How to Deal With Abortion and Other Off-Agenda Social Issues

Brace yourselves, folks, for a rant, because that’s just the mood I’m in.

I am oh so ever annoyed with the way many conservatives are painting the party into a corner by constantly beating the drum of several less-than-popular social issues that, quite frankly, aren’t important at the moment and likely won’t be until after 2016.  I’m just spit-balling, but I think it’s pretty evident that ObamaCare, the economy, and maybe education will be the top (and virtually only) issues in 2014.

I’m going to tackle an issue I happen to be fairly knowledgeable about: abortion.  But the general rules outlined in this post could also apply to other hotly-debated social issues like gay marriage.

abortion social issues

The Facts

Join me for a quick hop over to Gallup, the nation’s top public opinion research company, and see what they say that we say.

Hm, well, look at that.  According to study after study, year after year, Americans as a whole are NOT pro-abortion.  In Gallup’s in-depth review, they even state that the all-or-nothing terms ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ are inadequate and misleading.  Here are the facts:

  • The country is not split on abortion.  The media quote stats that indicate about 1/2 the country is ‘pro-life’ and half is ‘pro-choice.’
    What they don’t tell you is that half of that ‘pro-choice’ group is:
    1.  Against 2nd and 3rd trimester abortion.
    2.  Against abortion except in cases of rape/incest/life of mother.
    3.  Against partial birth abortion.
    4.  Less than 3% of abortions are due to rape/incest/protecting the life of the mother.
    That means roughly 75% of Americans are against 97% of abortions.
  • Republicans are reliably pro-life by about 70%.  Democrats actually vary widely from 19% to nearly half, depending on demographics…curiously, under-educated and poorer democrats are actually more pro-life, hm…
  • It’s not the young and frightened teen getting most of the abortions – they’re only 17% of the equation.  The majority lies with unmarried 20-something white women who cite ‘financial stress’ or not wanting to be a single parent as their reason.  A surprisingly high number are repeat abortions and abortions for women who already have a child (or children), again the vast majority unmarried.
  • There may be something to this Black Genocide theory.
  • 1 in 6 voters hold abortion as a ‘make or break’ issue in winning their vote, nearly half view it as one of several important factors.

The Point

There are a gazillion more statistics I could throw at you, and this may all seem irrelevant to your political campaign, and maybe it is, but you need to know it anyway.  Because someone will ask you.

If you’re running for Congress it matters because abortion is a classic national level public (a.k.a. media) agenda issue.

If you’re running for mayor, city council or a county wide position and there’s an abortion clinic in your district, it matters.

It matters most for a state senate or state representative seat because state legislatures are the true battleground for the pro-life/pro-choice debate.

Not to mention, there’s always the potential for you to progress up, and it may come into play in another race.

The Problem

You might be wondering why I feel the need to write an in-depth post about this topic.  For the record, I’m pro-life.  And I’m constantly ripping my hair out because some ‘staunch pro-lifer’ in a committee in some state legislature has killed a bill that would have curtailed abortions by some percentage on the grounds that it wasn’t ‘strong enough.’

As if that isn’t enough, I rip out whatever hair I had left because some promising new candidate gets caught off guard and says something religious/sentimental/fundamental on the topic that the media then happily takes out of context and over-plays on every newscast from now until election day, and a would-be ally doesn’t get elected at all.

There are some things that pro-life candidates (and current politicians, too) need to keep in mind:

  • This is a war.  We are not going to win it in one sweeping battle.  It will take incremental changes to peel back the over-reach of Roe v. Wade.  It will take a great deal of sly cleverness to get any sort of pro-life legislation past the long and well-funded arm of the pro-abortion movement, namely Planned Parenthood.  They stomp on any legislation that’s even remotely pro-life, regardless if it’s damaging to greater issues like women’s health.  Inspect abortion clinics? Require basic health standards?  Let women see their ultrasounds?  Tell them about adoption?  How dare you!
  • Accept that Roe v. Wade is probably here to stay, at least in this lifetime.  If you take an all-or-nothing approach to your pro-life agenda, you will fail.  You should approach any and all pro-life legislation by asking yourself, “Can this save one life?”  If the answer is yes, support it!  For God’s and the unborn’s sake, don’t kill the bill yourself because it’s not stringent enough, and don’t change it to the point that no democrat will support it.  Saving one at a time is infinitely better than saving none.
  • There are other, more effective ways to curb abortions.  Think about the women who have them – unmarried, often already has one child or more, low-income.  How can you help these women to not fall into these categories?

