How to run for Congress

Almost anyone can do it. But here are some pro tips, if you actually want to win.

You’re watching the news, you’re talking to people, you’re annoyed at Congress. No, you’re furious at Congress, and you know you could do so much better in that job.

But wait — you hate speaking in public, you’re not rich and your name isn’t Kennedy, Bush, Clinton or Trump. Would anyone vote for you? Would your friends help out? Would your family implode from the craziness?

And anyway, where do you start?

While traditionally most national-level candidates wade into state and local offices first, more than half of the 2019 freshman class cannonballed straight into Congress. The electorate is obviously in a nontraditional mood.

Stacks of books, terabytes of videos and podcasts, and organizations from all sorts of ideological perspectives can help rookie candidates with the many, many details of mounting a campaign, but here are some of the big things experts say you need to know.

If any of these sounds like a dealbreaker, running for Congress may not be for you.


Be yourself (unless you’re an unlikable jerk)

Attempting to run for Congress is not for the lazy, but just about any other personality type will work, said A’shanti F. Gholar, political director of Emerge America, which trains Democratic women to run for office.

“People think you have to be this crazy, extroverted candidate, that you’ve got to be Elizabeth Warren running off the bus, high-fiving everybody, but that doesn’t have to be you,” Gholar said. “The best personality trait that you can have is just being authentic, being who you are.”

Case in point: Georgia’s Stacey Abrams says she is an introvert, but she came within a whisker of winning the 2018 race for governor, and she continues to help shape the national discussion around voter suppression.

However, because your campaign will be built around who you are and why you’re running, the first thing you need to do is come up with a strong and simple message.

“Whatever you’re running on, your motivation — that’s your brand,” said Jessy Mejia Terry, a Maryland consultant who has worked on several congressional campaigns as well as campaigns for other offices. Long-shot wins happen because the candidates “are very much aware of the power of their own story and can attract followers, attract media attention and attract voters,” she said.


Rep. Lucy McBath (D-Ga.), shown celebrating during the House office lottery last November, campaigned on a powerful personal story. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

For example, Rep. Lucy McBath (D-Ga.) was a flight attendant in 2012 when her 17-year-old son, Jordan Davis, was fatally shot in a friend’s car by a man who didn’t like the teens’ loud music. Heartbroken and outraged, she became an advocate for stricter gun laws and a national spokeswoman for firearms policy group Moms Demand Action. When she ran in Georgia’s 6th in 2018, she was known as the bereaved mom crusading for gun safety, a potent narrative that resonated with voters.

First-time officeholders in the House’s 2019 freshman class come from all sorts of fields. Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio) and Colin Allred (D-Tex.) played in the NFL. Bryan Steil (R-Wis.) is a manufacturing executive; Kim Schrier (D-Wash.) is a pediatrician. Sharice Davids (D-Kan.) is a lawyer and also was a mixed-martial-arts fighter. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) is a law professor, and Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) was a CIA agent.

Probably the best-known newcomer, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was a bartender and the longest of long shots until she won New York’s 14th District primary against 10-term incumbent Joe Crowley, then-chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.

“The narrative that you have to have a certain background … is harmful,” Gholar said. “Because what you’re saying is that politics is only for a certain type of person. Everyday Americans — they pay attention, they know what is going on, and they should be the ones running for Congress.”

And let’s face it, even unlikable jerks get elected, too.


Homework is required (and some of it is math)

After retiring from the Air Force in 2010, now-Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) ignored advice to seek lower office first and plunged directly into a House campaign. She joked about the hurdles to a Post reporter at the time: “I had nothing to lose; I already had quit my job. So I said, ‘Now, what do I have to do? Probably file some paperwork, right?’”

As McSally obviously knew, there is a little more to it than that.


Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) speaks during a hearing on Capitol Hill in July. While McSally narrowly lost her 2018 Senate race to Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), she was appointed to fill the seat vacated by Sen. John McCain (R). (Andrew Harnik/AP)

The Constitution says you can run for Congress if you are at least 25, have been a citizen for the past seven years and live in the state — but not necessarily the district — you would represent.

