest frustration for Isner was the lack of media coverage. Roby was mostly absent, but when she did anything she was on TV. Tabitha held extremely newsworthy events but was not covered. The conservative media bias is difficult to overcome. Isner said she did run some TV commercials, but more earned media earlier in the process would have helped tremendously. Isner said, “It’s like I was counted out from the beginning.”
As Democrats, we need to be prepared to spread the love. If Tabitha had gotten broader support, more volunteers and more people who believed in her, who knows what she could have done. Democrats are out there. We just need to commit our time and resources to those stepping up to the plate to run. She was the better candidate with a message that should have resonated with Alabamans.
As I was watching the debacle known as the Kavanaugh hearing, I was struck by all of the old white male faces. Seriously. Grassley should be on The Walking Dead. I knew they were there, but the visual really hit me. Retire already you old-out-of-touch mean-spirited dudes. Enough already.
I love Joe Biden and am a big Bernie fan, but I will never again vote for an old white man. I am not talking about 50 year-olds. I am talking about these guys who represent the patriarchy. Trample the patriarchy. It is ruining our country. How did they decide that their world view is the only right view? Last time I checked women were over 50% of the US population. I would think at least 60% of us are really furious at the way women are being depicted and treated. We are undervalued and under-represented.
Trump is stoking the partisan fires. That is the opposite of what this country needs. Can you imagine any other President saying, “The only reason to vote Democratic is if you like to lose?” Can you imagine any other Speaker of the House other than turtle-neck McConnell saying that it was his proudest moment when he told President Obama that he would not get to confirm a Supreme Court Justice? Can you imagine anyone believing that protesters are paid by Soros. But just to let you know, an 8th grade girl said that to me today. She listens to Rush Limbaugh. Depressing.
Now that we have entered the Republican twilight zone, we need to take stock. What can we do to turn this around? My answer is women. Even more women have to run for office. We need to run for anything and everything, local state and Federal, especially for seats held by Republicans long-term. Having Democrats run creates a dialog. Voters hear two sides. What’s important to you? More women have to get involved in politics on an on-going basis. My state has been in Republican default mode for decades, but that is starting to change. As candidate Jen Gibson said, “At least let's make them work for it." Amen.
If you are asking yourself if you can do it, ask these questions:
Do I have the commitment to see this through?
Do I have the support of family and friends?
Can I invest the time it takes to run?
Do I enjoy public speaking and meeting people?
Can I ask for money?
If so, do it. It's the Year of the Woman, despite Trump and his merry band of elves. Let’s make ourselves heard. There’s no better way than by beating them.
First of all, good for you. Never again should Republicans run unopposed for seats. We should always, at minimum, make them work for it. Voters become more engaged when Democrats run also, and you can’t win it unless you are in it.
Prospective candidates ask, “Where do I start?” There are a number of sites that offer online training for running for office. Emily’s List just launched a training center. The Democratic Party has online support and in person training. Emerge is an organization that provides actual training for Democratic women, and if there is a state organization in your state, I recommend starting with applying for their program. They lay excellent groundwork to help candidates understand how to begin and what to expect. You will also be connected with other female candidates in your state, which forms a sorority of sorts and will provide support for you. I did the Emerge bootcamp training for the Southeast, and I am connected with lots of interesting women running for a wide variety of races.
Think about what kind of office you want to run for. Thinking about what issues you are passionate about can help you discern where to focus. If you are concerned about your town, your local schools, development, infrastructure or the environment, local races may be right for you. County or City Council races, or School Board are all seats which enable you to affect the direction of your town. My town recently experienced insane development, including myriad apartment buildings which we had never had before. Developers were literally running our town. There was a coup, and we ousted our mayor and many town council members who were too chummy with developers. Our new town council also voted to ban all plastic, which was widely supported by residents. The tea party made a concerted effort to infiltrate school boards, so now many school boards are stuck with board members who care about where students go to the bathroom, among other inane issues. We need progressive school board members who make sure dollars get put to use in ways that affect the education of all students. And we need support for our teachers.