The Rules

This delicate subject requires a complicated web of rules when it comes to addressing it publicly – or even privately – during a political campaign.  The last thing you want to do is scare away would-be supporters because you make an overly sentimental display of support one way or another – these candidates are (usually outrageously unfairly) labeled right-wing fundamentalist evangelical looneys.  And your words will be taken out of context and go viral online.  I promise.  So bear with me through what promises to be the most tedious – but potentially campaign-saving – post you’ve ever read.

For the sake of convenience, I’m going to assume anyone who’s tripped upon this post is pro-life and Republican.

  1. You do not need to talk about it.  If some one asks you, of course, you can simply tell them you are pro-life and are free to answer any follow up questions, but you don’t need to shout it from the rooftops, include it in your stump speech, or mention it in a bullet point on your palm card.  You should have a fleshed out issue stance about abortion on your website, as every other conceivably important issue.  Websites are for voters who really need to know you – typically independent-minded informed voters.
  2. When you do talk about it, especially when you’re on the record in any way, quote statistics, not Bible verses.  The liberal media wants you to talk about Jesus.  They’re dying for you to bring up Bible verses no average American has heard before.  That’s exactly the soundbite they need to make you look like a Bible-thumping, ultra-conservative, fundamentalist Christian with a close-minded and backward view, completely lost in these modern, free-spirited times.
  3. Use the opportunity to talk about other issues and initiatives that support women.  Show sympathy for the women who may find themselves in this situation.  Surely many feel like there is no way out.  What are you doing to help them out?  How are you making adoption an easier choice?  How are you making employment with kids easier?  How are you building a supportive environment for the nuclear family?  How about addressing the issue of fatherlessness head on?  That’s a good angle for a black Republican candidate in particular.  Show voters you love them both.
  4. Redirect, redirect, redirect.  Answer the question if you must.  But embrace the freedom to give an answer completely unrelated to the question.  Focus on the issues that matter, and most importantly, the issues that are already imbedded in your communications strategy.

Okay, so now that I’ve written it out, it isn’t really complicated at all.  So take it to heart, apply it to appropriate hot-button issues, and win.

Running for Congress: Should You Hire an Image Consultant?

political Consultant Services

What are the chances you’ll actually need an image consultant?  Probably not huge.  But if you’re running for Congress, there’s a better chance you’ll need their help in the event that your race becomes competitive or pivotal on a national scale.

An image consultant is someone you hire to come in and tell you everything you’re doing wrong.  Your hair is too shaggy.  Your tie should be solid blue, not red with paisleys.  Your wife needs a girdle.  Your voice is too high.  You get the idea.  These people are experts at making you look and sound good on TV.  I generally don’t endorse hiring consultants at all, so I’d say start with common sense, some internet research, and maybe going to the salon for a make over (yes, male candidates as well).  But if you really feel like you need the guidance, here are some guidelines when it comes to hiring consultants to keep in mind:

  1. Determine if you really need an image consultant in the first place.  You don’t have to be super-handsome to get elected.  Your choice of tie (unless it’s really, really bad) probably isn’t going to have an effect at the polls.  However, if you have problems speaking publicly that you can’t remedy on your own, for example, you may need outside help.
  2. Don’t hire a consultant until you have the money to pay them.  Find out their fees upfront and set aside a portion of your budget for consultant fees, then make sure you’ve raised enough funds before you sign any sort of contract.
  3. Don’t hire a consultant until you are absolutely sure you need one.  A lot of campaigns, especially at the Congressional level, hire consultants early on, without the funds on hand, because ‘that’s just what you’re supposed to do.’  It’s not.  Don’t do it.  It’s an insult to your donors to be so frivolous with their money.
  4. Don’t hire a consultant unless you are sure you can accept what they might tell you.  It can seem really offensive when an image consultant tells you to whiten your teeth, lose some weight, and get rid of your unibrow.  Or when a media consultant tells you that you basically need to change your personality altogether.  It happens.  But here’s the thing – it’s probably true, and you’re paying them to tell you these things, so just suck it up and do it.  I’ve had candidates that hire consultant after consultant, then fire them because they don’t want to hear that they’re doing things wrong.  Don’t be that guy.  Or if you know you are that guy, don’t waste your money in the first place.

