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My First Time: A political novice runs for office

By Bill Thomas
Sunday, December 5, 2010; W22

Washington is full of associations, so I'm not surprised there's an Association of Former Members of Congress. But I am surprised there's no Association of Former Candidates for Congress -- or, to be more specific, former candidates for Congress who lost in primary elections. If anyone needs consolation and the company of others who've known similar defeat at the hands of voters, it's us. ... Okay, it's me. But I get ahead of myself.

I ran for Congress in Maryland's 8th District because I thought the government was spending too much money. I had no idea how much I'd be spending, or what I'd have to show for it when the ballots were counted. My rookie stats -- 2,242 votes, 15.25 percent of the total -- are a matter of public record, although the public's not exactly clamoring for a look-see. Which could be the harshest lesson from all of this.

Politics is a rough business that only gets worse after the election and you have to live with the results, including the unhappy fact that winners write history. Losers write résumés.

***

In Maryland, a political career may be the only profession open to anyone willing to sign up. There's no special training required, no tests, no proof of insurance. All I had to do was pay $100 to the Board of Elections in Annapolis, and I was on the Sept. 14 primary ballot with three other Republican candidates for Congress.

One minute, I was an average citizen tired of yelling at the news on television. The next, I was a politician being invited to take part in debates and candidate forums, and to fill out endless questionnaires from special interest groups eager to know everything about me, from employment history ("Author, journalist ... former rank-and-file member of the United Auto Workers") and past elective offices ("None") to top legislative priorities ("Encourage job creation and economic growth by cutting regulatory red tape and reducing and simplifying personal and business income taxes"). Writing this stuff takes practice, and just as I was getting the hang of it, my race came to a screeching halt.

A couple of questionnaires in the mail each week soon became a half-dozen or more each day. Suddenly, every advocacy group in the state had my address. Patriots for Maryland wanted to know whether I agreed that "In God We Trust" should stay on U.S. currency. Peace Action for Montgomery asked whether I supported the creation of a Cabinet-level Department of Peace. Seventy-one House members were already on board.

One questionnaire that got my attention was Project Vote Smart's Political Courage Test. The organization, dedicated to improving the political process, says the test is designed to "measure each candidate's willingness to provide citizens with their positions on key issues." It sounded like a useful tool to educate voters. Unfortunately, according to Project Vote Smart, "most candidates, fearing their opponents might use their positions in attack ads," are advised by their consultants not to respond. I didn't have any consultants, so I plunged right in.

There were questions, vetted by a bipartisan panel, on every issue imaginable: jobs, taxes, health care, Social Security, drilling for oil, missile defense, Iran, Afghanistan, terrorism, illegal immigration, unions, same-sex marriage, abortion, guns, Wall Street, socialism and recreational marijuana. And that didn't include the essay section.

***

The 8th Congressional District in Maryland (population approximately: 700,000), like every congressional district in the country, is a carefully crafted inkblot. Voters only think they choose elected officials, but it's elected officials who choose them. It happens every 10 years, following the national census, when state legislatures adjust the boundaries of voting districts to conform to population changes. The real goal, though, is to repackage constituents in ways designed to benefit the party in power.

Democrats and Republicans operate from the same playbook. In Maryland, where Democrats have had a longtime majority, party bosses try to create as many friendly districts as possible.

Take the 8th District, "a dormitory for federal workers," as columnist and local resident George Will put it. Created by Maryland lawmakers after the 2000 Census, the district includes most of Montgomery County and a borrowed strip of Prince George's County that runs from Silver Spring to Mount Rainier. In 2002, this revised configuration helped Democrat Rep. Chris Van Hollen narrowly defeat eight-term Republican Rep. Connie Morella. Since then, Van Hollen has won every election.

With millions in his campaign treasury, he would be a formidable opponent. But the Montgomery Gazette ran an editorial that said, "Van Hollen seems to have lost a tactile sense of what people across the country are saying." Besides, incumbents everywhere were in trouble. If there ever were a time when an underfunded nonpolitician such as me had a chance to win, even in the bluest district in the bluest of blue states, this could be it.

First, I'd have to beat my three primary opponents: Mike Philips, a businessman and former Marine; Bruce Stern, a lawyer; and Christine Thron, a mother and home educator. Maryland has a "closed" primary, meaning voters can cast ballots only for their own party's candidates. That put the four of us in an intramural battle of musical chairs with one place to sit.

***

"Let's hear it," said Larry Clark, my campaign manager. "Why are you running for Congress?" Larry, an old friend who owns a Washington tour company, believes in concise messaging. It was his first political race, too. But it was past midnight.

When I got "unsustainable spending" mixed up with "crippling taxes," Larry went Karl Rove. I had to be able to recite my talking points verbatim, any time, anywhere. And with a candidate debate the next day at Leisure World, I needed to be in top form.

Larry had reason to be concerned. A few weeks earlier, I'd met with a group of Russian retirees in Rockville. Most spoke little or no English, and my street Russian, picked up on various writing assignments in the former Soviet Union, was barely good enough to shop for vodka. How was I supposed to explain the impact of higher taxes on private-sector job growth? I couldn't afford another communications failure.

