How to Run for City Council – Paperwork

Ah, the bane of my existence, paperwork.  I hate the seemingly endless stream of paperwork that accompanies running for office.  The good news, if you’re running for city council, is that the train-wreck of federal campaign finance laws don’t apply to you.  However, your city, county and state will likely have it’s own requirements.

The first and most important thing I must mention up front – there is no way I can write a post detailing every piece of paperwork you will be required to do because each town and state will have its own particular procedure.  Therefore it is imperative that you march yourself right down to your local city building and ask them to have mercy on your soul and help you out.

A few tips on interacting with the friendly folks in the clerk’s office:

  • Always kill them with kindness. Clerk is also an elected person, which means this is a partisan office, despite needing to serve candidates from both parties.  Generally they are open and helpful to everyone (it would be unlawful if they didn’t help you because you were from the opposing party), but sometimes you run into employees with a particular ax to grind.  Simply be sweet and persistent with these folks until you get what you need.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask ‘stupid’ questions.  Government forms are rarely easy to understand.  If you have any question at all about what’s required of you for a particular form, ask for clarity.  Make sure you are 100% sure of what’s required, because if you screw it up, it could be disastrous.
  • Always be very grateful for their help!  Friendships formed with the people in the Clerk’s office are priceless.  I am not above bringing them treats and sending thank you cards to these fine folks!

Unfortunately, the paperwork for running for local office is not universal – every municipality will have its own requirements, but luckily there is a basic framework that most towns and cities adhere to.  Here’s a list of the common forms and paperwork you’ll likely have to file:

  • Declaration of Candidacy or Nomination Papers – the first form you must fill out, your declaration that you intend to run for city council.  You may or may not be required to collect signatures in order to officially get your name on the ballot.
  • Bank Account – this isn’t one for the city clerk’s office, but you’ll need to open a separate bank account for campaign related fundraising and spending.  I put it here because you’ll want the ‘name’ of your campaign and the ‘name’ on the bank account to match, to avoid any confusion.  I recommend a simple “John Doe for City Council.”  Don’t try to get fancy, you don’t want to make writing a check out to you more difficult than necessary.
  • Campaign Finance Reports – these will likely need to be done before and after the primary election, and before and after the general.  It could also be on a quarterly basis.  Ideally some math whiz kid is tracking every dollar raised and spent in an Excel spreadsheet and can do the majority of the work on these forms for you, but you need to make sure you are aware and in agreement with the final numbers (because it’s your butt on the line, no one else’s).

All in all it’s pretty simple, and yet still so easy to screw up.  Don’t be afraid to ask the folks at the Clerk’s office to look over your paperwork before you officially turn in it to verify you checked all the right boxes, signed in all the right places, etc.  Make extra certain everything on the form is 100% accurate.  You want to catch any errors before your opponent or the media does.

The first step (after reading this article) is to do an internet search for “file to run” or “candidacy” or some similar key words with the name of your town.  Chances are the information you need, and maybe even the forms, are available online.  You’ll find out exactly where you need to go and who you need to shmooze to get your paperwork through without hassles.  If you can’t find info online, it’s time to pound the pavement.  Start at your town’s Clerk’s office, as that’s very likely where you need to file, and if it’s not, they can tell you where.  Sometimes filing to run for city council requires a trip to the county voter registration office, but not in most cases.

What are you waiting for?  Get going!

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Campaign Calendar Planning: Campaign Finance

Naturally following a discussion on fundraising, we must cover our bases on campaign finance.  A missed deadline for a political candidate at any level will most certainly leave you open to criticism from your opponent and scrutiny from the media, not to mention that it’s not unusual for the public employees that run the elections office to mess up or completely lose vitally important forms and documents (accidentally or otherwise). Luckily, this part is fairly simple.

For your calendar, simply look up the list of campaign finance reporting due dates on your state’s campaign finance or secretary of state website.  If you have a Campaign Planbook, there’s likely a link to your state’s resource website in there.  If not, it’s easy enough to find through a Google search.

Once you find the information you’re looking for, jot down the due dates for every campaign finance reporting requirement.  To be completely sure you’ve got everything, stop by your local elections office and ask them for a list of all the due dates as well – sometimes local entities require more information or have more stringent requirements.  Don’t bother calling – in the case they actually answer the phone (unlikely), it’s too easy for them to give you a wrong date or miss one.  Generally speaking, all interactions with election divisions should be in person.

