Lessons Learned

I got 2% of the vote in my district in this 2010 election. That was 170-some votes. Thanks to all who voted for me!!!

I learned a lot in my first run for office, and I'd like to share it with you. If you're going to run with the Reform Party, there are some things you need to know ahead-of-time:

1. It takes PEOPLE to win a campaign. The Reform Party is very small, and they can't provide people to help you run your campaign. You're going to have to be a good recruiter of people to help you. They say if you can't put 500 hours into your campaign, then don't bother. That rings true. I probably put 50 hours into my campaign, making plans, filling out surveys, filling out government paperwork, writing blogs, making a sign, talking with folks, sending email, making flyers, and sending a paper mailing. I was not successful at getting more people on board to campaign with me. This also translates into not getting more campaign funds. It's also helpful if you have a phalanx of people who can write letters to the editor, which is what the Democratic incumbent did. The key, I'm told, is to walk neighborhoods and ask people face-to-face to support you.

2. It takes MONEY to win a campaign. I don't know what the major parties do, but with the Reform Party, you have to pay your own filing fee with the Sec. of State to run for office. In my case, that was $50 (if I remember correctly). Initially, I wanted to run a campaign without spending any more money. I figured I'd blog here and email my friends, and that would be all the campaigning I'd do. Then I got a $100 check from a friend, and I started thinking about the possibilities. I decided to chip in $100 more of my own. $50 of that was spent on a web domain name (and related expenses), about $100 on mailing labels from the county and mailing materials (bad decision for a budget this small), and the other $50 or so I spent on a homemade 4x8 campaign sign made of plywood, spray-painted blue with white vinyl letters spelling out my new web domain name and my platform. By comparison, my two competitors spent tens of thousands of dollars on campaign signs and multiple slick postcard mailings. The state is pretty hyper about campaign fund tracking, so if you have a budget of $500 or more (and you really should), then pay close attention to your accounting.

3. You will be ignored and despised. It is, of course, in the interest of the major parties to ignore other challengers, because to say anything about their minor party competitors is to give them free publicity. So don't expect a level playing field; expect a news blackout on your candidacy. I was not invited to the candidate debate that was pulled off by the conservative women, and when the Tea Party tried to include me in another debate, the Democrat refused to come and cancelled the debate. The Republican candidate sent out a mailing saying that there were only two candidates - her and the Democrat; a bold-faced lie, but effective in convincing at least one of my supporters that I had withdrawn from the race. Friends told me I was not a "real candidate" - as though the ink the county used to print the Republican and Democratic candidates names on the ballot would be real and the ink they would use to print my name on the ballot would be fake. Other friends expressed anger at me for "splitting the conservative vote." Someone stole my one and only campaign sign. (Who benefitted from that? The Republican challenger!) The local newspaper gave vast amounts of free advertising to the Democratic incumbent through letters to the editor. The Kansans for Life organization, which should have endorsed me because I was the only candidate who went on record as being pro-life, decided instead to endorse the Republican, even though she refused to fill out their questionnaire, because someone told them that they thought she was pro-life. The people we asked about placing a campaign sign in their yard refused us. My kids were banned from waving a sign for me with their school friends because the teacher was for the Republican candidate. Anyone running on the Reform ticket in this district needs to go in expecting opposition.

4. Consider the qualifications. There are specific qualifications for the statewide offices, but for a state representative office (for which I was running), the only qualification is that you be at least 18 years old (assuming you are not some sort of criminal). Anybody can and SHOULD run for state representative if they can. Of course, a well-qualified rep. should have a good way of determining what a good law is and what a bad law is, because that's the role of a representative. However, in a political campaign, the ability to make people feel good about voting for you is everything. This is, of course a very different skill set from determining good from bad law. It doesn't seem to matter to most folks what your position is or what criteria you will use for determining good laws from bad ones; what matters is your ability to be winsome. Without ever taking a public stand on the pro-life issue, the Republican candidate got thousands of pro-lifers to vote for her because it felt good to vote for a hopeful conservative than a proven liberal. At the polls I heard one fellow say, "Whatever candidate will do the most for me, that's the one I'll vote for!" We need to un-brainwash people from this kind of senseless thinking and help them move away from feel-good-ism and bring-home-the-bacon-ism and toward representation and the real issues.

5. County records are unreliable, at least for the Reform party. The mailing list I bought gave me 6 addresses for people who had voted with the Reform party in the past. Five of the six no longer lived there. (What does that say about how much accountability the county is really able to exercise over voters, if 83% of its records in this case are faulty? I hope Kris Kobach is able to sort that one out.) I did manage to reach two by phone; one sounded rather taken aback that a Reform party candidate was actually asking for their vote, and the other was living in Texas and didn't think she was registered to vote here. It's also the painful truth that people willing to vote for a Reform Party candidate are less likely to be pillars of the community because the party is agitating for Reform and not preserving the status quo. I was banking on getting financial support and sign placement space from Reform Party voters, but I got none. I figured it would cost me about $1,000 to send a postcard out to the 3,500 voters in my district who were not affiliated with either Rep. or Dem. Parties, hoping to swing some away from voting for the Dem. I could have sent a phone call out to them all for about $250, but I had no money, so that was that.

6. It is possible to campaign on a shoestring. Homemade signs can be made for far less than the professional signmakers advertise. Email is really cheap - if you can develop "viral" emails that your friends will forward along. Filling out surveys for all the PAC's has the potential of getting you some free support. Candidate Information websites like Vote Smart and Capwiz are particularly useful to get your positions out there side-by-side with the major party candidates. I was able to get more information out on the internet using a free blog, then buying a web domain name and forwarding the address to this blog! The public library will give you a room for free to deliver a lecture, as long as it's open to the public and no admission is charged. If the lecture is informative (not just politicking) you can probably get free Public Service Announcements on radio stations and public bulletin boards! And of course, waving signs on the side of a busy road and going door-to-door is free too - if you can make the time... and you should make the time.

7. There is a role for minor parties beyond winning the current election. I believe it was worthwhile for me to run even though I lost. In my case, I wanted to make a statement to the Republican Party that their candidate who was unwilling to state positions on abortion and family issues was not acceptable. I think I could have easily caused her to lose if I had been able to put more time into my campaign (The spread between her and the Democratic incumbent was only about twice the number of people who voted for me). If I scare the Republicans enough to run a more consdervative candidate on marriage and family issues next time, then my candidacy was a success. There are other valid reasons for running than just to win this particular election. Another reason to run and to vote for minor parties is to preserve freedom to have alternatives. If the Reform Party failed to get 1% of the vote in any state-wide race in this election, the Reform Party would be disqualified from running candidates in the next election without a huge signature campaign. The Republican Party was a minority party once upon a time, and over time, it gained ascendancy. I'm seeing the same kind of momentum building with my Constitution Party friends in Colorado - over a decade ago, when Swanson ran for governor under the Constitution Party he got 2% of the vote. Now, after over a decade of informing the public, the Constitution Party governor candidate got 37% of the vote! If we continue to hold fast on what we believe, we can gain influence. Finally, it was worthwhile for me to run because it was a great learning experience. I especially did this so that my children could see that anybody can run for state rep. and that I wanted them to try in the future. I'm writing these lessons learned down so that my kids and others can be more successful than I was in the future!

So, if you are considering running for office, I encourage you to go for it, but count the cost first. Are you willing to take a principled stand despite opposition, and can you sacrifice 500 hours to do it?

May God bless you,

~Nate Wilson