Leisure World, a retirement community near Olney, is one of the most populous voting precincts in the state, which makes it an important stop on the 8th District campaign trail. More than 100 residents showed up for the debate. Joining the four Republicans on stage was Mark Grannis, running on the Libertarian ticket. Grannis, a quick-witted lawyer, had the best campaign slogan in the race: "Less We Can."

Philips opened with his usual "once a Marine always a Marine" speech, calling himself a Republican moderate and saying the Founding Fathers were moderates, too.

I was next. The Founding Fathers weren't moderates, I said. They were revolutionaries. Didn't Benjamin Franklin say, "We must hang together or surely we will hang separately"? You don't hang moderates. You play golf with them.

Stern and Thron changed the subject and promised to cut government spending. That got the audience involved. What government programs would you cut? someone asked.

"The Department of Education," Grannis shot back. "Gone!"

Every time it snows, you hear on the radio that "all nonessential federal workers can stay home." I had an idea: If they're "nonessential," why should they come to work at all?

***

When you're running for office, everyone has advice. Don't wear sunglasses. Voters need to see your eyes. Keep your hands out of your pockets. They need to see those, too.

One of best pieces of advice I got was from Lorie Medina, a campaign operative from Texas I met on the Washington lecture circuit. "Get as many endorsements as you can," she said. "If you want to impress Republicans, anybody connected with the Reagan administration would be great."

That sounded like a good idea, but where to begin. I had run into Ed Meese, Reagan's attorney general, a couple of times. I'd also met Ken Duberstein, Reagan's last chief of staff.

But that didn't seem like sufficient grounds for an endorsement.

Wait a minute, Ronald Reagan's head speechwriter, Tony Dolan, and I have known each other for years. Tony was the Hollywood correspondent for a magazine I once edited. He's also won a Pulitzer Prize. If anybody can impress Republicans, it's him.

The problem is Dolan can be hard to reach. I called him twice, left messages and never heard back. But I knew he liked to eat at Cafe Milano in Georgetown. The next night, I dropped by, and there he was having dinner with a gorgeous blonde.

I waited at the bar until I got his attention, and he came over. "I'm running for Congress," I told him. "Can I get your endorsement?" Few people in the Reagan White House understood Ronald Reagan the way Tony Dolan did. He drafted the "Evil Empire" speech, as well as many others that perfectly expressed Reagan's political philosophy.

Dolan said he'd be happy to endorse me, but he had to get back to his date.

An endorsement has to sing praises. However, writing one that gets the message across without laying it on too thick is a real talent. Considering Tony's way with words, he could probably come up with something right on the spot.

"How's this?" he said. "Bill Thomas is going to mean trouble for liberals in Congress -- and that's exactly what America needs."

It was brilliant, capturing the whole thrust of my campaign in a single sentence. Dolan wasn't satisfied. "Needs work," he said. I said it was perfect, but Dolan disagreed. "Call me."

What it needed was some Ronald Reagan, and a week later, Dolan dictated the finished product over the phone:

"As President Ronald Reagan's chief speechwriter for eight years, my job was to be something of a mind reader. While I would never presume to speak for President Reagan, I can say, knowing Bill Thomas as I do, our favorite president would have thought the world of him. Bill Thomas is going to mean trouble for liberals in Congress -- and that's exactly what America needs."

I had always admired Ronald Reagan but never imagined he might feel the same way about me.

***

I knew I'd have a problem running as a Republican in a district where Democrats had a 3-to-1 advantage. What I didn't know was how running for office magnifies every problem, especially ones I never knew I'd have, like actually finding Republican voters, so outnumbered in the district that they live in virtual hiding. Entering the race late, I had just eight weeks to locate enough of them to win.

I also would have to begin filling a campaign bank account. Raising money for primary elections isn't easy. But spending it is. I had three fundraisers that took in under $5,000, less than a third of what my race would cost. Luckily, my wife, who can't stand politics, wasn't seeing the four-figure AmEx bills.

***

Because research in the area of what works in political campaigns and doesn't work is inconclusive, those running for office are usually encouraged to try everything: signs, brochures, knocking on doors, robo calls and, for anyone with the money, media ads in the final days of the race.

Candidates who can't afford to order the full menu are forced to campaign a la carte, which in my case meant making do mainly with distributing signs and brochures. Throw in no-cost appearances at picnics, parades and Metro stops, plus phone calls to voters, and you have the basics of my ground game.

Signs presented a unique challenge, starting with what to put on them, other than my name. In the 8th District identifying yourself as a Republican, I was warned, invites sabotage. I went with "conservative," which not only described my political leaning but also reflected a growing nationwide trend. (In June, Gallup reported that 42 percent of Americans surveyed called themselves conservative, 35 percent moderate and 20 percent liberal.)

Properly deployed, signs can have a demoralizing effect on opposing candidates. In a bit of psychological warfare, I plastered mine all over my three opponents' neighborhoods. The only one to retaliate was Philips, who did the same to my neighborhood. After the primary, we compared notes on tactics. "Psy-ops," he said. "We were both thinking strategically." I took that as a compliment coming from an ex-Marine.