Local elections do not require as much money in terms of fundraising. They are often hotly contested, however, you will have to learn a lot about the needs in your community. These races require debates and media coverage, so be prepared to hone your public speaking skills.
Help Women Win can be especially helpful to candidates running for state house and senate races, particularly in Republican or rural areas which have few Democratic resources. While many candidates overlook these races, these representatives are the lawmakers for the state. They can help protect women’s reproductive rights in the state. Even if Roe v Wade is overturned, each state will write legislation regarding abortion in their state. They also control education, infrastructure and energy investment. They will make future rulings about gerrymandering in their state. The California state government is fighting Trump’s legislation at every turn. The problem with these seats is that they are low-paying and not full-time but they are just time consuming enough to derail your regular job. That’s why legislators like the ones we have in SC have figured out how to be very corrupt and get paid big bucks to consult for the utility, and let the utility get away with bilking consumers when they are supposed to be acting in our interest. That’s only the tip of their corrupt, self-interested iceberg.
State races do not necessitate the fundraising war chest that Congressional and Senate races do. They are a good entry into politics without as big a headache as Federal races. But if you see Congress or the Senate on your horizon, go for it. Most Democrats these days want the lifers out of office. There are a lot of representatives in both parties who are just parked in Congress and they need to move on. Recent races show the old guard can be voted out with fresh voices.
Whatever seat you decide to run for, there are many questions that need to be asked. Campaigns are extremely time consuming, and emotionally taxing as well. What is your current job and how much freedom do you have? Campaigns will mean time off for events, debates, canvassing, and more appearances than you can imagine.
Another major concern is, can you ask for money? Can you close a sale? Fundraising is a huge part of the process, and you need to be prepared for dialing for dollars on a daily basis.
Also ask yourself, do I have the right personality to run for office. Can I work a room? Do I have tireless energy? Can I connect with all kinds of people? I have seen candidates running for office sit at a table with their family and squander the opportunity to meet and greet. You need to be extroverted to run for most offices.
Did you dread your public speaking class? That could be a problem. You will be speaking off the cuff about a wide range of issues and need to be quick on your feet and able to form articulate thoughts on the spot.
How thick is your skin? This was one of my flaws. I was really hurt and derailed by things people said about me and people who ghosted on me. I think I can coach women through this now, but it was hard to navigate on my own. I’m the kind of person who, if I say I will do something, I will absolutely do it. I realized not everyone is built that way. My campaign manager and I called my campaign the story of the Little Red Hen. Who will help me thrash the wheat? No one. But who wants to eat the bread. Everyone. Even volunteers have 5 million other things to do the entire duration of your campaign. It’s bizarre.
There are other issues to consider, but these are a few of the basics. I managed to work throughout my campaign and take only about 10 days off before the campaign. But quite honestly, I needed more time. Candidates have told me they took a year’s leave of absence to campaign. Not being a trust fund baby, that was a crazy concept to me. I can help candidates figure to how to balance this equation.
If you think you want to run for office, good for you. I think I can help.
People will say we need more women running for office, but do they mean it? More than half of white women who voted in 2016 did not vote for Hillary (according to NY Times polling), many saying they didn’t feel they could be President, so how could she? Despite her hefty resume in public office, when it came down to it, she was a woman, and her qualifications were inferior.
Trump’s victory pointed to another social phenomenon: the threatened white patriarchy. I still think that has to be a joke, but apparently the white dudes don’t. I mean seriously guys, you can’t even share the stage. They know that women now make up over half of all college students and get better grades. We have our own voices, and that scares too many male egos. I know a woman whose husband told her that there was no women’s march on Washington. It was a hoax. And she was there!!! These social undercurrents face any female candidate running for office.