Other than the due dates themselves, you may want to schedule time to enter in all your fundraising and expenditure data, preferably in chunks rather than all at once – that usually leads to a last minute frenzy to get it all done in time.  Some campaign finance websites will allow you to fill in the forms online and let you save them.  There’s also online software like BackOffice that can help you, if you want to pay for it.  I recommend finding a trustworthy and mathematically-inclined intern to input the data once a week or so.

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Campaign Budgeting 101 – Fundraising

True or False:

You have to spend money to make money.

False!  Well, sometimes it helps, but it’s certainly not mandatory, especially in the beginning.  The amount of money you set aside for fundraising purposes will largely depend on how you plan to fundraise.  Many candidates hear about $1,000 plate dinner fundraisers and get it in their heads that this is a ‘normal’ way to fundraise.  Not at all, my friend, not at all!  Here are some typical fundraising methods real, down-to-earth, local candidates use:

  • Sending a fundraising letter to friends, family and potential donors
  • Calling people who’ve donated generously to candidates in the past and asking them to contribute to you as well
  • Asking people for money in person (specifically people who can afford to give $500+ to start with)
  • Hosting an event and charging people to come to it
  • Accepting donations online
There are about as many ways to fundraise as there are candidates running for office.  Creativity is a very useful talent in this category, because you’re going to have to think up some creative ways to fundraise without spending a small fortune on a ‘traditional’ fundraiser.

Here are some of the things you’ll need to spend money on under the ‘fundraising’ category:

  • Stationary, envelopes and thank you notes (this could be considered an administrative cost instead)
  • Postage
  • Event invitations
  • Food
  • Venue rental
  • Transportation, in the case you have a meeting with a PAC Director considering donating
  • Admission to GOP networking events where you intend to meet potential donors

As you can see, the real spending doesn’t happen unless you decide to hold a formal event, and even in that case, there are plenty of ways to cut costs.  The goal of fundraising is to bring money in, not send it out, so remember that when you’re planning your fundraisers and make sure you’ll getting the most bang for your buck. However, budget yourself a realistic amount – the last thing you want to do is give yourself such a tight fundraising budget you can’t actually raise any funds.

Unfortunately I can’t tell you exactly how much to budget for fundraising – after all, a great deal of that will be determined by your fundraising goals.  I can tell you that raising $100,000 doesn’t have to cost that much more than raising $10,000.  I can not stress enough that the bulk of the money you raise will come from sitting down with donors and asking them for money.  And it costs zero dollars to do that.  The difference between a $100,000 goal and a $10,000 goal is not how much money you spend on a fundraising event, but rather the people you ask for money and how much you ask them for.

So what are the steps to developing the Fundraising section of your budget?

  1. Research potential donors through your state’s online campaign finance directories and with the help of former candidates’ lists.
  2. Compile a list of potential donors, including friends and family, complete with name, address, phone number, notes on how much they’ve donated in the past and what you intend to ask them for.
  3. Compile a list of PACs that may donate to your campaign and research their requirements.
  4. Estimate the costs of sending an initial introductory fundraising letter – include paper, printing, envelopes, postage, etc.  I recommend doing this by hand – your list will likely be somewhere between 50 and 200 addresses.
  5. Set tentative dates for fundraisers – front load them into the schedule if possible to save room for grassroots/GOTV efforts closer to election day.
  6. Estimate the costs of venue rental and food based on a ‘typical’ number of attendees – you’ll need to talk to former candidates and local GOP leaders to get a rough idea.
  7. List all your potential costs and total them up.  Then start looking for ways to save money.

How do you save money on throwing a real fundraising event?  Here are a few examples I’ve used in the past – bear in mind these are mostly for city council up to state representative level campaigns:

  • Have a relative/friend/supporter throw a backyard barbecue and charge $25-50 per person to attend.  The buns and burgers are a small in-kind donation from the host, so be sure to note it in your campaign finance paperwork.
  • Have a supporter who owns a restaurant?  I’ve been lucky enough on a couple of occasions – they’ll often provide the space and food (note the in-kind donation!) during non-rush hours.  Depending on the venue, you could charge anywhere from $20 to $200 for the event.
  • Host your fundraiser at GOP Headquarters if it’s relatively nice.  They’ll probably let you use the space for free.
  • There are often big supporters who can’t shell out tons o’ cash in donations, but have spaces that would be perfect for themed fundraisers, such as:
    • Pro-2nd Amendment party at the gun range.  It’s wise not to have an open bar at this one!
    • Pro-life rallies at church facilities
    • Pro-Israel rallies at synagogue facilities
    • Barn dances in districts with lots of farmers (my favorite districts!)
And here are just a couple of bonus tips for you:
  • A good rule of thumb about fundraising event admission: Charge at least 2 times and no more than 5 times the cost of a regular meal at the venue.  So if your fundraiser is at McDonalds, charge $10-25 to attend; if it’s at Ruth Chris Steak House, charge $150-$375.
  • Make sure your donors are aware of any limitations to how much they can contribute – the last thing you want to do is return a check because it’s over the legal limit you can accept from an individual.  If a donor has already reached a federal or state mandated maximum, you should let them come to any event for free – usually they’ll bring paying friends!
  • Dress to impress, but don’t always make your supporters.  Black tie fundraisers are, eh, okay I guess, but the boot-scootin’ kind are way more fun, and cheaper to pull off, too.

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Campaign Budgeting 101: How Much Does It Cost to Run for Public Office?

crunching the numbers for your campaign budget running for public office

How much does it cost to run for public office?

How much money should you expect to raise through your fundraising efforts?  What should the ‘total’ line on your campaign budget look like?

Like every other website that attempts to answer this question, I’m going to say “it depends.”  But don’t worry, I’m not going to stop there.  And I’m not going to give you some crap answer like “the average cost of a campaign is $3 per voter.”  Because there are extremes at both ends of those numbers that throw the real ‘averages’ way off.

Compare Your Election to Past Elections

Let’s start with a generic example campaign.  Let’s say Joe is running for state representative and lives in a ‘typical American’ town, not really close to a big city and yet not totally in the sticks either, and he’s in a state that isn’t particularly high-priced to exist in.

The first thing Joe needs to do to determine an approximate total budget number is look at his state’s campaign finance website, where he can find the finance reports for anyone who’s ever run for state representative in and around his district before.

Some candidates in some districts will run and handily win a similar race for less than $5,000 because there was no opponent or the district was so heavily skewed Republican that the Democrat didn’t have a chance anyway.

Some candidates will have spent $200,000 on the exact same sort of race, but that was influenced by a sudden uptick in state or national interest in the campaign – perhaps that particular election was at a time when the change of a single seat would affect a change in control of the state house, and it was a re-districting year in which whomever controlled the house controlled the district lines as well.  Or maybe there was a super-hot issue coming into play after the elections and national level interest groups were pumping campaign cash into the candidate’s coffers, totally bloating the realistic number.

Joe has to look at all these numbers within the context of the time and circumstances of the elections.  Chances are if there is an extreme low or high amount spent in a particular campaign, it will be an anomaly, and Joe should easily find a ‘trend’ for what elections like his ‘typically’ cost.

Establish A Total Budget Baseline to Start From

Let’s assume Joe, however, has an opponent in a fairly evenly split district, but it isn’t getting any ‘special’ attention from high-level outsiders just yet.  Given all of the conditions we’ve set so far, I’d ‘guesstimate’ that Joe could reasonably use $50,000 as his base line total.

Now, does that mean that the final version of Joe’s budget will be $50,000, not a penny more, not a penny less?  Not at all!  This is only a starting point.  It’s a place for you to begin to breakdown your campaign budget into parts in order to ascertain how much you should reasonably spend in each area.  All too often I see candidates and campaign treasurers looking at their final baseline numbers and just assuming that they can spend a little extra here, without realizing that in doing so, they are shorting another aspect of the campaign.  First, you must find a ceiling for the total budget with which to limit yourself.  Then, break that number down into each category and assign a hard limit for each of those as well.  No money should be shifted from one to another unless you’ve already underspent significantly.

In actuality, I have seen races fitting this description spending anywhere from $30,000 to $80,000 (and the main difference there is that TV production and ad-buying are included in the higher number).

Once you’ve studied your local campaign finance history and  determined your reasonable average, we can move on to the next step, which is breaking that total budget number down into categories and figuring out just what you need to buy.