***

Showing up at the Montgomery County Fair in Gaithersburg is a must for every candidate. The fair attracts thousands of 8th District constituents during its week-long run in August, and with less than a month to go before the primary, it was hard to find a more voter-rich environment.

Republicans appeared to be out in force. Not far from the Poultry Pavilion, former governor Bob Ehrlich was greeting supporters at the end of a long receiving line. In 2006, Ehrlich lost his reelection bid to Martin O'Malley and wanted his old job back. When I told him I was running for Congress, he gave me a slap on the back and thanked me for getting involved. It felt good until I heard him say the same thing to other candidates lined up to shake hands.

One of my three primary opponents, Bruce Stern, was already at the GOP tent handing out brochures. After an exchange of polite hellos, I got busy doing the same thing. The goal at these events, as I learned, is to make a quick pitch for votes without being drawn into a lengthy conversation or, worse, a political argument.

I was getting a good response to my message of less government spending and lower taxes, when I noticed Stern, who ran for Congress two years ago, pointing a woman in my direction. Candidates competing for the same spot on the ticket, as we were, rarely go out of their way to help one another. As the woman began demanding answers to a long list of questions, I could see Stern, with a big smile on his face, chatting up passing fairgoers.

***

A week before the primary, I attended two Labor Day parades, one in Kensington and one in Gaithersburg. Only elected officials were allowed to walk in the Kensington parade, so I trolled for voters along the sidewalk. Kensington is known for its liberal tendencies, and the crowd was not friendly.

"Get lost, buddy," said a guy in shorts when he noticed my brochure, featuring Tony Dolan's endorsement in big red print.

I spent most of the morning talking with other candidates. One of them, Jerry Cave, a Republican running for the State Senate, may have come up with the best campaign gimmick, a used school bus painted purple. "That's what you get when you combine Democratic blue and Republican red," said Cave, who was unopposed in the primary but thinking ahead to November, when Republicans can win only by attracting votes from the other party.

The crowd in Gaithersburg was much larger than the one in Kensington, but the nearly two-mile parade route and temperatures in the low 90s posed a grueling test. Dozens of candidates were there, including my three Republican opponents. Christine Thron was positioned ahead of the Team Thomas contingent, riding in a convertible followed by a delegation of Jews for Jesus. Philips and Stern were somewhere behind us between the firetrucks and antique cars.

As we entered the downtown area, people waved and applauded. "You've got my vote," a man told me. Maybe he had seen my yard signs. Or read one of the questionnaires I filled out. ... It could have been the heat, but at that moment, I imagined thousands of voters out there who felt the same way, poised to put me over the top. It was a reassuring thought at the time. But now I realize ... it was the heat.

***

The night before Election Day, my wife and I spent hours putting signs out at polling places. We began at sundown in Poolesville and finished in Friendship Heights as morning rush was starting.

After breakfast, I headed off to vote and check on the mood of the GOP electorate. What I found wasn't encouraging. In polling station after polling station, the Republicans I met seemed like displaced persons. Many complained about feeling helpless in their present political surroundings; some swore they were evacuating to conservative Virginia. The only thing missing was the Red Cross handing out coffee and doughnuts.

That evening, following a final pep talk from Larry, my campaign manager -- "I've got three things to say to you, Bill: Dewey ... Defeats ... Truman" -- I went to watch returns at GOP headquarters, an out-of-business car dealership on Rockville Pike. Lots of Republican candidates were there, and when it was announced that Bob Ehrlich had won the nomination, defeating challenger Brian Murphy, everyone cheered.*

Having done no polling, I didn't have the slightest idea what to expect until I saw the first returns. With less than 1 percent of the precincts reporting, I was in last place with 111 votes, 90 votes behind the leader, Mike Philips. The unthinkable was becoming thinkable. I was losing, and if it continued, I didn't want to be in an abandoned auto showroom when the final numbers came in.

Still last with 5 percent of the votes counted, I decided to depart for home. Three hours and a bottle of pinot noir later, too far behind to catch up, I called it a night.

***

At first, like many people in my situation, I was tempted to blame the voters, but I had something to do with it, too. Should I have invested money in more yard signs, not to mention bumper stickers, buttons and ballpoint pens? Or taken out a second mortgage to pay for a direct-mail blitz and TV ads? As it was, I went through nearly $20,000 in two months and finished dead last.

I thought I had it all figured out. I've written books about Congress. I've done "The O'Reilly Factor." (Memo to self: It helps to get fired afterward.) How could things have gone so terribly wrong?

British parliamentarian Enoch Powell once noted, "All political careers ... end in failure." Mine began that way. Yes, I lost. But every day on the campaign trail was an adventure, an adventure sadly cut short by the voting public.

So what's left, last hurrah-wise, besides the deep-down feeling I could have won?

What if I said, the deeper-down feeling I still could ... next time.

They say that in cases like this, it takes months, sometimes years, for all the latent symptoms of office-seeking to go away, and even then you can never be sure.

Bill Thomas, a regular contributor to the Magazine, is the author of "Club Fed: Power, Money, Sex and Violence on Capitol Hill" and other books. He can be reached at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

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