After that, the rules vary by state. Check with the state board of elections right away to find out how to get your name on the ballot, which often requires a certain number of signatures on a petition, a filing fee or both. (You’re too late to get on the 2020 primary ballot in Alabama or Arkansas, because filing deadlines for those have already passed.)

That’s the easy part.

After you’ve filed, figured out your message and got your family on board — do not let your spouse find out that you’re running for office from a sign in your yard — one of a first-time candidate’s first calls should be to the state party, said Mejia Terry.

Introduce yourself, let them know you’re running and get any maps and other intel they can provide about your district. You don’t have to have a “D” or “R” beside your name, but winning as an independent or write-in is very difficult, especially for a political newbie with little name recognition.

You need to learn everything possible about your would-be constituents. Know the national issues that concern them, but also the local issues, such as high housing costs or health-care scarcity or even that dangerous intersection that is always under construction near the entrance to the region’s largest employer.

Check out the incumbent (and size up your primary opponents). Find out how much money winning candidates have raised in recent elections. Know their strengths and weaknesses and how they voted on key issues so you can tell voters why you’d be better.

Most important: Calculate your “win number” — literally the number of votes you will need to win.

The party can help you with that by selling you an electronic database called a “voter file,” the mother lode of detailed data on voting-age people in your area. The file won’t tell you how a person voted, but it will tell you where every registered Democrat, Republican and undecided voter lives and which elections they voted in — including primaries.

Say you’re running to represent Wisconsin’s 1st District in 2020. The voter file would help you identify where every registered Democrat and Republican lived that year. (You’d have to make your own map, however.)

WI

Registered Democrat

WI

North

Racine

Kenosha

Lake

Geneva

North

Prairie

East Troy

Janesville

Registered Republican

Racine

Kenosha

Lake

Geneva

North

Prairie

East Troy

Janesville

WI

Registered Democrat

WI

Racine

Kenosha

North

Lake

Geneva

North

Prairie

East Troy

Janesville

Registered Republican

Racine

Kenosha

Lake

Geneva

North

Prairie

East Troy

Janesville

WI

North

Prairie

Registered Democrat

Racine

East Troy

Janesville

Kenosha

Lake Geneva

North

Prairie

Registered Republican

Racine

East Troy

Janesville

Kenosha

Lake Geneva

WI

North

Prairie

Registered Democrat

Racine

East Troy

Janesville

Kenosha

Lake Geneva

North

Prairie

Registered Republican

Racine

East Troy

Janesville

Kenosha

Lake Geneva

WI

North

Prairie

Registered Democrat

Racine

East Troy

Janesville

Kenosha

Lake Geneva

North

Prairie

Registered Republican

Racine

East Troy

Janesville

Kenosha

Lake Geneva

You’ll figure out your win number using the numbers of registered voters, the percentage of them who usually vote, the ones who may be likely to vote for you, and some educated guessing.

Everything you do until Election Day will be working toward getting to that number.


You’ll need to write a plan (and plan for chaos)

Next, you will need a written, detailed strategy for how to reach those target voters.

“A campaign plan is really a road map,” said Ned Ryun, founder and CEO of American Majority, a nonprofit organization that trains conservative candidates. “Point A is the filing deadline and point B is Election Day, and in between is a campaign plan.”

It should include staff you’d like to hire, what you’ll ask volunteers to do, how you’ll raise money (PAC contributions vs. small donors), how you’ll spend money, how you’ll budget your time (door-to-door vs. speaking at events), which groups you hope to persuade to endorse you, and so on.

“All campaigns are chaos,” Ryun said, “and whoever can minimize the chaos has a better chance of winning. The only way you can minimize the chaos is to have a plan that’s metric-driven and then try and stick to the plan as much as possible.”

And don’t be afraid to try something that seems off-the-wall.

Think of Republican Scott Brown making ads and campaigning from the front seat of his pickup truck in his successful bid to become a Massachusetts senator. Think of Warren’s now-famous selfie strategy, which Mejia Terry called “genius.” The post-rally grin-a-thons have become a trademark for the Democrat who ousted Brown and is now running for president. Her campaign said she had topped 60,000 selfies by late September. As each selfie is shared, it collects likes and spreads through personal social networks in an intimate way that a campaign ad couldn’t hope to replicate.


Get a posse together (and choose them wisely)

The two most important people in the campaign other than the candidate are the campaign manager and the treasurer, Ryun said.