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Campaign Budgeting 101

squeezing the campaign budget

It’s a new day and a new series!  In the next several days, I’m going to go over the basic elements of a political campaign budget – one of the most critical and fundamental components of a successful campaign plan.  Everyone running for public office needs to be aware of and prepared for the financial demands that will be placed on them during a political campaign, therefore it’s paramount that you ‘begin with the end in mind’ and formulate a campaign budget that clearly and accurately reflects how you intend to spend your campaign dollars.

Having a fully fleshed out and detailed campaign budget will also help you in your fundraising efforts.  High dollar donors like to know where their money is going and should feel confident that it’s being put to the best possible use.  You’ll use a summarized version of your campaign budget any time that you approach a PAC, business or individual asking for money.

Here are the campaign budgeting topics you can expect to see over the next few posts:

  • Administrative Costs
  • Paid Media Spending
  • Research Costs
  • Voter Contact Costs
  • Unexpected Campaign Expenditures
Keep your eyes peeled for these posts and more – or make it easy on yourself and sign up for our email updates.

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Why Your Campaign Should NEVER Go Into Debt

campaign money-and-stress

It’s really depressing to me that a campaign treasurer would ever, EVER even consider the option of putting a campaign account in debt for any reason.  Quite honestly, I had never seen it happen – even on congressional or gubernatorial campaigns – until recent years.

Campaign finances can not be treated like personal finances.

In your personal life, if you lose your income source, you can always find another job or do ‘side work’ to make up the difference in order to pay off your debts.  In campaign world, your campaign lives and dies by fundraising.  There is no other income source.  If people aren’t willing to open their own wallets and give you their hard-earned cash, you are out of options, except to bail out your own campaign yourself, because in the long run you, the candidate, (and anyone dumb enough to co-sign for you) are the only person truly liable for the debts the campaign incurs.

“But it’s impossible to get any traction without ‘seed money!'” you say.  You want to open up a credit card so you can buy your first round of palm cards ($1,000), some lapel stickers ($500) and yard signs (another $1,000).  You sign a contract with a ‘political consultant’ who charges $100/hr and rack up $15,000 before you even get your first major campaign donation.

How many candidates do this before they even take one glance at voter data and past election results, to see if there’s even a remote chance of success?  Far, far too many.

A campaign does not, not, need to spend a single dime before it begins a concerted fundraising effort.  What it does need is a solid campaign plan.  Potential donors don’t want to wear your stupid sticker or look at your palm card.  They want to know you can win.  And until you prove that point to them, your campaign wil be cash-poor.

When the campaign is over, so is the cash flow.

No one gives money to a dead campaign.  No one gives money to a dead campaign.  No one gives money to a dead campaign.  Yeah, it’s that important to remember.  If you have debt on Election Day and God forbid you lose, why on earth would any donor give you money?  You already lost!  If it was close and you plan on running again in 2 years, you might be able to convince people to invest super early in that future race and use that money to pay off your old debts, but in 98% of cases, you’re going to be picking up your own tab, bud.  As you should, because you’re the one who made the horrible decision to go into debt in the first place.  You reap what you sow.

If you find yourself in a position where you feel there’s no option but to borrow money to cover campaign expenses, you have one of three problems:

  • You’re spending too much/too early.  You don’t need an office, a website, or a paid staffer.  Those things are luxuries for candidates and campaigns that have proven their worth to their donor pool.
  • You’re a weak fundraiser.  If you – not your fundraising coordinator, not your campaign treasurer, but YOU, the candidate – can’t sit down in person with a high-dollar donor and ask for $5,000 or more without a shred of guilt or shame, then you have a serious campaigning problem.  In the end it will be you responsible for the bills.  It has to be you who brings in the money.
  • You’ve under-planned.  If you don’t focus enough time and energy in the first days/weeks/months of your campaign planning exactly how you’re going to win, what tools, people and resources you’ll need, and precisely how much all of that is going to cost, you will begin to flounder.  Your success, both logistical and financial, is completely dependent upon excellent campaign planning.

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How to Run for Congress – Dealing with PACs, Lobbyists and Interest Groups

When you’re first starting out, it’s a good idea to reach out to PACs (who work for issues you support) for campaign donations and endorsements.  But in just a few short weeks, you’ll probably be inundated with surveys asking your opinion on things you’ve never even heard of, let alone formed an opinion on.  It’s a good idea to assign someone to fill these forms out.  Most PACs won’t support you, financially or otherwise, without answering the surveys.  And since you’re the candidate, you can answer questions however you want.  If there are questions you can’t even begin to address, because they are so complicated or into the minutia of an issue you’ve never considered before, feel free to leave those blank.  But always fill them out and send them in.