How to Run for Congress – Messaging: Local vs. National Issues

campaign slogans hillary clinton humor

*Note: this is tongue-in-cheek, obviously.

Your campaign message is the single most important piece of your campaign plan.  But what does a Congressional campaign message sound like?

You’re sitting in a funny place as a candidate for the U.S. House.  You’re kind of a local candidate and you need to appeal to your constituency in a folksy, home-grown sort of way.  But you’re also very much a national candidate, since you’re asking them to send you to Washington and make decisions that will affect the whole country.

The trick here is to find the issues that are both local and national.  What issues are resonating with your constituents?  Are the local schools failing to meet NCLB standards?  Run with education reform, school choice, or voucher systems.  Have a strong agricultural base?  Talk about bio-tech and bio-fuels as a way to boost demand for corn and soy.  These are all ways in which a Congressman can have a direct impact on local problems.

Some national issues are so looming that they have to be at the top of your message.  Right now the economy is an example.  The down side to using only these issues is that your opponent will be talking about the same exact things.  To make it most relevant, bring the message home in your main ‘tagline’ or ‘slogan’ or whatever you want to call it.  The 5-10 word one-liner that will be printed on every piece of campaign literature you ever create needs to concisely tie the national issue of your choice directly to the community of voters you are courting.

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.

How Running for Congress Is Like Running for Local Office

how running for congress is like running for local office

Running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives is the only national level campaign that a first time candidate can realistically attempt to win, because it’s as close to a ‘local’ campaign as you can get.

At the Senate level, you’re really representing the interests of the state as a whole rather than the specific area you’re truly from.  Representatives are the ones who fight for specific federal tax breaks for the types of businesses right in their home town.  They are really the only candidates that can honestly say they will take the local constituents’ concerns straight to the president’s desk.  And that’s a pretty awesome thing.

So how does this affect your campaigning?

Messaging.  First and foremost, even though you’re running for a national office, your messaging should focus on specific problems and issues of the cities and towns in your district that can actually be addressed on a national scale.  If the economy is particularly bad in your area, that’s the key issue to pound on while you’re on the campaign trail.  Make the voters understand that your proposed legislation will directly affect them, and tell them how.

Voter contact.  You are in a blessed place – that is, you can still run an effective and well coordinated grassroots, on-the-ground campaign.  You won’t have to rely on media advertising and big public relations wins (although those things are still fantastic).  Since your district is still very drive-able, you can be at the local pancake breakfast at one corner of the district, make it to a mid-day fundraiser luncheon at another, and the county Lincoln Day Dinner at yet another – and have plenty of time for calling high-dollar donors from the road!

The hidden advantage.  9 times out of 10, your opponent will treat a run for Congress like he’s running for friggin’ president.  He’ll be grandiose, talk about issues that don’t resonate locally, and spend lots of time with journalists and lots of money on advertising.  This means you’ll have a huge, undetectable advantage by mastering your ground-game.  It also means, however, a ton of work and planning on your part.  It means meeting as many voters as you can through coffees, luncheons, public events, and tons of door-to-door.  It means acting like you’re still a regular guy and not a minor celebrity.  It means having a ridiculously strong volunteer brigade.  And it most definitely means having a clearly outlined, detailed, written strategy.

