At Chris S. Craddock's home in Fairfax County, several things had to happen before the 27-year-old settled in for an epic night of writing thank-you notes to his campaign donors. First, the Virginia House of Delegates candidate had to tend to his talking bird, Tango, a gold-and-blue macaw.
Next, the Republican fortified himself with a nice, fat tortilla smothered in melted cheddar cheese and topped with Taco Bell's Thick 'N Chunky salsa.
Then, with his wife, Katherine, at the ready to place the letters in their envelopes, Craddock got to work. It was a recent Thursday, about 10 p.m., after a debate with opponents Chuck Caputo, a Democrat, and Chuck J. Eby Jr., a Libertarian, on the finer points of transportation policy. Craddock sat at his kitchen table, laid out his personal stationery and grabbed his black Sanford uni-ball ink pen.
He wanted to write notes that night for all of the 100 or so checks he had received from a fundraiser. Whether he could make it depended on how well he could withstand two things: an irritating callus on his finger and a hovering reporter who had come to investigate the extent of his gratitude and the quality of his penmanship.
The first check on his plate was for $300 from his college friend Jeffrey Meredith and Meredith's wife, Megan, from Williamsburg, who had originally told him they would donate $200, he said.
"Dear Jeff and Meg, Thank you so much for your generosity. (extra $100 yeah)," he penned in his slanted, angular and very male handwriting. "I really appreciate your Help -- "
Craddock crumpled up the white and maroon stationery. This was not a promising beginning.
"So tired. Capitalizing letters I shouldn't be capitalizing," he said. "That's what happens when you get four hours of sleep."
Despite the surge in campaign fundraising this year, running for a state office can be a low-frills affair, especially when you're all of 27 and there is no family trust fund to assist with the finances. At this level, hours of grunt work -- such as folding campaign road signs or sending out thank-you notes -- can dominate the remainder of a politician's day when there are no voters, donors or, typically, reporters to watch and give credit.
Craddock prefers to write out a thank-you note to each of his donors, as opposed to sending out a typed form, which might save time but surely does not impress as much.
Even so, Craddock's handwritten letters are somewhat redundant. The letters follow a basic script that his wife, a professional writer, crafted: "Thank you so much for your generous support of our campaign. I really appreciate your continued support." Sometimes, they contain personalized touches or references to a previous conversation.
After he finished a letter to the Merediths, Craddock stared at what he wrote. "Jeff was one of my best friends in college. I was really sad when he moved to Williamsburg," he said. "That's the tough part about growing up in Northern Virginia. All your buddies move out where it's cheaper to live."
Then the cell phone rang -- an interruption that can bog down a thank-you note writing marathon if one is not selective. Katherine answered. It was Craddock's brother, Brian.
"Can you talk to him?" she asked her husband before talking again to Brian. "Only for a second. He's writing thank-you notes. Do you have something of substance that can be said to him?"
Craddock, laughing, quickly dealt with the call and moved on.
Here was a $1,000 check from Alex Vogel and Jill Holtzman Vogel -- he's a lobbyist-attorney, and she's a former chief counsel to the Republican National Committee who is running for state Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr.'s seat in 2007.
But many checks came from less-familiar names, people or political action committees, or associations pressing political interests.
He examined the $250 check from a PAC called Friends of the Elephant, his left hand rubbing his temple, as he wondered who was behind this mysterious Virginia Beach-based organization. "I think I cold-called lobbyists or friends on a list who agreed on certain issues," he said.
"Do we even know?" Katherine asked.
"I think he was a friend of Cuccinelli's," Craddock said, referring to state Sen. Ken Cuccinelli (R-Fairfax), for whom he used to volunteer.
When Craddock was done writing a letter, Katherine folded it and stuck it into an envelope. She occasionally needled him. "If I wrote them, they'd never get done," Katherine said to her husband. "You're a guy. You can get away with writing shorter notes. Do you know cursive? I don't think I've ever seen you write cursive."
"Yeah. It's a hybrid," he said sheepishly.
Close to midnight, it became clear he wouldn't finish all the notes, so Craddock prepared to call it quits. But not before he wrote a letter to his close friend Josh Lineberger.
"Dear Josh, Thank you so much for your generosity," he wrote. "I really appreciate all of your help. Your the man Chris."
The sign-off contained a grammatical error ("Your") that, perhaps because it was so late, the candidate did not catch. At least the thank-you note was going to his close friend.