Women running for office will have a host of challenges men will never face. Let’s take the issue of tone. Voters want a strong candidate who will be able to hold her own and get things done. Finding the right tone is problematic. Catherine Templeton who ran for Governor in SC went so far as to pretend to shoot a rattlesnake in her TV ads. That backfired on her (no pun intended). Women who have been in the military highlight themselves in combat gear, flying helicopters. Nothing broadcasts toughness and authority like camouflage.
Most of us have not seen active duty, however, so we need other tactics to convince voters we are up to the task. The first issue to navigate is the dual standard women face. If we are nice and reserved, we are talked over and ignored. If we are strident, we are labeled bitches. Hillary Clinton spent a lifetime in politics trying to find her authentic voice and was criticized whichever way she veered. Any woman running for office should read her book, “What Happened.” The fascinating parts of her book elucidate the many times she found herself in a no win situation just because she was a female. Damned if she did and damned if she didn’t. One great vignette was about the Presidential debate in which Trump was skulking about like Lurch form the Adams Family, invading her personal space and trying to intimidate her. She had to decide whether to push through or turn around and say, “Get away from me, you creep.” She chose to ignore the bullying as she had her whole career, but women wished she had shut him down. She regretted not speaking up, but either way there was going to be backlash. A no win for her.
Women need to give a lot more thought to their persona, tone and message than do men. As Hillary endured, people will discuss your hair, clothes, weight and family situation. When will the media call out the men for their wardrobe choices? What was he thinking when he picked the gray suit instead of navy? Female candidates need a strong clear voice that can rise above the din. They need to be firm in the sense of self they want to project to the voters. They need stories that can communicate who they are and what they stand for. There will be no win situations and frustrating misinterpretations but the more confident candidates are in their message, the more likely it will be heard!
As a mental health counselor, I have dealt with the issues of mean girls of all ages. Why do women try to bring each other down? And we are so darned good at it because we start in middle school. Why be so threatened by other women? One would think that as women make societal advances, we would all jump onboard to build the sisterhood. Let’s bond together to break the glass ceiling. Why do so many women seem to think, “Well it’s not breaking for me, so I don’t want it to break for you either. “
This is not a new phenomenon. Just as the Equal Rights Amendment was on the verge of passing, ensuring Constitutional equality for women, Phyllis Schlafly and her “traditional female roles” movement convinced lawmakers that the role of mothers would be seriously threatened by this amendment. The message to other women was, “We want to be traditional homemakers and we don’t want you climbing the ladder or engaging in other pursuits because this would disrupt our secure sense of self.” Conservatives have always been more comfortable with black and white thinking, and less willing to allow for shades of gray, even when that means infringing on the rights of others who don’t fit their mold.
If as a candidate you are anticipating that the sisterhood will turn out for you in droves, you will be sorely disappointed and happily surprised. Influential women who you are 100% sure will enthusiastically get behind your candidacy will cancel lunch five times and not return your phone calls. On the other hand, there will be wonderful women you have never met who will pitch in and give of their time and talents in ways that will touch you.
I made the serious mistake of reading my social media at night. This instigated serious insomnia. It was so puzzling why women who didn’t really know me would take the time to say nasty things about me. I was astonished that because I was a women, other women felt empowered to dump on me. After using my best psychological analytical skills, I realized it was the “I could never run for office but you are running so I am a little jealous and threatened and ticked off at myself because I am not running since I am too chicken but if I were, I would do things differently, so I am trash talking you to make me feel better” syndrome.
One of the reasons I wanted to start Help Women Win was to help female candidates navigate these pitfalls. If candidates know they have a team of women who have their back, it’s a firm foundation on which to stand. At one of my meet and greets a woman turned to a friend of mine and said about my opponent, “She is younger and prettier and will chew her (me) up and spit her out.” And that was at MY rally. My friend and I were so appalled, we actually started laughing about it because it was so absurd. Did you make a wrong turn and come to the wrong meet and greet? The team of women who had my back made all the difference in helping me stay focused and positive, and that’s what candidates need.