“The campaign manager actually facilitates the day-to-day, because if you become a micromanager as a candidate you’re probably not doing what you should be doing, which is taking a lot of time fundraising or actually speaking at events,” he said. “And the treasurer keeps you out of jail.”

In fact, federal law requires congressional campaigns to have a treasurer, because rules about how money can be raised and spent are complicated and unforgiving.

“Luckily I was told from the get-go, when you get your treasurer, it can’t just be your buddy who has a CPA,” said Joshua Scott, who got 31 percent of the vote in 2018 in a long-shot Republican campaign in the California 32nd against 10-term Democratic incumbent Grace Napolitano. “It has to be someone who’s experienced with federal campaigns, because there are so many dates, so many little aspects that need to be covered. I’m not going to lie, if I weren’t given that advice and hadn’t worked on a campaign previously, I probably just would’ve called my dad’s friend who was our family accountant and said, ‘Hey, want to be my treasurer?’ ”

A campaign manager is not required by law, but strategists and training groups say first-time candidates need one. This person must be someone you trust completely: They’ll speak for you, keep the campaign from veering off the rails, and ideally tell you to your face when you are about to make a terrible decision.

Well-funded campaigns also have paid staffers in more positions — often many more — such as communications director, social media strategist, volunteer coordinator, political director, database manager and others who do various things to move the ball toward your goal. You may want to retain, or at least consult, an elections lawyer.

Most of all, make sure everyone is working toward your goals.

“The one thing that I learned is that you can’t listen to everybody,” said Lisa Ring, a former corrections officer who got 42.3 percent of the vote in Georgia’s 1st District and is trying again in 2020. “Certainly listen to voters and what they have to say about issues, but don’t listen to all the people who are going to tell you how to run your campaign.”

This time around, Ring’s campaign is run by a small circle of trusted decision-makers rather than a single campaign manager.

In addition to your paid posse, you will need legions of volunteers. Put on your networking hat and mine all your connections: school and religious groups, clubs, professional organizations, neighborhood groups, college alumni, social media groups.

“The lifeblood of any campaign is your volunteers,” said Mejia Terry. “Those volunteers will come from the folks that know you, that trust you, that feel like you are the right person to be in that place. Those folks will get you going, but they will also pull in others.”


Start raising money and don’t stop (even when you’d like to)

“Now is the time to call in all favors,” wrote Quintus Tullius Cicero to his older brother, Marcus, who was running for consul of the Roman Republic in 64 B.C. “Make good use of the young people who admire you and want to learn from you, in addition to all the faithful friends who are daily at your side.” (Some scholars question the letter’s author but not its advice.)

Politics works remarkably similarly to the way it did in Cicero’s day: Wealthy candidates can use their own money; everyone else has to raise it. A lot of it. Here’s how much it cost to win a 2018 Congressional race.

Total money spent by incumbent and

non-incumbent winners

$0

2.5M

Jim Baird

(R-Ind.)

$455,543

Alexandria

Ocasio-Cortez

(D-N.Y.)

$1.8M

5M

7.5M

10M

12.5M

Steve Scalise (R-La.)

$12.2M

15M

17.5M

David Trone (D-Md.)

$18.4M

Total money spent by incumbent and

non-incumbent winners

$0

2.5M

Jim Baird

(R-Ind.)

$455,543

Alexandria

Ocasio-Cortez

(D-N.Y.)

$1.8M

5M

Katie Porter (D-Calif.)

$6.8M

7.5M

10M

12.5M

Steve Scalise (R-La.)

$12.2M

15M

17.5M

David Trone (D-Md.)

$18.4M

Total money spent by incumbent and non-incumbent winners

Alexandria

Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.)

$1.8M

David Trone

(D-Md.)

$18.4M

Steve Scalise

(R-La.)

$12.2M

Jim Baird (R-Ind.)

$455,543

$0

2.5M

5M

7.5M

10M

12.5M

15M

17.5M

Total money spent by incumbent and non-incumbent winners

Alexandria

Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.)

$1.8M

David Trone

(D-Md.)

$18.4M

Steve Scalise

(R-La.)

$12.2M

Jim Baird (R-Ind.)