How to Run for Congress – How to Raise Campaign Cash

run for congress how to raise campaign cash
  1. Read Ten Quick Tips for Effective Fundraising and Ten Things You Need to Know about Campaign Fundraising.
  2. Write a list of all the people you know – from family members to business acquaintances.
  3. Go to OpenSecrets.org, and your state’s campaign finance regulatory website and pull down lists of donors from within the past couple election cycles to former Republican candidates within your district, especially those who donated to previous campaigns for your particular seat.
  4. Organize this list in excel and include columns that list
    1. Total donation amount
    2. Type of campaign donated to
    3. Address
    4. Phone
    5. Email (if there is one)
    6. Occupation (this is usually listed)
    7. Anything else there’s even a chance of you needing in the future
  5. Write an introductory “Hey I’m running for office, give me money!” type letter, and send it to your personal list and donors over $XXX amount (it’s your call, because average donation sizes vary dramatically).
  6. A week or two after the letter has dropped, call up donors and set up meetings to discuss their support of your campaign, starting with the biggest/richest donors.
    WARNING: Be sure you have a professional-quality written campaign plan before meeting with high-dollar donors, lest you look like an amateur with no plan.
  7. Ask them to write you a check for $XXXX dollars at the meeting.  Be sure to ask for more than you think they’d give, but not something well outside of reason.  Tell them you will follow up with them.
  8. Never stop calling and meeting with high-dollar donors.  This should be something you do almost daily.
  9. If they don’t give you a check at the meeting, call one week later to follow up and ask for the donation again.  If they did give you a check, follow up to say thank you and invite them to your first fundraising event.
  10. Always send thank you notes for donations.  Send thank you notes for meetings with no donation, asking again for the donation.
  11. Plan, organize and put on a fundraising event.  Doesn’t really matter what kind or what theme, so long as people show up and pay.
  12. Repeat steps 5-11 throughout the entire campaign, all the way to election day.

Running for Congress – Sizing Up The Competition Part 2 – Open Seats

Running for Congress for an Open Seat

You may think that once an incumbent has vacated a seat, it’s practically yours for the taking.  Maybe the incumbent was a Republican and you just assume another Republican will win (never, ever, assume anything).  Or perhaps you think that an opponent with zero name recognition, like yourself, will be easier to beat than an entrenched incumbent.  While there may be some truth in those sorts of assumptions, you can’t safely bet on them.  No campaign is won without diligent research, careful planning and excellent execution. So how do you ‘size up the competition’ when they too are a political newbie?  Research, research, research!  Google him.  Send a volunteer in to get a copy of all his campaign materials (if he’s already to that point).  Find out every place he’s worked, volunteered, attended church, etc.  No, you don’t want to stalk him, but research him just like you were assigned to write a five page biography about him. Then, write a five page biography about him.  Okay, well at least one page.  This will go directly into your campaign plan because you need to:

  1. Determine his strengths and weaknesses.
  2. Predict what his message will be.
  3. Determine what your weaknesses are in relation to his strengths.
After you’ve done all that, give it a rest.  Often times candidates begin to obsess about their opponents faults and inadequacies, using them as reasons voters should obviously choose them instead of the other guy.  If you do this, you’ll lose sight of what is actually going to win votes: your message.
Take the information you’ve gathered about your opponent and consider it carefully when you craft your campaign message.  After that, 95% of your campaign’s focus should be on what you are doing and what you are saying.
While it makes great TV for political candidates to be at each others’ throats in the media and on the campaign trail, in your typical campaign for office it doesn’t really happen much.  There will be more media coverage in a Congressional campaign, yes, but assuming neither candidate really has any skeletons in the closet and both campaigns focus on the issues they think are important, there probably won’t be much real drama.
The key to winning will come down to planning, planning, planning.  This is why your written campaign plan is absolutely the most important part of running for Congress.

So how do you approach a campaign against a long-entrenched incumbent?

