Welcome to Nuts & Bolts, a guide to Democratic campaigns. For years, this series has responded to the questions of our community and offered up the opinions, insight, and learned lessons from campaign workers and executive directors all over the country. These lessons can offer us insight into how to avoid mistakes, how to make the best choices with the resources we have in a campaign, and how to win.
This week, I get to take on a subject I love so much that, as I write this story, my smile is nearly ear to ear and my eyes are probably glistening. What is it like to prove people wrong and feel the joy afterward?
Here in Kansas, we’ve been a part of this more than once over the last few years:
- Electing the first Native American Woman to U.S. Congress—yes, only an hour ahead of Deb Haaland’s historic appointment to the Department of the Interior, but we’ll take it.
- Electing Governor Laura Kelly on the same night.
- This week, Kansas rocked the nation by defeating an anti-choice amendment—and we didn’t just defeat it, we demolished it.
Proving people wrong isn’t always about winning huge battles or an election; proving people wrong in an election can be breaking turnout models, changing the goals for counties and districts, and moving the needle when people tell you it is impossible. Ready to talk about breaking the impossible?
“People told me I should quit”
Running for U.S. Senate in a special election, Doug Jones—a Democratic candidate running in Alabama—didn’t feel like he was favored to win. Later, when Senator Jones spoke to the DNC, he informed us that more than one person told him before he started that he should “quit” because of how difficult it would be and how pointless it was in the long run. Why sign up to do this? He did it anyway, became a senator who had a stronger Democratic spine in the time he served than many, and represented his state and voters proudly.
It’s great that Doug Jones won, but beating impossible odds is not always about winning. It can be about changing expectations. Jon Ossoff changed all expectations about Georgia’s 6th congressional district in a special election where Democratic turnout moved, and he used that to later springboard into the U.S. Senate.
Other races have turned into losses but helped inspire efforts for state organizations by showing that a challenge is possible.
In districts where Democratic campaigns have hovered around 30-40% of the vote, moving the needle just 7 or 8 points defies what is considered possible. If your district for state House has never had more than 32% of the voters vote Democratic, and in your election, you get to 41%, it may still be a loss—but you did something everyone said was impossible, and you changed the numbers to impact races up and down the ballot around you.
You can feel bad about the loss—and you will—but there is a special knowledge that everyone told you something was impossible and you defied every expectation.
Fundraising, volunteers, letters, and measurables
There are many metrics that go into a campaign. How strong is your fundraising? How many volunteers have flocked to your campaign? Did you have a good letter response rate or outside groups flying in with support? How many doors does your campaign and candidate visit per week or day?
Every one of these provides opportunities to do what others will tell you represents an impossible task. “No one in our district has ever…” knocked as many doors? Raised as much money? Had as many volunteers?
Keep metrics in mind and think to yourself about how many ways your campaign is doing something you were told could not be done. These are all impossible tasks you are proving possible, and by doing them, you are raising the bar for the expectation of the future.
Part of what will help the Democratic Party succeed in the future is the acceptance that we cannot contract the map; we must expand our map, and we must break with the idea of things being impossible.
Campaigns that do not win can feel like they let down people who donated, supported, volunteered, or served in their campaigns. Instead, they can embrace just a bit of the joy that says: I proved everyone else wrong. I was told to avoid doing this, that any effort made here was a losing cause, and here are the metrics I changed. Because I changed these metrics, I made it easier the next time around for myself, and the next time around for future candidates. I set a standard of expectations.
When it comes to fundraising, I have had to remind candidates frequently that people will donate to campaigns they doubt will succeed in large part because they want to support you, they want their voice, their opposition heard. They know the odds. They don’t need a win. They want you to go out and change what was impossible to possible and to use the funds they give you to put more work into a district than anyone had ever considered before.
Take joy and pride in the work you do!
It is, in fact, possible you can really shock people.
One thing that only occurs from trying is that there is the potential you can win. You heard that right. You could become the next member of the city council, county commission, water board, school board, state legislature, or federal office. How is any of that possible? It’s possible because you tried something others said was impossible and you put in the work and you found joy in doing it.
There are several lessons out of Kansas this week. We have read numerous stories about Democratic efforts in the midterms. You can read about how abortion is a motivating factor, and how Democratic voters are fired up. What isn’t stated enough is that candidates and volunteers are fired up, and they are fired up all over the country. They are ready and willing to go out there and face down the impossible in hopes that it helps any candidate anywhere. Kansas understands that. With the help of then-Senate Leader Hensley, we crisscrossed the state to do something that had never happened: we found Democratic challengers in every one of the state senate races.
The night this was announced with filings, I had two moderate Republicans call me and scream in my ear how terrible this was for them and the Democratic party. What I pointed out was that it wasn’t our job to save them, and by forcing Republicans to fight in their own home districts, even if they were set to win, we could prevent several from using campaign war chests in favor of other at-risk campaigns.
Now, coming into 2022, I’m seeing that same effort nationally. More Democratic candidates are deciding to run for every race on the ballot. From Fire Districts to U.S. House, and they are doing so to force Republicans to commit every resource to defending every seat.
There is something powerful about that message. You see, many Democratic donors donate small money. When people donate a small amount of money, $27 or similar to any campaign, especially a campaign close to them, it says: I am committed to voting for this candidate. Meanwhile, when Republican super-donors give millions to JD Vance or Hershel Walker, they aren’t even in the state to vote for them. Those small donors? They are the people who have the majority of the votes. They are the voters who can show up and change elections.
When we force Republicans to fight on every piece of ground they represent, forcing them to answer for the outrageous policies they enact.
Yes, the impossible isn’t always a win. But unless we challenge the idea of what is and isn’t possible, we may never know. Winning when people have told us we can’t, or shouldn’t?
It is the best feeling in the world.
This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.