$455,543

2.5M

5M

7.5M

10M

12.5M

15M

17.5M

$0

The priciest 2018 House campaign was that of David Trone (D), of Maryland’s 6th District, who, according to campaign data from the Federal Elections Commission, spent more than $18 million, most of it his own money. (He co-owns a $3 billion wine company.) That works out to $112.40 for every vote he got in the general election.

You probably won’t need to raise that much.

The biggest bargain was the seat in New York’s 15th, which longtime Democratic incumbent Jose Serrano kept for less than $240,000 — less than $2 per vote.

You probably can’t get away with that little.

In her 2017 book “Don’t Just March: Run for Something,” Amanda Litman wrote that it costs $500,000 to $2 million to run a credible campaign for Congress.

“Generally speaking, the ‘experts’ recommend that you shouldn’t run for a seat in the House unless you can pretty quickly figure out how you’ll raise at least $300,000 from your network,” she wrote. “For senators, that number is much, much bigger.”

How you spend your money varies among campaigns. Are you targeting a community where fliers often land in the trash? Maybe go with radio and TV ads. Are your would-be constituents packed in a large city? Plaster your highly electable face on subway and bus stop posters.

Here’s how Democratic newcomer Ben McAdams and Republican incumbent Mia Love spent some of their money in the 2018 race for Utah’s 4th District, which McAdams won.

Ryun tells his would-be candidates to expect to spend 30 to 50 percent of their time raising money. He also tells them that money isn’t the whole picture. Love outspent McAdams by more than $2 million and still lost — by less than 700 votes.

“Money is the mother’s milk of politics,” Ryun said, “but money doesn’t make an ugly baby pretty. So there has to be a certain amount of money that you raise to fund things, because if you don’t have any money, obviously you’re not going to win. At the same time, I’ve seen so many people with so much money who have just never connected with the voters. They could’ve had 20 times as much money, and they were never going to win.”

Lawyer Shelia Bryant had plenty of life experience as a prosecutor, criminal justice activist and Marine Corps colonel before deciding to challenge Democratic incumbent Anthony Brown in the 2020 primary for Maryland’s 4th. She talked to her former political science professors at Harvard; she did Emerge boot camp and trained with New Politics Leadership Academy, which helps veterans run for office; and she took an online course from the National Democratic Training Committee.

“But even knowing what I knew, it’s still difficult,” she said. “The biggest surprise is how hard it is to raise money when you’re going against an incumbent. I have everything except money.”


Keep your sense of humor (and lose your sense of glamour)

Buried in the glossary of a campaign instructional manual put out by the nonpartisan National Democratic Institute for International Affairs is this entry: “Murphy’s Law – Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.”

Staffers defect. Volunteers don’t show up. Your website crashes. “Saturday Night Live” makes fun of you — and that’s if you’re lucky.

Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Tex.), who wears an eye patch after losing an eye to a bomb in Afghanistan, had largely flown under the national radar until three days before the 2018 election, when comedian Pete Davidson on SNL said Crenshaw looked like “a hit man in a porno movie” during an ill-advised riff on a few candidates’ personal appearances.

Viewer outrage led to Crenshaw getting enormous publicity, including a nearly seven-minute segment on CNN the day before the election. He won. He also appeared on the next weekend’s SNL with a contrite Davidson, whom Crenshaw thanked “for making a Republican look good.”

Ring, the woman running again in the Georgia 1st, had plenty of political experience as a grass-roots organizer and recruiter for the Democratic Party before she decided to run.

Still, she said she was surprised by “all of it” — especially being in the spotlight.

“If you want it to be glamorous you can make it glamorous,” she said. “There are some people who treat you as if you’re royalty. But for the most part it is not that. It is really just being accessible to people and working as hard as you can work every single day.”

If that sounds empowering rather than impossible, maybe you should think about a run.

“Deciding to put yourself out there — I think that’s the hardest part,” Gholar said. “Because the thing is, you can learn everything else.”

Illustrations by Rami Niemi; design by Joanne Lee; photo editing by Natalia Jimenez; copy editing by Shannon Croom. Candidate disbursement and operating expenditure data from the Federal Elections Commission. Democrat and Republican voter registration data from the L2 Political Voter Access File.

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