  1.  Always respect the office and the incumbent’s years of service.  It’s a bitch job.
  2. Focus on the incumbent’s record and emphasize how different his positions are from the district’s concerns.
  3. Don’t bring up personal issues like tax evasion or scandals that are already known – it makes you sound whiny and insubstantial.  And the media will rehash that for you.
  4. Focus on compare/contrast language – this is the least offensive and most legitimate negative campaigning.
  5. Talk about yourself.  Beating the drum that the incumbent is no longer a viable choice doesn’t prove that you are.
  6. A clear, concise and resonant message is even more important when challenging an incumbent.
  7. Practice, practice, practice debating – incumbents have had years of experience not only on the campaign trail but in the everyday job of Congressman as well.
  8. Study, study, study your opponents’ record and everything significant that has happened since he took office.  I’m talking about every single vote.  You won’t be able to outshine the incumbent, but you can use what you know to keep up, and re-route him occasionally.
  9. Admit you don’t know everything.  Admit you don’t know much at all.  Then call your opponent a ‘Washington insider’ or ‘career politician.’
  10. Be younger.  Okay this is hard to fake, but a middle-aged candidate with a youngish family just looks more robust and capable than an old geezer whose kids have been grown for years.  In reality there’s no substance in this but it doesn’t matter because perception is reality.

How to Run for Congress – Sizing Up The Competition Part 1 – Incumbents

sizing up the opponent, how to run for congress

One of the most important factors to consider when pondering a run for Congress is your opponent.  Now there are typically only two scenarios that a first time candidate is facing here:

  1. You are a challenger candidate taking on an incumbent.
  2. The incumbent is retiring and you are the GOP candidate, facing an also new DEM candidate.
How you approach these two scenarios are quite different, so I’m going to address them separately, in most cases.  Today we’ll address challenging an incumbent.  We’ll pick up double-challengers tomorrow.  Or later today (we’ll see).

Running for Congress against an incumbent

This is like the ‘climbing Mt. Everest’ of politics, people.  When you say “hey, I think I’m gonna run against (insert 10 year+ incumbent here),” you’ll probably get a helluva lot more laughs than ‘atta boys.  But it’s not entirely impossible.  There are several reasons why some incumbents keep winning, but if the time and situation is just right, there are ways a challenger candidate can take on or take over even in a less than favorable district.  Below is a list of signs that your Congressman may be vulnerable to a strong challenge campaign.

  • Scandal!  Many incumbents can survive the occasional tax evasion or mistress mishap, but it definitely leaves a chink in their armor.
  • The Congressional district has changed.  Some incumbents start their careers in strong Democrat footholds that, over time through census district changes or simple attrition, evolve into more competitive areas.  Sometimes this effect is so gradual, it’s barely noticeable.  A thorough study of the past several years’ worth of voting data will give you more insight to your own district’s changing make up.
  • The mood of the district/country.  Like in 2006 when Americans were tired of ‘staying the course’ militarily and elected a slew of disastrous Democrats, the pendulum of the nation’s public mood is now making a swing in the opposite direction.  Now is your chance to hop on and swing your way to victory.  These massive overhauls generally only last a  couple of election cycles so 2012 may be the only time for a while you’ll have this opportunity.
  • The incumbent has changed.  The man who sits in office today is not the same man your district elected 10, 20 or 30 years ago.  He’s become more partisan and less participatory in local politics.  You can take advantage of this ‘distance’ from the district.
  • Times have changed.  Maybe the incumbent hasn’t changed much, but the district has.  Is there a new demographic flooding the area that changes the political landscape?  Are issues completely different than they were a million years ago when the incumbent was first elected?  Do research into archives of local newspapers around election times in the past to see if there are some changes you can latch onto as showing a ‘need for real change’ in the district.

So how do you approach a campaign against a long-entrenched incumbent?

  1.  Always respect the office and the incumbent’s years of service.  It’s a bitch job.
  2. Focus on the incumbent’s record and emphasize how different his positions are from the district’s concerns.
  3. Don’t bring up personal issues like tax evasion or scandals that are already known – it makes you sound whiny and insubstantial.  And the media will rehash that for you.
  4. Focus on compare/contrast language – this is the least offensive and most legitimate negative campaigning.
  5. Talk about yourself.  Beating the drum that the incumbent is no longer a viable choice doesn’t prove that you are.
  6. A clear, concise and resonant message is even more important when challenging an incumbent.
  7. Practice, practice, practice debating – incumbents have had years of experience not only on the campaign trail but in the everyday job of Congressman as well.
  8. Study, study, study your opponents’ record and everything significant that has happened since he took office.  I’m talking about every single vote.  You won’t be able to outshine the incumbent, but you can use what you know to keep up, and re-route him occasionally.
  9. Admit you don’t know everything.  Admit you don’t know much at all.  Then call your opponent a ‘Washington insider’ or ‘career politician.’
  10. Be younger.  Okay this is hard to fake, but a middle-aged candidate with a youngish family just looks more robust and capable than an old geezer whose kids have been grown for years.  In reality there’s no substance in this but it doesn’t matter because perception is reality.