Lobbyists, special interest groups and PACs won’t really be something you’ll have to deal with head on unless your candidate has a real shot at winning – so if they’re trailing you at least it means you’re on the right track.  There are a handful of ways PACs may choose to help you:

  • Direct campaign donations – some PACs and special interest groups choose to give all the candidates who ‘score’ a certain percentage on their surveys a set amount of money as a donation.
  • Donations with strings – if a PAC is particularly interested in your race, it may give you $XXX specifically for radio ads, or for a mail piece that they help design.  The ad will still have your political disclaimer on it, but they’ll want tons of input since their fronting the cash.
  • In-kind donations with really thick strings – Sometimes, very rarely, a PAC or interest group will get really involved, and even send people to run your campaign for you (I used to be that person).  This can be a fantastic boost, but remember that, if you choose to accept the help, their loyalty lies with the special interest, not your campaign.  Sometimes these folks try to make your campaign all about their pet issue – even if it’s not a good message match for your race/district.
  • Indirect expenditures – some PACs choose to support you, create and send a mail piece bashing the hell out of your opponent, and you won’t find out until it hits your mailbox, or your neighbor’s.  It’s totally legal for PACs to ‘support’ you, even if you don’t like their negative message, as long as you’re completely in the dark about it.

The good news is, if you don’t know anything about independent expenditures you don’t like, you can rightfully say “I had nothing to do with this ad and I denounce its negative tone altogether!”  Just make sure any PACs you are associated with know how you feel.  That way they won’t take it personally when you condemn their dirty behavior.  Whether you like it or not, negative campaigning is very effective.  (For the record, I am NOT a fan of negative campaigning).

Finally, make sure that the amount of money you receive doesn’t exceed the $5,000 PAC limit.  The PAC should be watching this closely, but it’s you who’ll get all the negative press if you mess up.

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How to Run for Congress: 5 Quick Tips for Campaign Finance

  1. Put the political disclaimer (Paid for by <insert campaign committee name>) in a reasonably readable font size on absolutely everything you print or make for campaign purposes or out of campaign money.  When in doubt, always include it.
  2. Know your contribution limits.  Individuals can give $2,500 and PACs and political party organizations can give $5,000.
  3. You CAN’T take donations for businesses, unions, federal government contractors or foreigners.  You CAN take up to $5,000 from the PACs (political action committees) representing this groups.  It’s a stupid rule, but most of them are.
  4. If another individual, group or PAC does anything that promotes your candidacy (like buying ads that say “Vote Smith!”) you must count it as an in-kind contribution, and it will count against the amount of real cash they can give you.
  5. If another individual, group or PAC does anything that promotes your candidacy and you have absolutely no idea about it, it’s called an independent expenditure, and you don’t have to count it as a contribution or report it in any way.

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Campaign Finance: Know Your Limits

Campaign finance reporting is a huge pain.  I almost always assign someone to handle this exclusively, and then ask a couple of knowledgeable people to oversee and double check their work.

A reader asked me the following question:

‘What if an individual wants to contribute $10,000 or more to the campaign?’

Since this is comes up in nearly every Congressional campaign, I thought I’d share my answer with everyone:

An individual is allowed to contribute $2,500 per election – that means they can write you a check for $2,500 today, for the primary (whether you have an opponent or not) and write you another, separate check later for the general.  
If said donor is married, his wife can also write a check for $2,500, twice.  It can come from the same checking account, but make a notation of some kind on the actual check and record it correctly in your campaign finance report.  For example, if the address box says “Mike and Linda Smith” I would circle “Mike” or “Linda” depending on which one is officially the donor.  You could also write “donation from Linda Smith” in the memo of the check, and of course, the proper donor is going to be the signer of the check.

So, if the donor in question is married, they can give $10k by giving $2,500 for each election and having his/her spouse give $2,500 per election as well.

There’s a good chart for reference here:

This is all for national level campaigns (US House and up) – some states also impose extra restrictions, so be sure to check out your state’s campaign finance pages as well.  Most of them have ‘handbooks’ you can print out and study to make sure you’re doing everything right.  Your county building is the very first place you should check, because almost all counties have additional filing requirements, on top of the state and federal requirements.  Oftentimes you can just make copies of the same forms for all three government entities.

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