Observations of the ¨Progressive Candidate-to-Freshman¨ Transition – aka an Opportunity for expanding Progressive Power (and the power of the CPC)

Since 2005 I’ve worked with dozens of Federal candidates/campaigns, some for a few days, some for a few weeks, some for a few months.  One of the things I do often is ascertain what expectations have been given to candidates and what assumptions they have about not just running, but what happens next.

I’ve worked with a nominee who had never visited DC.  I took him on his first visit to the Capitol, got him a tour, let him see how things work.  It was like a child learning about wind as it turns a pinwheel.

I’ve worked with candidates who have been lobbyists, state legislators, Mayors, etc.

All of them have significant flawed assumptions and frequently are either allowed to walk away with rosy expectations or blatantly fed rosy expectations during the recruitment process, whether it be conducted by local, state or federal agents.

Recent writings, discussions and legislative battles have opened the question of whether or not the Congressional Progressive Caucus has power, wields it effectively.  Some of these rants dismiss the tremendous successes of the CPC in taking on the White House and Democratic Leadership in both the House and Senate.  I do believe there is room for significant growth, but we should give credit where credit is due.

These observed assumptions and expectations shape the behavior of victorious progressive Freshman, and I believe this is a significant opportunity for power expansion among the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

1.  Candidates believe that win or lose, the day of the general election is the last “hard day” they will have to work for quite some time.  They see victory as meaning they can hang up the “campaign hat” for at least a year, if not forever.  They see defeat as the beginning of an extended vacation, most with a ‘screw everyone who didn’t do enough to help’ attitude.  And frequently there is no one who did enough in their eyes.

2.  When they start their campaigns, particularly among liberal/progressive candidates, candidates far too frequently believe that the positions they take on issues in and off themselves have value in terms of votes.  Even when they figure out that is wrong during the campaign, they regain that assumption on or shortly before election day, which then carries in to their assumptions as a Freshman Representative.  The lesson on the power of effective communication and messaging is lost.  Every one of them (and you!) should read Anat Shenker-Osorio’s Don’t Buy It.

3.  “Good” campaigns are a constant exercise in expanding the network of the candidate, the pool of potential voters and the targets for volunteering/donating.  This shifts in the GOTV phase where everything narrows to just those 1’s and 2’s.  Those that have already given.  Those that have already volunteered.

Progressive candidates frequently carry that narrowing philosophy in to their life as a Congressman.  They rarely resume robust expansion efforts.  This is 100% the opposite of their conservative counterparts, who see election as their mandate to become a national icon.

4.  Compounding the narrowing problems from #3, we have the heartstrings problem.  Progressives care too damn much, not wanting to seek donations from people that don’t have a huge surplus of money unless they absolutely positively need it.  This means their fundraising operations scale back in all respects, nearly eliminate the small dollar/high volume efforts and narrow their efforts to the high dollar traditional donors.  This dramatically alters the content and focus of their discussions, frequently away from the real experiences of working people and towards more broad view observations of wealthy individuals and organization leaders.

5.  Generally narrowing everything about their efforts – to a specific set of issues, sometimes tied to their passions, sometimes their committee assignments.  As such, they let many many opportunities sail by, failing to capitalize on earned media, network expansion and fundraising opportunities.

You can sense a trend… narrowing is a common thing.  To candidates, campaigns are like being sprayed with chaos from every direction, the natural response is to try to narrow things down to a controlled flow from one small spout.  Some candidates in this transition do go the exact opposite, Representative Alan Grayson tried to fill the void of outspoken progressive leadership for all progressive activists/causes in 2009/10 and it really killed him, he had one night stands with every niche group of activists but never got full engagement with any of them.  This left him more vulnerable in the 2010 then he should have been.  We need something in the middle.  Leadership, courage, passion…on the issues that really matter to that member, taking advantage of key opportunities and passing on things when it is smart to do so.

When you look at the members of the CPC, think about these assumptions/expectations and consider where they might be if they kept their new media efforts at the same intensity they were at during the peak of their victorious challenger campaign.  Think about how they would feel about the fundraising if they continued to raise ~$10K a week from email after they won their elections?  That’s $500K/year.  Likely that would incur increased costs of between $50 and $150K (for staff/services/office space), but still leaving a net gain of over $300,000.  If they do it well, they could do double, triple or more.

In the process, they would be amplifying progressive messaging/values to a broader audience.  From party activists to cable news audiences to earned media coverage to the netroots at large.

One of the things I have many times harped on is the disparity between Republican Party events and Democratic Party events.  Even in small counties in mid-sized states, the headline attendees to Republican fundraisers are congressmen, senators and governors — and these from other states and regions, not just locally.

The same events for Democrats often struggle to get a state senator who represents the county. Florida has somewhere around 45 “active” Democratic county parties. The 70+ members of the CPC should be fighting to appear at a fundraising dinner for every one of them. There should be a line of CPC House members begging for the chance to headline events for the FDP Progressive, GLBT, Black, Hispanic and Women’s caucuses. Our elected officials can’t sit on their hands and wait for invitations — they need to reach out and challenge organizations to create opportunities for them. Feel free to re-read that last paragraph and insert Ohio, Virginia, New Hampshire, Michigan, California, Texas, Iowa, New York, North Carolina, Washington, Arizona, Nevada, and so on in place of Florida.

In addition to increasing the power and efficacy of the CPC, this kind of action would also provide employment for more progressive talent.  By keeping them in the system and interested in working more than 1 campaign cycle you further dramatically improve the quality of progressive campaigns.

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