How to Run for Congress – Know Your District

Hopefully you’ve already taken a good look at yourself as a potential candidate and you’re sure that running for Congress is the right move for you.  Now it’s time to take a look at the geography of your district.  Know matter how much you think you know your Congressional district, you don’t know it as intimately as a Congressman needs to.  Here are a few steps you need to take before moving on to the next level of the planning process:

  1. Go read my earlier post about studying your political district and apply those principles to your budding campaign plan.
  2. Get online or paper subscriptions to all the local/regional newspapers and magazines.  If you can’t subscribe, be sure to visit the area and pick one up whenever they publish a new issue.  Also, don’t leave local bloggers out of the equation; they can have a significant impact on your credibility as well.  You’ll need these for a variety of reasons:
    1. To keep a finger on the pulse of the local issues.
    2. To start a media list of editors and journalists and begin tracking which writers are on the local political beat.
    3. To begin researching advertising costs for budgeting your paid media strategy later.
  3. Through these publications as well as other online resources, start a campaign calendar and mark all of the public events that would be appropriate for a Congressional candidate to attend.
  4. Get the voter data from the past 3-4 election cycles for your entire district.  This may require visiting several county courthouses, or you may be able to get most of it online.  You want data that breaks down to the precinct level – this is the smallest political district and in a suburban area usually covers a walkable chunk of a neighborhood.
  5. Finally, take some time on the weekends to explore your district.  Take the family for a drive and stop at a random diner.  Not only is it a fun adventure, but it will allow you to see your district with new eyes.  Be sure to talk to as many people as you can – soon you’ll start to see your district through their eyes, and that’s the key to creating a campaign message that wins.

How to Run for Congress – Evaluate Yourself


Running for Congress - Evaluating your potential as a candidate

Take a good long look at yourself, your life, your family, your whole situation.  Try to be unbiased (if you can’t, ask an acquaintance to evaluate you).

  • Are you an upstanding citizen?
  • Are you involved in community activities?
  • Do you have a good ‘story’ for yourself?
  • Are you an involved parent (if you have children)?
  • Are you an extrovert?
  • Are you passionate about the people around you?
  • Do you feel strongly about a variety of local, state and national issues?
  • Are you patriotic, perhaps to a freakish degree?
  • Are you intimately familiar with your entire Congressional district?
  • Do you know the best places to eat and meet in your district – from the greasy spoons to the hidden gem bistros?
  • Do you know local small business owners throughout your district, and call them by their first name?
  • Do you have a firm handshake?
  • Do you have a warm smile?
  • Do you remember names and faces well?
  • Are you a straight-shooter?
  • Can you hold your own in a debate, without blowing up or losing your nerve for any reason?
  • Can you smile while someone is calling you a liar and a cheat?
  • Have you always paid your taxes on time and appropriately?
  • Do you have a supportive spouse and family?
  • Do you know the local and state politicos well?
  • Would you feel comfortable cold-calling strangers and asking them for money?  Lots of money?
  • Can you refrain from saying bad things about your opponent, even if they’re true?
  • Do you have a large group of supportive friends?
  • Are your relationships with those friends deep?
  • Do you have any political, business or community leadership experience?
  • Are you on any boards or in a leadership position of any charities?
If you can answer in the affirmative to the vast majority of these, you’re on the right track in your decision to run for Congress.  It’s terribly important to determine first whether or not you are capable of being a candidate, before you put yourself through the most stressful and chaotic year of your entire life.